Do you ever get a headache after drinking a glass of wine, AKA the dreaded wine headache? 

Yes, you read that right: we didn’t say after several glasses. Obviously, it’s never a good idea to over-indulge – whether that’s on the couch or at the office holiday party. Wine is more enjoyable when you sip slowly, and your body will thank you for not overdoing it. 

We’re talking about a wine headache after just once glass – particularly with red wine. Most people (thankfully) can enjoy wine headache-free, but some people will experience a wine headache, though not all the time, and not with every kind of wine. 

What causes this tragic phenomenon? Spoiler alert: It’s not what you think.

Read on to find out what causes wine headaches and three tips to avoid them. 

First, Debunking the Myth of Sulfites

Here’s some good news: sulfites are not the culprit of your wine headache. Why is this good news? Most wines contain sulfites.

Winemakers add in sulfur because it kills unwanted bacteria and yeasts, preventing wine from browning and spoiling. Sulfites are also a natural byproduct of fermentation, so you can’t avoid them entirely.

The reason sulfites tend to get a bad rap is because wines containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) will state on their label, “this wine contains sulfites.” A warning like that sounds pretty intense, so people tend to think that they’re bad. The reality is that only about 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites.

If you’re concerned about sulfites, it’s good to know that wine generally contains much lower levels of sulfites compared to dried fruit. 

If you experience red wine headaches, here’s another fun fact: white wines generally have more added sulfites than reds.

Wine Headache – a close-up of wine must, which is crushed grapes, seeds, and stems.
A close-up of wine must, which is freshly crushed fruit juice that contains the seeds, skins, and stems of the grapes. The longer the grape skins and stems stay in the juice, the higher the tannins.

The Three Likely Causes of Wine Headaches

1. Tannins

Tannins are a kind of polyphenol – a compound found in plants. In wine, tannins come from the grape seeds, skins, and stems. Since red wine gets its color from the grape skins, it makes sense that red wine contains more tannins than white wine. 

What do tannins taste like? Tannins give wine an astringent quality. When you feel a drying sensation on the sides of your tongue after taking a sip, you’re noticing tannins. 

Tannins are rich in antioxidants, and are thought to have health benefits. Unfortunately, for some people, tannins can cause headaches. 

The Fix for Your Tannin Wine Headache

To find out if tannins are the cause of your headaches, brew a strong cup of black tea. We’re talking really strong. Let the tea bag steep for like 10 extra minutes. Black tea is rich in tannins, and when you over-steep it, tannins will get released into the hot water. If you drink this tea and get a headache, you probably have a sensitivity to tannins. 

If you’re in this boat, you might want to avoid red wines that are super high in tannins, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Tannat. You could simply avoid red wine and stick to white wine – though suggesting such a thing kind of breaks our hearts. 

If you love red wine, try lighter, lower-tannin reds like Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Dolcetto. You can also experiment with full-bodied reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec made in South America, which typically have lower tannins than their French counterparts.

2. Histamines

Histamines are another chemical found in beloved items like aged cheese, cured meat, and red wine. If your genetics prevent you from metabolizing histamine, you might experience symptoms like a runny nose, dry eyes, and headaches when you encounter this chemical. 

However, you don’t have to cry (physically and emotionally) over your cheese board. Here’s what to do:

The Fix for Your Histamine Wine Headache

If you know you suffer from allergies to histamines, you can pop a Claritin before enjoying a glass of red wine. 

You can also stick to red wines that are low in histamines like Dolcetto and Barbera, or check out these varietals from Italian winemaker Sebastiano Ramello. When his mother found out that she had a histamine intolerance, Sebastiano developed wines with a tenth of the histamines found in an average bottle of red wine for Veglio winery in Piedmont.

Wine headache – a typical grocery store wine aisle showing mass-market red blends.
A typical grocery store wine shelf. Most mass-market wine you buy in a grocery store – especially red blends – are loaded with sugar, which can give you a wine headache.

3. Sugar

Sugar – especially when combined with alcohol – can cause a headache. If you aren’t hydrated when you drink a sugary beverage, your body will tap its own water supply. As water leaves your head, you’ll get a headache.

The Fix for Your Sugar Wine Headache

First of all, stay hydrated – in general and while you’re drinking wine. You can go glass-for-glass wine and water, or you can simply enjoy a nice tall glass of water before you start drinking and again at the end of the night.

You can also avoid sweeter wines like dessert wines, white wines labeled sweet or semi-dry, or mass-produced red blends. Stick with drier red and white wines instead.

In Vino Finito

Fear not – unless you’re allergic to sulfites, they are most likely not the cause of your red wine headaches. Remember to stay hydrated while you sip wine and consult a doctor if the problem persists. 

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Bright Cellars

Our staff is full of passionate wine lovers. With our amazing sommeliers at the helm, we’ve been schooled on all things wine. We came together to write this article, in hopes of spreading a little wine-ducation with you.

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