Why Do Some Wines Give Us Headaches?

Have you ever wondered why some wines give you headaches and others don’t? There is a minefield of information on this topic an d it gives me a headache just contemplating some of the rubbish that people have come up with to explain this phenomenon.

I am not talking about the hang over headache that you get from over indulging but the one that people suffer from typically after drinking red wine. I firmly believe that it stems from how the wine is made.

For instance, I have a friend whose wife refused point blank to drink red wine as it gave her a headache. After much persuasion I managed to get her to try a bottle of our table wine – Prince de Prieur. Much to her surprise she found herself headache free and is now an avid enthusiast of the wine.


One of the most popular beliefs is that it is the additives and chemicals in the wine that generate the headache. OK. I agree. I do not like the thought of my wine being manipulated by these things.

Given that there are no definite global rulings on labelling the additives in wine I am highly suspicious about what it is being put in it. It is a fact that the cheaper the wine, the more likely you are to get a headache. Cheap, mass produced wines use quick fixes to solve the fermentation and maturation processes.

I have had a look at the common ingredients that are in a bottle of wine. Decanter Magazine ran an article by Jamie Goode on the topic called “It’s Only Natural”. My problem was that the scientific names of the contents of the wine and what they actually did to it. bamboozled me. So here is a breakdown of what they are and what they do:

The culprit most blamed for the headache is Sulphur dioxide. It is a ga s commonly produced by volcanoes. It is used widely as a preservative and it protects wine from the effects of oxidation and acts as an antimicrobial agent. It is produced naturally by yeasts during fermentation but it is also added to the wine. Sulphites do not cause headaches! If you think sulphites are causing your headache, try eating some dried apricots, and see if that induces a headache. These dried fruits are rich in them and I have never heard of anyone getting a headache from eating an apricot!

Another ingredient is Potassium Metabisulphite which is added to wine to inhibit bacteria and yeast growth, as well as slow down oxidation. Potassium metabisulfite is the active ingredient in Campden tablets. It is added to wine as a natural preservative by wine makers all around the world. If you were one of the 1 in 1 million people who has an allergy to sulphites, you wouldn’t suffer headaches but serious, life-threatening breathing difficulties if you consumed any product containing them.

Then there is Calcium carbonate which is also used to adjust the pH  and make the wine less acidic. Calcium carbonate is the active ingredient in agricultural lime. It is a common substance found as rock in all parts of the world and is the main component of seashells and the shell of snails. It is usually the principle cause of hard water.

Diammonium phosphate is used as a yeast nutrient. It is one of a series of water-soluable ammonium phosphate salts which can be produced when ammonia reacts with phosphoric acid. Phosphates are sedimentary rocks, formed from the remains of long-dead plants and animals (mainly plankton) into a sedimentary series containing shales, dolomites, and limestones.

Finally there is Bentonite which is used as a fining medium and is actually a very fine clay.

That covers the minerals, rocks and gases.

So what is next? Potassium Bitartrate. It is used to adjust the pH of the wine by making it less acidic. It is a preservative and aids in stabilisation. It is formed in wine through the reaction between the bitartrate ion from the tartaric acid (and the potassium ion found in grapes, especially grape skins). It is commonly known as Cream of Tartar and is u sed widely in baking. Due to the extra time red wines spend in oak and exposed to colder winter temperatures, most of the tartrates deposit out in the barrels.

Next is Ascorbic Acid which occurs naturally in wine and is more commonly known as vitamin C.

Another acid is Tartaric Acid which is used to make the wine more acidic. It is a white crystalline organic acid. It occurs naturally in many plants, particularly grapes and tamarinds, and is one of the main acids found in wine.

Now as for enzymes and bacteria there are Pectinolytic enzymes which are used as aids in extraction. Pectin is derived from the cell wall of plants. It forms a gel under acidic conditions and it can be used as an edible thickening agent in processed foods. This effect is used for making j ams and jellies. Enzymes are proteins that accelerate, or catalyze, chemical reactions.

Malolactic batceria are cultured bacteria used for starting off malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is a fermentation by bacteria that are able to convert malic acid from grapes into lactic acid. It occurs alongside, and in addition to regular fermentation.

Other ingredients are Egg Whites, used as a fining agent, Sugar used before fermentation to increase alcohol levels, a process known as chapertisation, Yeast which are cultured yeasts to ferment the wine, Tannins which are found in grape skins and seeds, (tannins extracted from grapes are condensed tannins and hydrolysable tannins are extracted from the oak wood the wine is aged in).

So far, all the ingredients either occur naturally in the wine making process or are harmless to us humans. There is one commonly used “nasty” and that is Copper Sulphate. It is used to get rid of the Hydrogen Sulphide Gas which produces a rotten egg smell in wine and copper is also poisonous. Copper is required by the body in small amounts, but it can be toxic in larger quantities. Given that the quantity used in wine making is minute I do  not think that it is the Copper Sulphate that gives us the headache associated with drinking red wine.

Fine! Chemistry lesson over. So what is it that gives us the headaches? Artisans On The Web at www.aoweb.com say it is biogenic amines. Not much is known about them:

“Scientists think that the amount that ends up in the final wine depends on the soil the grape vine is planted in and later in the process by the specific strain of yeast and bacteria that are active in the wine making.

The concentration can be changed by modifying the soil certain grapes grow in and equally important they suspect that wine makers can lower the concentration of biogenic amines by the strain  of yeast they choose to ferment the grape juice into wine and also by choosing the strain of bacteria that produces the malo-lactic fermentation.”

In other words it seems to be a combination of the terroir and the yeasts chosen to ferment the wine. I wonder if wine made by natural wild yeasts would give you headaches? Maybe we are fiddling too much with our wine making processes. By adding “this” to correct “that” are wine producers creating a bête noir?

My advice is to trust your instincts. Mass produced, cheap wines will have been mucked about with. Being a purist I believe it is better by far to choose your wine from a smaller chateau with a history to its wine making. Choose wine makers who are proud of their traditions and have built up centuries of experience by knowing their land and their grapes. There is a natural balance between terroir and the wines that are grown on it.

Maybe people who suffer from headaches should stick to wines made in the Old World, from France, Italy or Spain, whose time honoured methods are renowned throughout the world. New World wines tend to be made in bulk and Gallo is the world’s largest commercial winery, churning out 60 million cases a year. The winery’s enormous fenced compound, corralling endless rows of huge tanks, is often mistaken for an oil refinery. Come  harvest, 10,000 tons of grapes a day begin a journey to 17 bottling lines. For more on Gallo check out my blogs (March) Gallo’s Grim Secret and High Alcohol Wines.

www.aoweb.com gives similar good advice:

“There’s not much specific advice to offer at this point about how to be able to drink red wine and avoid this type of headache, although if you are prone and you find a red wine from a small producer that predictably makes his wine from a single vineyard each year and you don’t get a hangover you may be on to your “port in a storm”. Hang on to the name and buy their vintages. ”

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