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What Causes My Wine Headaches?

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As a winemaker, this is one of the top 5 wine questions I get from our guests.  This is a confusing issue for most people because there are so many theories on the subject.  First off, sulfites get blamed most of the time, however, the only people who may get a headache from sulfites are the ones who are actually allergic to it.  They are just as likely to feel asthma symptoms as get a headache.  So you could be the one in a million who is allergic but probably not.  There are four other factors that are much more likely to cause that wine headache than sulfites.

  1. Drinking too much wine and not enough water. The obvious solution to this issue is to not drink as much.  However, there are two issues here;

    1. If you are at a long lasting party and you want to be part of the crowd, just drink a glass of water between each glass of wine. This will have a positive effect both that day and the next.  Of course, this only works to a certain extent and then you’ll pay the consequences anyway.

    2. Some people can’t take the sugar/alcohol if they tend to dehydrate easily. This person has to hydrate, (drink water), both before and during wine drinking even if it’s just a small amount.

  2. Tannins – a substance in wine that, when drank, will leave the dry feeling on the tongue. This is a common problem that usually gets blamed on sulfites.  People tell me this all the time and they say it’s because of the higher sulfites in red wine, when in fact red wine almost always has less sulfite than white wine.  The problem can be verified with the Tea Test.  Very strong black tea has a large amount of tannin.  If you are affected by reds, try the Tea Test and then if you find you are affected by tannins, you only have to avoid the reds with significant amounts of tannin in it.

  3. Histamines – this is an allergic reaction to one of the chemicals in the wine. Aged wine seems to cause this reaction more than younger wine.  I myself have slight symptoms to some wines but no headaches.  The cure for this is to treat it like any other allergy.  If you already know you have allergies you know what to do.  However, if you are like me, who doesn’t actually have allergies that can be verified, you just have to take a Zyrtec or something similar.  I was actually tested for allergies and was told I had none.  However, I was told that I was sensitive to a number of substances.  The difference between an allergy and sensitivity?  You can’t do much about sensitivity!

  4. Sulfites – yes as stated above some people are allergic to sulfite but it’s such a small percentage of people who get headaches from wine that it’s almost not worth talking about. But if you are one of the one in a million, I would suspect that the Zyrtec approach would work as well.

So there you have it.  The headache issue is much more complicated than most people imagine.  But as more is learned about the subject, we as winemakers will try to accommodate our eventual new customers.

Until next time,

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