We regularly have customers come in looking for sulfite- or tannin-free wine because they say that they get headaches from red wine (and no, we don’t mean that headache you’re bound to get if you drink a whole bottle of any wine). This type of headache is so common that it even has an official name, “red wine headache” or RWH. For some, these RWHs lead to migraines, so many migraine sufferers avoid red wine all together. There are a ton of different viewpoints on the “red wine equals headache” rumor, so we’re going tackle a couple of the common compounds blamed for the pain and look at why they exist in wine.
First of all, let’s address tannins, the most commonly cited reason for RWH. Tannins are a chemical substance that exist naturally in grape skins, seeds and stems. They add dryness or a bitter flavor to the wine. How do you judge the amount of tannins in a wine? Feel your tongue after taking a sip, if it feels dried out, that means that wine has very present tannins. Bordeaux wines, and some Barolos, are famous for being especially tannic. But why are there more tannins in red wine than white? Tannins are more prevalent in red wines because of the prolonged contact the grape juice has with the skins in the fermentation process. As you might imagine, the longer this contact occurs and the thicker the skin of the grape, the more tannins are imparted into the wine.
So, the question remains: Do tannins give you headaches? Yes and no. Science has shown that consuming tannins increases the release of serotonin, and migraine-sufferers can certainly get a headache from too much serotonin. But they haven’t been able to show that serotonin causes headaches in people who don’t get migraines.
What else could it be? Well, sulfites are another possible cause. Sulfites are a natural by-product of the fermentation process of wine and serve as a preservative for wines as they age, reducing their susceptibility of getting that infamous “vinegar” taste and other maladies. Sulfites can cause problems for those with asthma, but do sulfites cause our famous red-wine headaches? The answer is likely no, because many other regularly consumed food products have many more sulfites than wine, including cold cuts, french fries and dried fruits, and it’s not been shown that these foods, wine included, induce headaches. Many still worry about sulfites, so wine that does not have added sulfur has become more and more readily available, especially bottles that are 100% organic.
There’s one last enzyme that’s been blamed: the organic compound, tyramine. Tyramine is produced naturally as food breaks down and ages, so fermented foods like sauerkraut or soy, and aged foods, including some cheeses, do have high levels of it. It has been shown to cause migraine headaches in about 40% of migraine sufferers, but the levels of tyramine in wine vary and its presence in many other kinds of food likely removes it from the list of RWH-causing culprits.
Don’t get us wrong, wine can cause headaches, especially if you don’t drink enough water or have more than one or two glasses. And migraine sufferers should be extra careful because they do seem to be more vulnerable. But everyone else who has been wary of those beautiful bottles of Bordeaux or delicious Syrahs, it’s time to reconsider—you may be missing out on some wonderful wines for no good reason.
Selina Andersson heads up events and social media for Tipsy, a wine and spirits shop in Brooklyn. Tipsy hosts 3 or more free tasting events every week. Visit us at the corner of Myrtle and Classon or online at www.shoptipsy.com.