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Dec 19, 2006 06:09 PM

Wine and Headaches

This subject has been discussed here before, but I am constantly searching for an answer for people who want to drink wine (especially red) but find that it gives them headaches. I am familiar with the UC Davis material that has lately suggested this may be caused by histamines rather than the more often blamed sulfites. But there are also people with allergy to sulfites who react negatively in varying ways. And sulfites MAY related to headache in spite of the academic direction away from that cause.

Is anyone here aware of definitive research that would give these people a direction to try?

As to the sulfite cause - At one point it seemed to make logical sense that there might be some help in the area of organic and bio-dynamic wines, but that has turned out to be a dead-end. Reason being that these wines may be healthier because of how the fruit is grown, but there is no connection to the winemaking process itself. Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation, and even biodynamic wineries can and do add small amounts of sulfites in the process as well. (Got that one from the 'horse's' mouth.... a winemaker at a biodynamic/organic winery.)

Many people who suffer headaches here at home say that they don't get headaches while consuming even larger amounts of wine while vacationing in Italy or France. Since sulfites are not absent from wines there either, it could have something to do with any added levels....... or possibly just that people on vacation aren't likely to be as prone to headaches which have a component coming from stress or tension (not much of that at a village in Tuscany).

So, do any of you Hounds have anything definitive on this subject?

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  1. In my observation, people who get headaches from young red New World wine but rarely or never from white wine can also drink aged red wines and most old-school European and South African red wines without problems. That could reflect a sensitivity to histamines. tannins, or both.

    Some people have an allergic reaction to sulfites, but the usual symptoms are puffiness, respiratory problems, and shock.

    1. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Sulfites are a chemical and you can't have an allergy to a chemical. You can certainly have a chemical sensitivity, but not an allegery."

      Yeah, whatever -- in layman's terms, it's an allergy!

      That said, in my experience, the culprit in WHITE wines generally tends to be sulfites; in RED wines, it's generally histamines. This would tend to make sense, as whites tend to be higher in sulfites than reds, and reds tend to contain more histamines than whites.

      * * * * *

      As far as organic wines and sulfites are concerned, having a wine labeled as "Organic" in no way means "No Sulfites." Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation, and have been in wine for over three centuries.

      Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was quite common for wines to have sulfites added to inhibit oxidation. 150 parts per million (ppm) was not uncommon. (IIRC, the legal maximum permitted back then was 300 ppm, but I'd have to look it up to be sure.) Today, most wines are around 30 ppm, but because the law was changed to require wine labels to read, "Contains Sulfites," many people think they are now added when before they weren't, when wineries the world over are in fact adding less now than ever before.

      Federal law requires the "Contains Sulfites" label on any wine which has 10 ppm or more of sulfites.

      I once asked the driectory of the main laboratory for the (then) ATF about sulfites and "organic" wineries claiming to have zero sulfites. I asked him if the ATF checks to see if in fact they are below the threshhold level of 10 ppm.

      "We take their word for it," was his reply.

      "You don't test them to double-check their claims?" I asked.

      "We've never tested a sample that was below 30 ppm." (This was in the late-1970s/early-1980s.)

      "But -- wait. You just take their word for it?"

      "We've never tested a sample that was below 30."

      * * * * *

      4 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        So........... is there any source at all from which one could determine the ppm of sulfites in a wine, or the concentration of histamines? I'm sticking with the "no stress" explanation for European travelers, but there are many people who would dearly love a way to predict which wines would be more/less likely to give them a headache.

        1. re: zin1953

          >>That said, in my experience, the culprit in WHITE wines generally tends to be sulfites; in RED wines, it's generally histamines. This would tend to make sense, as whites tend to be higher in sulfites than reds, and reds tend to contain more histamines than whites.<<

          How do you know it's the sulfites in white wines that are the culprit, especially when, as Robert (and many others) have pointed out, sulfite sensitivity rarely expresses itself in the form of a headache? And do these white wine-sipping headache sufferers also get headaches when they ingest other foods with high levels of sulfites (certain "baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, pickled foods, gravies, dried fruit, potato chips, trail mix, beer, wine, vegetable juices, bottled lemon juice, bottled lime juice, tea, condiments, molasses, fresh or frozen shrimp, guacamole, maraschino cherries, and dehydrated, pre-cut, or peeled potatoes" according to

          1. re: carswell

            As I believe I said, it's "in my experience." People I know who are sensitive to sulfites (again, no allergy) get headaches more quickly and more severely with wines which are higher in sulfites.

            How do I *KNOW*? I don't. I failed to follow in my father's footsteps; I'm not a doctor.

            OTOH, I know why the sulfite warning label was added to wine bottles, and it nothing to do with wine.

            1. re: zin1953

              Do these people get headaches from eating cured meat?

          1. As a wine-induced headache sufferer, I have yet to discover the exact cause. Believe me I've experimented. I've tried domestic and imported reds, whites, and sparkling and all produce a blinding headache after 3 or 4 sips usu within two minutes. Yet during a "grand tour" I've had many different wines from 5 countries with no headache at all.
            The only wine I can drink in the US are those labelled "organic no sulfites added" with no ill effects.
            Brandy, scotch, vodka, rum and port dont bother me either.

            6 Replies
            1. re: tom porc

              What do you mean by "grand tour"? Traveling in Europe?

              That could suggest that whatever you're sensitive to, there's a triggering cofactor, such as stress.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Possibly, I havent been able to rule anything out. Although, that wouldnt explain why only "organic" wine in US does not produce a headache. Is organic wine so very different molecularly or chemically than other wine? My mother and grandmother also experience wine headaches.

                Yes, six european countries.

                1. re: tom porc

                  Organic wine has no added sulfites, but if that were the problem, then you'd have trouble with some European wines.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    I thought so too, until I had a conversation with the winemaker of a specific winery that is certified organic and biodynamic. He said, straight out, that he adds a minute amount of sulfites to preserve against oxidation and protect against bacteria. His quote: "The 'organic' term refers to the farming process, not to the winemaking process."

                    I know, however, that Frey Vineyards says they DON'T add any sulfites, and I think their labels say that. I'd be interested in others that do the same, as I am familiar with several other wineries that are organic/biodynamic, and do not see labelling that says "no sulfites added". I assume they DO add sulfites, or they would likely say they don't.

                    1. re: Midlife

                      That winemaker's either cheating on the certification or it's the vineyard rather than the wine that's certified.


                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Thank you for that reference. The difference is obviously totally critical to the issue. The way the winemaker explained it was self-serving, since he knew exactly why I was asking (relation to sulfite levels and headaches). He could just as easily have said that their wine was organically farmed, not organically made. Instead, his wording suggested that only the farming aspect was relevant. I just didn't pick up on the difference.

            2. You can debate allergy or sensitivity, but the headache I get almost immediately from red wine is not a favorite of mine. The identical headache comes from the Grape Seed Extract touted for the arteries since Reservatrol is in the news. Ever wonder where all those grape seeds come from. I think they come from the wine industry! I don't get headaches from any other foods or drinks.

              1 Reply
              1. re: nutrition

                Grape seeds are high in tannin. Red wine is, generally speaking, much higher in tannin than white wine.