Red Wine

Why Red Wine Gives Us Headaches (& How to Avoid Them)

October 27, 2015

Why do I feel like I already have a hangover the same night that I've been drinking? All I had was two glasses of red wine. With dinner. 

It wasn't the first time I'd been stricken with a red wine headache; I tend to identify as a red drinker, but as a red drinker, headaches are a frustratingly common occurrence. What gives? Why do some people sometimes get headaches from drinking red wine?

Red wine

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"People come into the store citing red wine headaches all the time," Mike Johnson of Bottlerocket, a wine shop in New York City's Flatiron district, told me over the phone. "And typically, we believe that these headaches are a result of the drinker's sensitivity to sulfites." Brian Larky, a winemaker and the founder of Dalla Terra, said the same.

Sulfites are sulfuric compounds that occur naturally in wine, Mike told me—and they're also added to help preserve the wine. Some natural, biodynamic, or organic winemakers will add as little additional sulfites as possible (hence their "natural" labels), but "sulfites are necessary to stabilize the wine," Mike said. They stop the wine from refermenting once it's been bottled. (The legal sulfite addition is 350 parts per million, or ppm; most wines have about 120 ppm, and low-sulfite wines have between 0 and 20 ppm. And sulfites can naturally occur up to 40 ppm!)

Still, wine writer Alice Feiring says that if you get red wine headaches consistently, you should try a natural or biodynamic wine that has lower amounts of sulfites added, or at least uses only "molecular, elemental sulphur" rather than commercial, petrochemical sulphur. Alice maintains that there's a big difference between the two, and that she "immediately feels a pressure behind [her] eyes" when drinking conventional, rather than natural, low- or no-sulphur wines.

Red wine

I was still stumped by a few things: White wines actually have higher levels of naturally occuring sulfites than red wines—as do dried apricots. (Beer and cider also contain added sulfites.) So why don't people experience white wine headaches? "I think it has to do with the perception of the strength of things," said Mike. "People often talk about red wine as being stronger than white wine."

But Meg McNeill of Dandelion Wine in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said she thinks sulfites get blamed too often for our red wine headaches. "I’m not a doctor, but I believe that [the cause is] the histamines in the skins of the grapes," she told me. Because red wines spend more time in contact with the skins—that's how red wine gets its color—they have higher levels of histamines than white wines, and are therefore much more likely to give you a headache than whites or rosés, especially if you're sensitive to histamines. 

Wine tasting

Meg wasn't sure if certain reds are more prone to cause headaches than others, but she posits that, in the vein of histamine contact, wines made with thicker-skinned grapes would be more likely to give you a headache than wines made with thinner-skinned grapes.

Additionally, "Thicker skinned grapes have to ripen on the vine for a longer amount of time," said Laura Mooney, a wine and spirits consultant for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City, "which makes for more sugar in the grape—which also usually makes for a higher alcohol content." Of course, a hangover is more significant than the red wine headache (which you get while you’re drinking), but as Laura said, "If you have two glasses of zinfandel—at 14 or 15% ABV per glass, that’s heavy-duty stuff."

If you know red wine often gives you a headache, consider steering clear of wines made from thick-skinned grapes (like Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon) and choose a wine made from a thin-skinned grape (like Pinot Noir, Sémillon, and Merlot) instead. Or go for my favorite red, the Malbec: Even though Malbec grapes produce a very dark red wine, their skins are thin—and they don't give me a headache. 

While the definitive cause is inconclusive, you can take a few steps to avoid the dreaded red wine headache: Look for low-or-no-sulfite wines, especially biodynamic ones; and lean towards wine made from thinner-skinned grapes. But perhaps most effectively, as the wine director at Eli's Table, Randall Restiano, told me, the most effective thing you can do is to make sure you eat plenty and drink lots of water before moving on to wine.

First photo by Mark Weinberg; final two photos by James Ransom

What's your experience with red wine headaches? Any tips for avoiding them? Tell us in the comments.

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Faena D. November 3, 2015
Hugh Gentry --- please send me some. I am in California :)
Hugh G. November 3, 2015
In over forty years as an enthusiastic wine drinker, I can say that the only wine that consistently gives me a headache is Chardonnay. Don't know why but it is a very distinctive pain that feels like I'm wearing a crash-helmet inside my cranium! Go figure! Where I live in Cadiz, Spain they quaff Manzanilla/Fino like it is water and this supposedly never creates a headache - I have tried hard at overnight fiestas drinking it by the jug in a lemonade/mint spritzer called rebojito but never suffered the next day!!
Jackson November 3, 2015
Sulfite allergies are relatively rare, and you’ll ingest more of them if you eat a handful of dried fruit or eat a hot dog than you will by drinking a bottle of red wine. (And as the article notes, there are generally more sulfites in white wine.)

The culprit in red wines might be histamines (try taking an antihistamine before drinking) or phenolics, but it could also well be alcohol. The alcohol content of wines has steadily been creeping up — 12.5 percent to 13.5 percent used to be normal, but now it seems to start at 14 percent and go up from there, particularly with New World wines. Drinking a glass of water in between glasses of wine is a good way to stay hydrated and keep headaches away.

A good story on this topic appeared in HuffPost not too long ago:

WineFolly has also addressed this issue:
Epearls November 3, 2015
I have experienced this problem with American and many inexpensive Southern Hemisphere wines but never with decent French or Italian wine ( no commercial plonk) which I can drink with impunity.
Elaine C. November 1, 2015
A trove of actual wine scientists at UC-Davis were waiting for your call while you were wasting time "reporting" the guesses of sales people.
Bill L. November 1, 2015

I presume this "trove of actual wine scientists at UC-Davis" needs more than 5 hours to prepare that trove for us to read here. I am anxiously awaiting its appearance!
KAREN November 1, 2015
I have been living in France full time for the past 11 years. When I first arrived I stayed with a French family for the first two months while I waited for my furniture to arrive. I was shocked to see how much wine was consumed at meals and certainly had several headaches. I was talking to several French friends and they said it I would match at least one glass of water with each glass of wine I would not get headaches.......they were right.......never a headache agin.......I certainly got them when I lived in wine country in California.....always liked red wine and blamed the headache on the sulphates, but now, for me, water is the answer to the problem.
softenbrownsugar November 3, 2015
Great idea! AND it keeps us hydrated as well. Now if I can just remember this next time! ;)
Edward L. November 1, 2015
Take fish oil supplement capsules. A medical study found they reduce sensitivity as well as being good for health.
Eric October 31, 2015
Semillon is not a red skinned grape.
Kristin October 31, 2015
As another commenter mentioned, wine, chocolate, and cheese all contain a substance called tyramine. Red wine headaches were the first sign for me of chronic migraines. Migraines can also be triggered by stress, hydration, and other environmental factors. Those of you in the comments who say you especially get headaches from red wine on stressful days or when you've also eaten cheese may want to look into migraines!
Faena October 29, 2015
I get terrible headaches from cheap wine only. By cheap wine I mean anything under $12. I always thought it was from sulfates too because during a winetasting tour the winemakers told me that they have to put in more sulfates to keep the wine from spoiling that is mass produced in very huge metal barrels. And i don't know why the wine label does not disclose that information nutritional facts amount of sugar and sulfates. Allergies to sulfates can display in other ways such as anger irritability and alcoholic combativeness. I have no idea what 2-buck-chuck is made from but i suspect food coloring and grape powder diluted in water.
Andrew M. October 29, 2015
The sulphites theory sounds like bullshit to me. The thing which you've forgotten to mention (but i suspect corroborates your comments on grape skins) are tannins. I don't tend to get these headaches, but when I've heard people complain of them its been from wines very heavy on the tannins.
eav October 29, 2015
I have never been able to figure out why I will sometimes get a headache after having red wine, but the last time it happened I was tired after a stressful, busy day, and I think that had something to do with it. Should have just gone to bed... :) I do agree that copious amounts of water can help.
Also, I am pretty sure it happens more often (not every time) when a soft cheese is in the mix, like brie or camembert.
Princess B. October 28, 2015
After getting a headache with every glass of red I tried, even cooking with a red, I have decided to never have a glass of red wine again. I get the same reaction from chocolate and vodka. Is there something in all three that could be a trigger?
CurioCook October 28, 2015
Weirdly I never got much of a headache or hangover from drinking wine until I moved to New Zealand. I find that 9 times out of 10 I will get a headache and feel extremely ill after drinking NZ reds - not US, French, Italian, Australian, etc. NZ whites and roses are fine too. I can't find any rationale about it, I wonder if it has something to do with processing. Every so often I find a NZ red that I can drink happily, but it's a real crapshoot...
Kitchen G. October 28, 2015
Aged and fermented foods naturally contain a substance called tyramine. It's this combined in addition to the histamines that trigger headaches in some people. I am very prone to migraines and have to be very careful with red wine and other tyramine rich foods. Please note that tyramine isn't added to these foods nor is it the result of pesticides, etc. It is naturally occurring.
Aileen M. October 28, 2015
Consider the fact that biodynamic, natural and organic wines are grown without the use of pesticides or chemical filled fertilizers- the mass produced, non organic wines are harvested by machines, which creates damage to the grapes. The damage renders washing impossible, so all the chemicals used in growing get mixed right in with the juice. Add to that chemicals to speed up fermentation, non local yeasts, chemicals in the barrels the wines are aged in- you are drinking a serious chemical cocktail. All wines create sulfites naturally as a product of fermentation. Stick to natural/biodynamic/organic wines and you will never have that kind of "wine" headache again. (& Always hydrate when drinking!)
Jennifer P. October 28, 2015
I think the histamine snake a big difference. I take a Zyrtec before bed and it helps.
felisalpina October 28, 2015
The headache may come from sulfites, but mostly it's related to processing. The wine may have been processed in high quantities, as already mentioned, and highly industrialized. Or it may have been matured in barrels which have been treated with sulfur to clean them after the last maturation, and which may have left some remnants.
For better varieties, grapes are often stripped off the stems, in particular for wines of a higher class. It's the tannic acid which is in these stems that may also cause headaches. This tannic acid can as well be found in some barrels or woodchips when wines are brought to maturity 'in barrique' - older barrels and careful maturation are better on the overall process.
My ado: drink good wine, which has been carefully processed. The last time I had serious headaches from red wine (also from white) was when I thought I had to drink some of that impossible stuff someone offered at a party. I'm an avid wine drinker (and buyer), and never have any problems with the wines I have in my cellar. You're welcome to try. ;-)
Steve October 28, 2015
You listed Cabernet Sauvignon as a thick-skinned grape and Cabernet as a thin-skinned grape. Since these are synonymous I assume that was a typo. What did you mean to write?
Caroline L. October 28, 2015
thank you for catching, steve! i've made corrections.
Gio October 28, 2015
Lol i'm Italian and i never had headache because of the wine and never heard of something like this.
I really don't know what are you drinking down there but you should really try something REALLY italian because in the US the biggest part of italian stuff you find in stores (wines, cheese, mozzarella, and everything else) are lookalikes produced in US or Canada of infamous quality, nothing more than a fraud based on names that looks like italian words or brands but they are not.
Find some TRUE IMPORTED wine and you'll taste the difference ;)
felisalpina October 28, 2015
Yes, definitely. I second you on that. Anything *really* Italian, Spanish or Greek does the trick. Or anything *really* Germanish like a fantastic Riesling off the Mosel river shores.
steve November 1, 2015
I third this post. My wife has suffered with migraines for 20+ years and wine has always been a trigger. We first thought it was the sulfites and she tried organic wines without added sulfites. But even they would cause a migraine. We eventually found that she only got a migraine from American wines. So she will only drink non-American wines and now no migraines from the wine. She especially likes Italian and German wines. I don't know what wine makers do here in the US that's different from other countries, but I sure wish someone would do a study on it.