Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wine Q&A: Headache in a Bottle

When wine causes physical grief for rather than the obvious, it can impede its appreciation. Indeed, the so-called “red wine headache” appears to plague a disproportionate amount of people. But what causes it? It might not be what you think.

Q: Just about every time I drink red wine, I wake up with a splitting headache and its not because I’ve over indulged. In fact, sometimes the headache starts after just half a glass. It starts in my sinus and spreads behind my eyes. I love red wine, but I suspect I am allergic to sulfites. Can you recommend any organic reds?
- Alison

A: There are two misconceptions here. First of all, if the headaches are a result of drinking red wine only, sulfites are not likely to be the culprit. Second, organic wines are not necessarily sulfite-free. Sulfites occur naturally in virtually all wines as a by-product of fermentation, so there is little chance of getting around them. Sulfites are also added to varying degrees by many winemakers, including those producing organic wines, to prevent bacterial growth and oxidation. White wines, particularly sweeter one, usually have a higher percentage of sulfite than reds. I’d also like to add that according to the American Food and Drug Administration, only about one per cent of the population suffers from sulfite allergies, the majority being asthmatics. And breathing problems, not headaches, are the more typical reaction to sulfites.

Tannins are also often to blame for red wine headaches and that is indeed a possibility. Lab studies have shown they provoke blood platelets into releasing serotonin, and high serotonin levels can cause headaches.

Another possible cause are histamines, which are naturally found on grape skins. Since the skins are required to steep in the fruit juice to extract the colour we all love in red wines, they will contain about 20-200 times more histamines than white. The deeper the colour, the higher the histamine level is likely to be. Even if you don’t suffer from allergies as a rule, they may cause you some grief. I attended a tasting of big Australian reds some years ago and virtually everyone on the panel was stuffed up afterwards – we all suspected histamines to be to blame.

Try drinking some lighter-coloured reds that are unoaked, such as Beaujolais Nouveau (released every year on the third Thursday in November). If you still are suffering, you may have to switch to white.

I have a friend who takes a mild, non-drowsy anti-histamine before she drinks red wine. But before you mix any drug with alcohol, consult your doctor.

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