Why Does Wine Give Me a Headache?

Why Does Wine Give Me a Headache?

For many people, enjoying a glass of wine can sometimes come with an unwelcome side effect: a headache. This issue, commonly referred to as a "wine headache," can be caused by various factors, including additives, sulfites, and even certain regulations and practices in wine production. In this blog, we’ll explore why wine might give you a headache and delve into the specifics of additives, sulfites, and wine regulations, particularly focusing on Italian and French wines.

The Role of Additives in Wine

What Are Additives?

Additives in wine are substances added during the winemaking process to enhance flavour, appearance, shelf life, and other qualities. While many additives are safe and commonly used, some individuals may be sensitive to them, potentially leading to headaches and other adverse reactions.


Common Wine Additives

1. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Used as a preservative to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. While sulfites are naturally occurring in all wines, they are often added in higher concentrations.

2. Tannins: Naturally present in grape skins, seeds, and stems, tannins contribute to the texture and astringency of wine. Some people are sensitive to high tannin levels.

3. Histamines: These are compounds found in the skins of grapes, particularly in red wines. They can cause allergic reactions in some people, including headaches.

4. Sugar: Added to some wines to balance acidity or enhance sweetness. High sugar content can lead to dehydration, a common cause of headaches.

5. Acids: Including tartaric, malic, and citric acid, these can be added to adjust the acidity of the wine.


How Additives Can Cause Headaches

Additives like sulfites and histamines can trigger allergic reactions or sensitivities in some individuals. Sulfites, in particular, are known to cause headaches, asthma, and other allergic symptoms in sensitive people. Additionally, high levels of sugar and tannins can contribute to dehydration and increased blood pressure, respectively, both of which can lead to headaches.


Understanding Sulfites

What Are Sulfites?

Sulfites are compounds that naturally occur in all wines as a byproduct of fermentation. They are also commonly added to wines to preserve freshness, prevent oxidation, and inhibit microbial growth. Sulfites are generally not labelled on wine bottles in Australia, which makes it difficult to identify the quantity of sulfites in wine.


Sulfite Sensitivity

While most people can tolerate sulfites without any issues, a percentage of the population is sensitive to these compounds. Symptoms of sulfite sensitivity can include headaches, hives, gastrointestinal discomfort, and asthma-like symptoms. The exact mechanism by which sulfites cause headaches is not entirely understood, but it is believed to be related to their impact on the body's ability to process certain biogenic amines, which can affect blood vessels and lead to headaches.


Sulfite Regulations

Different countries have varying regulations regarding the use of sulfites in wine:

United States: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires wines containing more than 10 ppm of sulfites to carry a "Contains Sulfites" warning label.

European Union: Similar regulations to the US, with additional restrictions on the maximum allowable sulfite levels depending on the type of wine. The EU also has stringent rules about organic wines, which must have lower sulfite levels.

Australia and New Zealand: if a wine contains more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites the The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) stipulates that the label must indicate the presence of sulfites. The typical statement used is "Contains sulfites" or "Contains preservative 220," with 220 being the code for sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Countries like South Africa, Chile, and Argentina have similar regulations, but enforcement and specific limits can vary.



Italian and French Wine Regulations

French and Italian wines are subject to some of the strictest regulations in the world, particularly concerning winemaking practices, grape varietals, and organic and biodynamic standards. These regulations are designed to preserve the heritage, quality, and authenticity of their wines.


Italian Wine Regulations

Italy has a robust regulatory framework for wine production, primarily governed by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) systems. These designations ensure that wines meet specific quality standards and are produced using traditional methods and grape varieties.

DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin): Indicates wines produced in a specific region under strict regulations regarding grape varieties, production methods, and ageing processes

DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin): The highest quality designation, which includes all DOC regulations plus additional guarantees regarding quality and authenticity.


French Wine Regulations

France's wine regulations are governed by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, which ensures that wines are produced in designated regions using approved grape varieties and methods.

AOC (Controlled Designation of Origin): Ensures that wines are produced in specific regions with strict adherence to traditional methods and grape varieties.


Grape Varieties and Their Impact

Different grape varieties can also influence the likelihood of experiencing a headache after drinking wine. For instance:

Red Wines: Typically have higher levels of tannins and histamines, which can cause a “red wine headache” in sensitive individuals.

White Wines: Usually contain fewer tannins and histamines, making them a better option for those prone to wine headaches.

Sparkling Wines and Champagne: Often have added sugars and higher sulfite levels, which can contribute to headaches.


Why are Italian and French Wines Different?

Italian and French wines are often perceived differently when it comes to causing headaches. This perception can be attributed to several factors:

1. Production Methods: Traditional methods and stringent regulations in Italy and France may result in wines with fewer additives and lower sulfite levels.

2. Grape Varieties: The use of indigenous grape varieties and traditional vinification techniques can lead to differences in tannin and histamine levels.

3. Ageing Processes: Extended ageing in oak barrels, common in both Italian and French wines, can influence tannin levels and the overall composition of the wine.


Tips to Avoid Wine Headaches

If you’re prone to wine headaches, here are some tips to help you enjoy wine without the pain:

1. Choose Wines with Lower Sulfite Levels: Opt for organic or biodynamic wines, which often have lower sulfite concentrations.

2. Select Wines with Fewer Additives: Look for wine made abiding the strict European regulations which typically contain fewer additives.

3. Drink in Moderation: Limit your intake to avoid dehydration and other adverse effects. Quality over quantity.

4. Stay Hydrated: Drink water alongside your wine to stay hydrated and help flush out potential headache-causing substances.

5. Experiment with Different Wines: Try wines from different regions and grape varieties to identify which ones you tolerate better.



Wine headaches can be a complex issue, influenced by various factors such as additives, sulfites, and individual sensitivities. Understanding the role of these factors and the differences in wine production methods and regulations, particularly in Italy and France, can help you make more informed choices and potentially avoid those dreaded wine-induced headaches. By choosing wines with fewer additives, staying hydrated, and drinking in moderation, you can still enjoy the rich and diverse world of wine without the unwanted side effects. Cheers to that!

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