Unfortunately, I have a few friends and clients who experience the dreaded Red Wine Headache, or RWH as its known in the biz. I’m not talking about the banger that inevitably starts sometime towards the end of a long night of celebrating, nor the-morning-after-said-long-night. Sadly, their headaches usually occur 10-15 minutes after downing even the smallest mouthful of Shiraz.
There are some common factors at play that can actually cause a RWH to occur; and guess what… sulphites aren’t one of them! Although there are a very small percentage of the population that are in fact sensitive to sulphites, those symptoms are more asthma-related, and do not manifest with headaches. In fact, there are a number of foods that sulphite-bashing wine drinkers probably enjoy symptom-free, therefore, wines that contain sulphites can’t be the reason. I have to admit, I especially enjoy the look on their faces when I tell them that sulphites are a by-product of fermentation, and yup, that white wine they’re drinking also contains sulphites!
Here’s three of the most common triggers of RWH:
HISTAMINES are substances that our bodies release in response to an allergic reaction. Effects of histamines can include dry, itchy eyes, runny nose, itchy patches on our skin (hives) and, headache. Food and beverages that have been aged, such as wine, cured meats and some cheeses can cause our body to release histamines, thus creating these symptoms and the for-some-people inevitable RWH. To help prevent RWH, visit your chemist and ask for their recommendations on a histamine blocker. Follow directions prior to an event where you know wine will be present, and where you know you’ll be imbibing, and it should prevent those symptoms.
Enjoying SUGAR and alcohol together usually spells trouble, in the form of a headache of course. Consuming alcohol tends to dehydrate your body, and when you add sugar to the mix, your body works especially hard to process it. If you’re not drinking enough water – as is sometimes the case when you’re out celebrating – your body will go in search of hydration where it can find it, and oftentimes that place ends up being in your head. As the water level in your head goes down, the chance of a headache goes up. It’s best to avoid inexpensive wines which tend to use sugar to mask it’s, ahem, poor quality, and/or to boost its alcohol content. And, avoiding wines high in residual sugar – like Lambrusco, Ports, Black Muscat or dessert wines – also helps.
TANNINS are naturally occurring compounds found in grape skins, pips, stems and as a result of oak aging. As discussed in my previous post, tannins create a drying sensation in your mouth. Most of us are not susceptible to the ill effects of tannins, but some are, and there’s a simple way to confirm if you’re one of those unfortunate few.
When I conduct basic wine tastings with beginners, I tend to bring along a box of tea bags. I dip them in water for a few moments and ask each taster to put the tea bag on their tongue for a few seconds before removing it. Teas are high in tannins and most can perceive the drying effects of tannin on the palate as a result of the tea bags on their tongues. If you can stand to keep the tea bag in your mouth longer, perhaps for a minute or so before removing it, and if you experience the onset of a headache within 5 minutes or so, you might want to think about avoiding red wines high in tannins – like Zinfandel, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon – and opt for lighter reds such as Beaujolais or Pinot Noir.
Other ways to keep wine-related headaches at bay include alternating a glass of hydrating water for every glass of wine consumed, and simply, knowing when to say when.
Remember… if red wine is causing you grief, there are plenty of white wines you can enjoy instead!