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Jan 12, 2010 12:15 PM

Wines that give you headaches

Maybe it's just me. Over the past two years, I've been getting major headaches the next mroning after having champagne or sparkling wines. I can't drink a lot so it's usually one glass and occasionally I may have half a glass of red during dinner. Are there certain elements in these wines that causes them or it's just my tolerance level is low. I don't have this problem with regular reds or whites, port, even scotch.

Not sure if it makes any difference but the champange/sparkling are european ones including Veuve Cliquot.

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  1. Where's marialorraine when you need her? I'm sure it won't take long for her to supply a complete answer.

    I believe the reason is that the carbon dioxide bubbles increase the speed and effect of the alcohol getting into your system, so champagne and sparkling wine have more of an effect on you. I personally think the yeast has something to do with the headaches too, but I'm not sure about that. Why now, and not before, likely has something to do with other things going on in your system.

    1. I don't know if it makes senses, but people tend to drink Champagne (or sparkling wines) on an empty stomach, as an apéritif; so you get the "full effect" of the alcohol in your digestive system.

      I would suggest trying to eat something before/during drinking it.

      1. My experience may not be backed up by science, but I grew up at a red wine producer and drink a wide variety of alcohol on a regular basis; sparkling wine/champagne does exist in a special category of hangover hell for me that is utterly separate from everything else I imbibe.

        Now that I'm attuned to it, I can tell by the second or third sip if the pressure in my head is changing, and I limit myself to a half glass. Some producers are deadly for me, some producers leave me unharmed. It may have something to do with yeast fermenting anaerobically during the in-bottle carbonation fermentation. My sparkling wine headaches are moderate migraines that do not go away even if I am well hydrated and have taken motrin/advil/tylenol.

        Do all sparkling wines/champagnes do this for you, or just some? I find Roederer Estate doesn't have this affect on me, but their baseline wines have been less exciting than they used to. Veuve Clicquot isn't the worst for my headaches, but isn't great and this year I think it's actually kind of crappy in terms of flavor or bouquet. Sadly, it seems to be the default "look at me, I'm not cheap!" host gift and we ended up with a lot of it over the holidays.

        1. Your problem may be a sensitivity to sulphur dioxide, or sulphites in general.

          Sulphur dioxide is used as a preservative and disinfecting agent in winemaking. Although sulphites are also naturally produced through the act of fermentation, and can be found in other fermented products such as cheese for example. White wines normally have higher SO2 levels than red wines-the reason being that grape skins contain compounds which have a preservative-like quality-and of course, red wines are red because of the contact with the skins. However, some less judicious (IMO) winemakers use sulphur dioxide in red wines to enhance colour and/or to encourage the extraction of compounds from the grape skins during maceration.

          Sulphur dioxide is usually most obvious in sweet and dry white wines-German rieslings containing residual sugar are usually the most obvious in terms of sulphur content. The residual sugar can cause a secondary fermentation which is obviously undesirable, so the sulphur is used to kill off or inhibit growth of yeast. To complicate matters further, there are ratios of "free" to "bound" forms of sulphur that exist in all wines. It could be a matter of how much "free" vs. "bound" sulphur is present in the particular wine which may result in headaches.

          All that being said, your observations have been that your headaches only occur while drinking sparkling wines or Champagne-so perhaps not entirely sulphur related. I am personally extremely sensitive to sulphur and know immediately when I will react badly. During some long tasting sessions, I have developed migraines. My head immediately feels "cloudy", even if my nose does not immediately pick up excess sulphur.

          My suggestion would be to try some German rieslings to narrow down whether you possess a sensitivity to sulphur dioxide specifically. Don't drink anything else that evening, see what happens.

          I'm sure other wine hounds will chime in with other possible explanations and/or suggestions.


          1. warning...long post...

            Could be lots of reasons for the headaches.

            **Carbon Dioxide Factors
            The bubbles, or rather the carbon dioxide inside the bubbles, launches the alcohol into your body, giving you a higher BAC alcohol level than the same ABV wine that didn't have bubbles. You've noticed, gourmet wife, the immediate buzz that comes from bubbles in comparison to still wine, right?

            The carbon dioxide also does a number on your Krebs cycle -- it takes more energy and water to process, hence greater dehydration, fatigue and headaches.

            Maximillien makes a good point. If you're drinking bubbly, you're often drinking it as the first wine of the evening and usually before you've had something substantial to eat, or more than just a nibble. And if you're like me, and drinking bubbles for some fun occasion, you may have skipped the last meal or eaten very lightly so you can splurge on calories for dinner.

            So, the effect of the bubbles keeps multiplying.

            There's a rule in drinking bubbly that the bigger the bubble, the badder the headache.
            It's true. Methode champenoise bubbly has a fine bead and small bubbles.

            But charmat method bubbly (like most Prosecco and cheap stuff like Totts is essentially carbonated wine. Its harsh, the bubbles are harsh, and the effect on the body is even greater than that of premium bubbly.

            **Fermentations, especially fast fermentations:
            Then, let's consider the still wine before it's made into bubbly. How is it made? Cheaply, with a fast fermentation? Box wines, bulk wines, and other low-priced wines are subjected to ultra-fast and hot fermentations. While those ferms convert sugar into alcohol, the speed and high heat also mean toxic alcohols are formed (other than ethyl alcohol) and those will do a number on your head like a sledgehammer. Have you ever noticed the wicked hangover you get from cheap wine? Yet another reason not to drink it. Notice I didn't say inexpensive wine, but cheap wine.

            **Biogenic Amines
            These are a group of substances in wine that cause problems in a lot of people, and cause problems in nearly all people when consumed in a high-enough volume. Biogenic amines are made most often during malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation after the first that converts sugar to alcohol).

            Nearly all red wines undergo ML, and white wines do in varying percentages (or not at all). If you've ever tasted a buttery quality in a chardonnay, that's malolactic. If the wine actually tastes buttery, then that's a lot of ML, which means a lot of biogenic amines and a greater tendency towards a headache.

            But malolactic fermentations differ around the world. It's initiated by lactobacilli bacteria, but the strains of lactobacilli used for ML differ. The lactobacilli in Europe used for ML appear to be less harsh (at least in terms of their effect on the body and causing headaches) than the lactobacilli used in the US. So if you've ever heard of wine drinkers who can drink European wines without getting a headache, but American wines always give them a headache, this is probably the reason why.

            Most people are familiar with the biogenic amines histamine, which was proven not to cause headaches in wine in 2006-7, and phenylethylamine, that mood-boosting chemical in chocolate. But a third type of biogenic amine, tyramine, is a known trigger for headaches and migraines. Tyramines are in every food that's cured or fermented -- soy sauce, aged cheese, salami/salumi, -- and red wine is loaded with tyramine.

            While a little tyramine may be fine for you, go beyond your individual threshold and you will get a headache and often redness on the face and chest. Let’s say you have a few pieces of salami with your red wine and you're OK. But add a healthy serving of Italian cured meats, some aged cheese, and 3-4 glasses of Chianti Riserva, and you're stung with a headache. This is a very common cause of "wine" headaches, but it's actually not caused by the wine, but by the accumulation of tyramines from both the wine and food.

            Just like tyramines, your intake of biogenic amines is cumulative. Stainless-steel white wine produced in Europe may not cause a headache in you, but a tannic, oak-aged, red wine made in the US and affected by Brett might. It’s a matter of degree – how many biogenic amines you’re ingested.

            If a wine goes through a third common (and sometimes undesirable) fermentation called Brett, that adds yet more biogenic amines to wine. Wines that have lots of contact with the yeast (sur lie aging) also have more biogenic amines. So that’s yet another factor.

            Tannins are another cause of headaches. Tannins come both from the grapes -- the skins the seeds, etc -- and from oak barrels. They're yet another component.

            **Volume, Body Weight, Hydration, Hormones, Hunger, Medications
            I alluded to this before, as did Maximillien. If you’re hungry, the alcohol is going to hit you harder. If you drink a lot of wine, it’s going to hit you harder. If you’re already dehydrated and drink, you’re asking for a headache. If you’re tiny (in weight or stature), the alcohol is going to hit your harder. Fluctuations in hormones can cause alcohol to hit harder. Certain medications potentiate alcohol, and amplify its effect.

            So that’s lots of things in wines and foods that cause headaches.

            More factors mean a greater likelihood of a headache:
            Bubbly, especially cheap bubbly, because of the carbon dioxide
            Cheap wine, because of toxic alcohols
            Drinking on an empty stomach
            Malolactic fermentation
            Malolactic fermentation in the US
            Red wine more than white wine because of tannin
            Certain kinds of red wine more than other kinds of red wine (tannins, polyphenols)
            Oak aging – tyramines, tannins
            LOTS of wine

            15 Replies
            1. re: maria lorraine


              Thanks for the informative post.

              I wasn't aware that the connection between sulphites and headaches was officially disproven-thanks for clearing that up for me. However, sulphur dioxide can most certainly cause headaches and migraines. This is also amply reported in papers in Pub Med. I also grew up near a pulp and paper mill so I definitely know the direct effect hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans can have on your "head" so to speak.

              1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                Just an addendum...

                I'm confused Maria. In the post below, you specifically quote one study where you state that histamines are not a cause of headaches in wines? Just curious.


                I work in biomedical research, and what I know is that it is constantly in flux. Nothing is technically "proof" in science, at least not in the way most people understand the definition of proof.

                What I have experienced as well is a specific reaction to smelling wines (as opposed to actually drinking)-in other words, during tastings where I am constantly inhaling the wine and always spitting, I experience headaches with wines where I detect excess sulphur present. I think we should also differentiate the way one ingests sulphur (versus the inhalation) in how an adverse reaction may result.

                1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                  SWS, I sympathize that you are suffering from headaches. Since the evidence is pretty much against sulfites in wine causing them, I'd urge you to see an allergist and find out exactly what is causing your distress. Sulfur comes in a huge variety of forms -- more than any other element, actually -- and one allotype or isotope may cause a reaction but another won't. Inhaling vs. ingesting is yet another differentiation, as you say. Sulfites, sulfides and sulfates are each a distinct family of inorganic compounds. Thiols (mercaptans) are a completely different family of organic compounds, and some mercaptans smell lovely. If whatever is hitting you over the head is inhaled, it may be the hydrogen sulfide from bad winemaking or it might be something as simple as the alcohol volatilizing. Or still something else.

                  By the way, I cleared up the phrasing about histamines above. You were right, it wasn't clear.


              2. re: maria lorraine

                [The hang-time, repeated freezes and lost edits here were a nightmare. Totally bogus. The worst ever.]

                There’s one category of substances that don’t cause headaches, and that’s sulfites. The connection between sulfites and headaches was disproved years ago. I won’t go into the sulfites myth here, since I have already written about it at length, and there are many threads and posts already here on Chowhound. Bottom line is if you can eat dried fruit or “lunchmeat," you don't have a problem with sulfites. For more info, check PubMed (the National Library of Medicine) and other sci-chem pubs and databases. The only people who are sensitive to sulfites are those with Sulfite Oxidase Deficiency, about 1% of the population. There appeared to some reaction to sulfites among asthma sufferers, but this has been borne out in medical trials.

                Plenty of resources to dispel the suflites-headache connection, but this passage with citations written by UC-Davis Wine School professor Andrew Waterhouse was nearby:

                "Sulfites or sulfur dioxide is a fruit preservative widely used in dried fruits as well as wine. It is also produced by the human body at the level of about 1000 mg (milligrams) per day. Consumption of food preserved with sulfites is generally not a problem except for a few people who are deficient in the natural enzyme to break it down. For these people, the additional sulfites from food can be a problem. There are reports of severe and life threatening reactions when sulfites were added at erroneously and enormously high levels (100 times what was supposed to be used!) on salad bar vegetables. I have found two reviews of the medical effects of sulfites-unfortunately I could find neither on-line as they appear to be too old. They should be available at medical school libraries.
                AF Gunnison and DW Jacobsen, Sulfite hypersensitivity. A critical review. CRC Critical Review in Toxicology, 17: 185-214 (1987). CRC Journals
                R.K. Bush, S.L. Taylor and W. Busse, A critical evaluation of clinical trials in reactions to sulfites, J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 78:191-202 (1986). J. Allergy Clin Immunol

                "The levels in wine average 80 mg/liter, or about 10 mg in a typical glass of wine, with slightly higher amounts in white versus red. A number of studies show reactions by sensitive patients to drinking wine with sulfites, but it appears that their reactions are also caused by other components. For details on this issue see this review: A.T. Bakalinsky, Sulfites, Wine and Health, in Wine in Context: Nutrition, Physiology, Policy, A.L. Waterhouse and R.M. Rantz, Eds. American Society for Enology and Viticulture, Davis, 1996. (Publication List)

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I'm sorry Maria, I just don't buy information from publications from 1986/1987 or even 1996. What we know about the immune system now is just really miles ahead of what we even understood at that time. There are papers as recent as 2009 on Pub Med that discuss the effects of sulphur dioxide in the environment and the correlation to headaches and migraines. And yes, of course I understand that sulphur comes in many forms (?!) I also referred to hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans because they are indeed, formed with exposure to sulphur.

                  Sulphur, as you are aware, is used extensively in the wine and food industry. Am I going to believe one, two or three publications? No. For years we were told trans fats were ok. My point is that, in terms of the medical information I've read, for me the jury is still out. There's a reason I work in research-we are skeptical folks.

                  1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                    I read the exact study to which you refer -- but it was on sulfur dioxide in air pollution causing headaches, not sulfur (in one of its many forms) in wine. There are a large number of scientific studies that refute the theory that sulfites in wines cause headaches -- independent peer-reviewed studies that corroborate one another. The UC-Davis doc I cited above was just one that I had handy.

                    Just ten minutes ago I went to the PubMed medical library database and *again* researched sulfites in wines, and found a large number of current studies, including a study titled "Adverse reactions to wine: think outside the bottle," from the June, 2008, Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology. It said, "Challenges were negative with sulfites, other additives and aging wines, but positive with young wines."

                    I also researched thiols (mercaptans) in wine, and sulfides in wine, and found nothing that correlated headaches or any other reactions with these substances. But if you can find sci-med studies that thiols in *wine* cause headaches, or that hydrogen sulfide in *wine* causes headaches, I'm happy to read them. However, bear in mind that these substances when they occur in wine are usually considered serious winemaking errors, so they are not the norm. If these substances occur at a high-enough level to adversely affect the smell and taste of the wine (skunk, garlic, rotten egg, cabbage, etc.), the wines don't make it to market.

                    What's important here is the amount of the offending substance. H2S and thiols exist in wine at very low levels. Any study that correlates these substances with reactions would have to quantify that reactions occured at the ppm found in wine.

                    At high concentrations and with frequent exposure -- like that found in pulp and paper mills, to which you refer -- these substances have terrible consequences in humans. At these levels, these substances are caustic by-products -- chemical hazards, really. So I don't disagree at all with you about exposure levels and bad reactions in manufacturing environments. But these levels are far, far beyond that of wine.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Which may have a cumulative sensatory effect in certain individuals with high exposure over time...

                      Are there publications you can provide that you yourself have written? You obviously have a high level of knowledge, I would be interested to read what aspects of wine chemistry/microbiology you study. It would be helpful to all wine hounds on this board in fact. Are you affiliated with the labs at UC Davis?

                      Science, by its very nature, is a discipline of questioning, predicting, tests and interpretation of data. There are also conflicting reports about the association between tyramine (as you mention above) and migraines. And to clarify to those on this board, histamine is involved in the inflammatory response of the immune system-an extremely complex network that we have only just begun to understand in its entirety. How exposure to chemicals in food and the environment interact with our complex system is something good and curious scientists question every single day.

                      Peer-review? This has lots and lots of problems which I won't discuss here as its getting off topic but lets just say there's politics in everything-even science. That's why its important to debate, and discuss and question.

                      1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                        Just to be clear...

                        Histamines are found in a huge variety of foods, and are *also* stored in human cells and released in an immunologic response.

                        Tyramines are common headache triggers. They also trigger a variety of hypertensive reactions. The reactions don’t occur in everyone but are dose-related. Go beyond your individual tolerance for tyramines and you’ll get a reaction.

                        In regards to the headache you experience during tastings, SWS, it’s possible that this reaction “kindled” from your cumulative exposure to sulfur in some form. But this is a guess, right? If you get a headache during a tasting – meaning, you’re tasting *multiple* wines – it could be a dozen different things. You can’t blame your reaction on sulfur until a lab test confirms it. There may be a completely different substance – one unrelated to this discussion or bound with the sulfur – causing your reaction. Since your response is unusual and may be the result of your long-term exposure toxic levels of sulfur, it’s really not a wine issue and is best discussed with your physician.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          I think I'll stick to my day job-thanks for the helpful advice-I'll make sure to pass it along to my colleagues.

                2. re: maria lorraine

                  See..................... I knew maria lorrain would show up and sort this out again. :o)

                    1. re: RicRios

                      Oh, come on. I typed too fast and left off the 'e'. Didn't mean to diss maria lorraine........ quite the opposite.

                      Take that RicRio ! :o)

                      1. re: Midlife

                        Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Is it possible to take this discussion beyond wine? A friend of mine almost immediately develops a headache when drinking some beers or other alcoholic drinks although wodka seems to be ok for him. Is it about alcohol with him you think?

                    1. re: LMDC

                      Your friend might be reacting to congeners. As a general rule, the darker alcoholic beverage, the more congeners it contains: rye has a higher congener content than vodka. Ditto red wine than white wine and stout than pale pilsner.