The Red Wine Headache: What’s Really Going On?


Sometimes it’s nice to sit around for a little give-and-take or schmooze. It’s a natural impulse for the curious mind and when you throw wine into the mix, well that’s just a perfect catalyst for a great conversation. Whether you’re talking business, sports, local events, or politicsdrinking wine can not only encourage a pleasant conversation, but occasionally it can lead to taking a full bottle to the face (figure of speech). Sometimes the morning after is rather unpleasant for some and too often the scapegoat is that bottle of RED wine consumed the night before.

So what is it exactly that is going on? Some will say that it is the sulfites that are in reds. Then in the next breath they will say that for that same reason they have a preference for white wine. This is a preference based on a false assumption. Sulfur is added to wine to protect it from oxidation. Oxidation can be detrimental to both the flavor and the chemical integrity of the wine. Grapes have natural antioxidants within their skins. These antioxidants are retained because they become extracted along with the color from contact of the juice with the grape skins. This occurs prior to and also during the fermentation of red wine. For this reason more antioxidants are added to protect white wines, which don’t benefit from much skin contact if any at all during the winemaking process. Only 1 in about 100 people in the entire world population lack the enzyme sulfite oxidase that functions to break down sulfuric compounds. So while this is a possible reason for the headache, it’s rather unlikely.

The probable culprit is actually nitrogen-based compounds called biogenic amines which are present in much higher concentrations in red wines than in whites. These are natural byproducts of fermentation. Because red wine fermentation is generally longer than white wine fermentation there remains a larger window for biogenic amine-producing bacteria called Acetobacter to work their magic. A couple of these little critters’ fancy productions happen to be histamine and tyramine, two of the most common headache-inducers. While this doesn’t necessarily prove to be the only cause of the famous red wine headache, it does seem to be more worthy of blame than sulfites. So the next time someone complains about their hangover and blames it on the sulfites from their red wine inform them of the truth. It’s not sulfites doing the damage. It’s more likely that the histamine and tyramine present at higher concentrations in red wine are making their head feel like a Gallagher encore. Also kindly remind them that they drank the whole bottle the night before. Who wouldn’t have a headache after that?


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