If wine gives you a headache, it’s probably all in your head.
First off, I’m not a doctor. I just sell wine. Yet more customers want me to diagnose their wine-related brain freeze than anything other question.
Secondly, you’re not a doctor either (unless you are…but keep reading).
Over-drinking is frowned upon in America. No one wants to look like a lush for getting hungover. So we blame a rare disease, allergy or chemical we find online or hear from a friend.
Conversely, some of your friends claim to get headaches from wine. Especially reds. They get attention. Your subconscious wants to be special too. And you don’t really like red wine to begin with. So you start worrying about that first glass. And surprise, you get headaches from wines you aren’t accustomed to.
Being special is cool. But diagnosing yourself or psychosomatically triggering reactions in order to fit in or stand out will cut you off from the adventure of wine. You will dogmatically cling to pinot grigio because it was safe (and cyclically, you already like it). But that’s like only ordering the steak at every restaurant for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. You might get bored (or have a heart attack, whichever comes first).
Sulfites are the most cited scapegoat I encounter. Rarely a day passes without a customer blaming them for headaches. Rumor has kept this myth circling ever since the first “contains sulfites” warning graced bottle labels in 1986. But less than 5% of the population is actually allergic to sulfites. Usually, they are asthmatics or sufferers of sulphite oxidase deficiency (because they lack enzymes like molybdenum to break it down). Symptoms include: throat closure, stomach pain or hives. Not headaches.
Do you react to dried fruits? Pickles? Eggs? Bread? Broccoli? There are roughly 100 times more sulfites in that single broccoli serving than in a whole bottle of red wine. If you don’t get hives, stomach aches or throat closures from these, you’re probably not allergic. Try it. (Still not sure? Only during an attack can a doctor test for the allergy. If you have it,talk to your doctor about taking molybdenum suppliments).
All wines, organic, biodynamic, European and homemade contain sulfites. Yeasts produce them during fermentation (5-20 parts per million) and nearly all winemakers add them (roughly 10 ppm). But it’s never much. Even your body makes a thousand milligrams a day, which is 125 times as great as most winemakers add, regardless of country. But white wine doesn’t give you a problem you say? There is more sulfite in white than red because the former lack tannins to stay shelf stable. Without our friend sulfur dioxide (SO2) we would drink vinegar. So your headache isn’t over sulfites.
When does you head hurt? Immediately after that first glass, a few hours later, or the next morning?
If that first glass hits your head like a bag of bricks and it’s red or chardonnay, biogenic amines might be why. These include histamines and tyramines that can inflame neurons, increase blood pressure, and yes, cause headaches in roughly 30% of the population. But only 30%. Malolactic fermentation, if too slow, creates these bioamines as a biproduct of present amino acids, while lactic acid bacteria are busy converting malic acid into the softer lactic.
N.B. [Dr. Hennie van Vuuren of the University of British Columbia had created the yeast ML01, which just got approval for use in the US and Canada. Supposedly, this panacea yeast doesn’t drag its feet, converting acids in a timely manner to avoid making biogenic amines.
However, if wineries appease the aching market with one yeast, all wine will taste the same. Each yeast strain makes a different wine. Some enhance fruit esters, other emphasize gamey notes. Using one for everything is like wearing the same flip flops for hiking, running, walking and sitting: sure flip flops will work, but there are better ways.]
If wine crushes your head hours or the morning after: you’re normal and that’s a hangover.
Drink less, drink slower, enhance it with food, friends and conversation, have a glass of water or barring that, an aspirin. Wine is not beer. The alcohol is nearly twice. Drinking it on its own will dehydrate you. The tannins in reds and oaked aged wines will do the same.
Science strives to better understand our bodies and so should you. Keep reading articles and don’t trust them at face value. Your body is amazingly adaptable and it will love new wines with enough familiarity. Just because something tasted nasty at first doesn’t mean you are genetically indisposed to it.
What I say above may be proven wrong tomorrow. But a little patience and attention to your body’s reactions will enhance each wine encounter and, I hope, keep your head from leaving your body. In the meantime, stop worrying and try something new.