No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar once wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.
But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like Zeus on Athena’s birthday? At a wine tasting I led, two different people shared versions of, "I like wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." Is there a code we can crack to avoid this malady?
One explanation I hear often: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the
U.S. I've gone to [insert European
country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can
drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red
wines just lay me out." I do enjoy Italian whites, so I sampled
Palazzone 2015 “Terre Vineate” Orvieto Classico Superiore. ($13-15) This
wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft
citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to
drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.
After a little digging into the sulfite question, I discovered there is such a thing as a sulfite allergy. So, find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? Well, not exactly. Sulfite allergies are pretty rare. People with sulfite allergies generally can't eat dried fruit and the like, and if their allergies kick in, they tend to end up with breathing problems, not headaches.
Still, if you want to avoid sulfites, stick to whites, right? Wrong. White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines. Sulfites are preservatives. Whites, in general, need more protection from spoilage as the wine gets older. Red wine has a natural preservative built in to the mix: tannin, which comes from the skins of grapes as well as from barrel aging. Wines built to age well are usually tannic, so…maybe tannin is our headache culprit.
For a low tannin wine example, think something along the lines of DuBoeuf 2015 Brouilly Beaujolais ($15-17). Gamay grapes, from which Beaujolais is made, are naturally low in tannin. This wine sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of cherry and cola flavors balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices, like in the Thai beef noodle soup I made to go with it.
Drinking tannic beverages – drinks like red wine, black tea, and coffee -- can cause a release of serotonin in the brain, and studies have shown that high levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in one’s diet, and no one I know has ever complained of a coffee or chocolate headache.
A third possibility is histamines. Histamines occur in many fermented foods and high exposure levels can trigger an allergic reaction brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, skin flushing, or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I tried the Martin Codax 2014 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($13-15) The nose contains dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins lead to a finish which is easy and somewhat dry.
Histamines seem a somewhat more likely culprit for the headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on the effects of low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, if a person is susceptible to the reaction, there are natural defenses against histamines. Compounds exist in tea, especially black or oolong tea, which suppress the histamine response. Drinking a cup of strong tea before consuming red wine might help, as could taking an aspirin before drinking. An antihistamine might also stop the headache if the headache has already kicked in, but you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl after a couple of glasses of wine.
If you are one of those unfortunate souls who thinks they suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine on an empty stomach. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine itself that buried a hatchet in your forehead.
More likely, your fear of headaches likely stems from a good old fashioned hangover. The sheer amount of wine, and the memory of the pain the next morning, probably has more to do with it. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets, in that case.