Wine Headaches: What Causes Them and How to Prevent Them

Wine Headache – a woman nurses a wine headache by placing an ice pack over her eyes and forehead and lies down on the couch.

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

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 wine headaches after just once glass – particularly with red wine. Most people (thankfully) can enjoy wine headache-free, but some people will experience wine headaches, 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. 

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Debunking The Myth That Sulfites Cause Wine Headaches 

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’ve ever experienced a red wine headache, here’s another fun fact: white wines generally have more added sulfites than reds.

Wine Headaches – 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 Your 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 Headaches

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 Headaches

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 headaches – 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. 

Now that you have an informed answer to the question, “why does wine give me a headache?” it’s time to reward yourself with a glass of the good stuff. Cheers to headache-free sipping!

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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.

  1. I loved this article and found it so informative. I didn’t know a lot of the information that you put in her ex and it will now help me enjoy more varieties of wines without the fear or consequences. Thank you sincerely Maryellen jacoby

  2. Found this article very interesting & informative. I’ve tried the no sulfate wine, but still had a headache & thought it strange since I am allergic to sulfate drugs. The info in this article clues me in on my other allergies which might be triggering these headaches & might allow me to have wine again without being too overly cautious & experience some new flavors & tastings.

  3. I’ve heard that it is also possibly that someone is allergic to oak and many wines are casked in oak barrels. A friend of mine has no problems with reds but one really made her ill. She tried another bottle months later with the same result. It was aged in oak barrels. Is this possible?

  4. Very educational. I thought sulfates were the culprit and now I know they are not. I can enjoy more wines. Thank you for enlightening me.

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