Where Do Wine Headaches Come From?

“No thanks, I’m allergic. The sulfites in red wine give me a headache.” The modest disappointment this dinner guest showed at missing out on a very good Bordeaux was muted by an immodest – perhaps smug – satisfaction at declaring the reason why as she sipped her Chardonnay. Another friend once offered me the self-assured if dubious claim that “white wine is the devil,” citing the headaches caused only by pours of that particular color. Many people repeatedly and predictably suffer headaches after drinking wine in moderation. Few know precisely why.

There seem to be several misconceived explanations for these headaches, but not a lot of hard science to more definitely decipher and explain them. After alcohol, the two most maligned suspects are sulfites (sulfur-based compounds) and biogenic amines. Any serious winemaker knows a good deal about both. Yet they – and we, their customers – are still far from a consensus about exactly which is to blame for those nasty morning-afters.

Giovanni and Alberto Masini, organic winemakers at their Ca’ de Noci estate in Emilia Romagna, are firmly in the anti-sulfite camp. Giovanni explains: “The sulfurous andride used as an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent by the food industry is the most common additive in winemaking, [especially] with mass production that uses mechanical harvesting, large-scale bottling and transport without temperature control. Its health effects are varied: irritation of the mucus membranes and reduced pulmonary function when inhaled, changes in the body’s metabolism of amino acids and sugars, gastric ulcers and reduction of the presence of oxygen in the brain.”

What does that all mean? Well, it is this last effect — reduced oxygen to the brain – which is what results in headaches.

Symptoms result not only from exceeding the recommended maximum daily consumption of sulfites at 0.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, but from toxicological damage built up over moderate, continuous exposure. In conventional wines the concentration of sulfites is between 50 parts per million (ppm) and 400 ppm. If you weigh 65 kilograms, a serving of more than 100 milliliters of conventional wines made with added sulfites is not good for your health.

So why are sulfites in your wine at all? They are used in winemaking as a preservative. Not all winemakers are employing sulfites, however. In their place, the Masini brothers employ strict hygienic measures to avoid contamination. They work to prevent fungal attacks in the vineyard and exercise rigorous cleaning in the winery to avoid fixative measures — such as added sulfites — later.

This is the principle of Clean Wine, a term popular with some United States producers and a mainstay of the Slow Wine movement. Giovanni Masini describes these "clean" wines as “in motion,” meaning their inherent aromas are not blocked or diluted with preservatives. As a result, they change in a noticeable way as they undergo natural oxygenation in the glass and also depending on the time of year in which they are consumed. Ca’ de Noci’s sparkling wines, for example, have an aromatic profile that alternates between notes of smokiness and fruit, depending on the temperature of the season in which they are consumed.

But as mentioned above, all of this isn't to say that sulfites are the only suspect, even if they may receive the most attention. Among people who find sulfites not guilty of those pesky headaches are those who turn their suspecting eyes towards histamine, one of a group of biologically active compounds called biogenic amines. These are basic nitrogenous compounds produced in the normal metabolism of humans, animals, plants and microorganisms. Some European countries have informal legal limits for histamine in wine (see A. Reynolds, Managing Wine Quality vol. 2). Think you've heard of histamine before? You're likely not mistaken. Histamine is best known as the cause of the runny nose and watery eyes associated with the common cold. And now you know it as one of the biogenic amines most present in wine.

Because of the abundant presence of this particular biogenic amine, some wine professionals approach wine headaches as a histamine issue. Importer Philip Caravetta, for example, suggests that those who suffer from frequent wine headaches should try a low dose, non-drowsy antihistamine before a glass of wine. Like taking a precautionary Benadryl during allergy season.

In wine, however, biogenic amines are typically present in quantities of only 0.5 to two miligrams per liter, which is about 100,000 times lower than those found in foods like Roquefort, camembert and mackerel. So unless a person develops headaches after eating these foods, it is unlikely that biogenic amines are causing their wine headaches.

Interestingly, sulfites inhibit the growth of lactic bacteria, the principal agents in the production of biogenic amines. Could that mean that sulfites in wine reduce the presence of histamine and are actually a way to prevent headaches? Are sulfites off the hook? No. Even winemakers who generally accept that headaches are more likely caused by biogenic amines still limit their use of added sulfites to the absolute minimum required to ensure clean, stable wines. Ridgeview Estate in England’s South Downs, for example, employs a very limited approach to sulfites in its sparkling wine production, well below limits legally allowable. Part of this approach is salutatory and part is stylistic.

About 0.5 to one percent of the population is genuinely sensitive to sulfites, according to Ridgeview Estate’s Rob Cherowbrier. An excellent primer on the subject by Liza Gross identifies severe asthma sufferers as the most sensitive population and the reason for which U.S. regulations require the warning label "contains sulfites" on wines with sulfites above 10 ppm. Yet several common foods have far more added sulfites than wine. As illustrated on this chart, anyone looking to avoid sulfites should first steer clear of packaged foods, soda and especially dried fruit.

And it isn't all headaches and so-called cleanliness. Limiting sulfites is also a stylistic choice that allows for wines with greater distinctiveness of flavor and sense of place. Often when one detects mineral or medicinal notes in a wine, those are actually an effect of added sulfites, an inadvertent interruption of what Giovanni Masini refers to as a wine’s “aromatic patrimony.”

What comes of all this speculation? As of now, nothing. The challenge of wine headaches has not yet been solved because there have been no comprehensive control studies done on them. And so winemakers, brand marketers, and dinner party guests are left to make choices and claims to suit their own styles and beliefs.