Red wine is a fickle friend. It beckons with glistening ruby fingers, luring us into its swirling depths with a siren song of black cherry, currant, and the mysterious soil and mineral tastes of terroir, the taste of the land the grapes grew in. We’re entranced: we sniff, we swirl, we sip, but — unfortunately for our heads — most of us don’t spit.
The resulting red wine headache is a widespread affliction that can strike after as little as one glass. It’s often accompanied by nausea and flushed skin. But this doesn’t happen with white wine, and the majority of us suffer no ill effects from a glass of pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon (unless we knock back too many glasses).
So what’s the deal with the red wine headache? To find out, I turned to Chris Gerling, an oenologist (wine scientist) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Sulfites are often blamed, says Gerling. Sulfites (or SO2) are a natural component of wine, but they’re also a common preservative, usually added to wine at several stages during its production to prevent bacteria and oxidation. Without sulfites, we couldn’t have wine: grape juice would turn into vinegar. Some people are allergic to sulfites, and it can cause problems for asthmatics too. However, red wine isn’t alone in its sulfite content: in fact, sweet white wines often contain more. And, Gerling points out, “there is no documented danger to the rest of the population, including headaches, at the parts per million levels at which SO2 is found in wine.”
Gerling says that the other main suspect behind the red wine headache is biogenic amines, compounds which are produced by living things and contain nitrogen. They include compounds like histamine and tyrosine, which can have adverse effects if they’re consumed (histamine has been linked to allergies, for example). But once again, Gerling explains, “the concentrations usually thought to cause trouble are much higher than those found in wine.”
Another big hole in the case against sulfites and amines is that both occur in many other foods. Dried fruits like apricots are loaded with sulfites, Gerling says, and amines are present in foods like fish and cheese. Tannins, which are sometimes blamed for red wine headaches, are also found in chocolate and tea. Wine headache sufferers don’t seem to have any more trouble with these food than the general population.
The cause of the phenomenon remains mysterious. “One comparison I often draw is to MSG,” says Gerling. “People are convinced that MSG is the cause of ‘Chinese Food Syndrome,’ but there have been all sorts of studies done where they try to make people react to it and no one ever does. They sprinkle MSG in Italian food and Mexican food and have groups try the food with and without, and people either react to everything (with or without MSG) or they react to nothing. No one ever eats spaghetti with and without MSG and reports feeling ill after only the MSG-laced pasta. Reports of the phenomenon are so widespread, however, that something must be going on.”
One possibility, Gerling says, is that something in the wine is reacting with these compounds, and the headache is the result of this interaction. Alcohol, for example, could perhaps increase the effects of a low dose of sulfites. Or we could have the wrong suspects: some other chemical compound, or maybe a strain of yeast or bacteria present in red wine, could be to blame.
Unfortunately, without a known cause of the red wine headache, there’s also no proven cure. If you’re one of the unlucky group who suffers from this dreaded curse, your only trustworthy options are sticking to white wine, or (shudder) giving up the libation entirely. I recommend the former.
For more science, check out Scienceline.org, a product of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.