Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What causes red-wine headaches? A new theory

Nobody knows for sure what causes red-wine headaches. I heard an intriguing theory last month while interviewing a chemist-turned-winemaker, and it fits the facts as we know them.

Here's what we know:

* Many people get headaches from red wine, but not white wine

* Sulfites are not to blame. Some people are allergic to sulfites, but headaches are not an allergy symptom, and besides, white wines have more sulfites on average than red wines.

* Some people report that they don't get headaches when drinking red wine in Europe, but they do in the US.

* Some doctors say the first thing you should consider is the alcohol itself, as it can cause headaches. Because alcohol level is such an emotional issue these days, that's an appealing theory, but I have always gotten comments from people who say they can drink vodka (40% alcohol) without headaches, but not Zinfandel (15-17% alcohol). 

* There has never been a conclusive medical study about red-wine headaches and you won't find a reputable doctor anywhere who can tell you exactly what the cause is. All we have is speculation.

Which leads me to Chris Howell's theory.

Chris Howell
Howell is the winemaker for Cain Vineyard & Winery on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. He studied winemaking in Montpellier in southern France and worked at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild before coming back to the US in the 1980s.

Howell says that he gets red-wine headaches, inconvenient because Cain makes only red wines, and also because he's a tremendous wine lover who likes to splurge on the great red wines of Europe.

He also says he can smell a wine and tell whether or not it will give him a headache. (Cain's wines don't, he says.)

To understand Howell's theory, you need to understand the basics about how grapes become wine. Yeast, a single-cell organism that lives everywhere, consumes the naturally occurring sugar in grapes and excretes alcohol. At high enough levels, alcohol kills everything, including the yeast that creates it, so as the alcohol percentage of a vat of fermenting grapes rises, the yeasts die off little by little.

There are many, many kinds of yeast. In theory, over time the yeasts that live in a vineyard (and winery building) adapt to its grapes in a symbiotic relationship. These yeasts convert all the sugar in the grapes to alcohol, run out of food, and die.

However, most modern wineries use yeast they buy in plastic bags. They do this for a variety of reasons. No. 1 is reliability: different yeasts can create different flavors in wine, including some that some consumers might find disagreeable. Some wineries use "commercial yeast" specifically to get desirable flavors.

Another reason wineries use commercial yeast is that some yeasts tolerate alcohol better than others and can live at higher levels of it. This is important if grapes are very ripe and have a high sugar content. The winery doesn't want all its yeast to die, or some sugar will be unconverted and the resulting wine may be too sweet. (This is how most dessert wines are made.)

Howell's theory is this:

Just like people, yeasts work differently under stress. A high-alcohol environment is stressful for yeast. Howell believes some yeasts create different chemical compounds when dealing with the amount of sugar and alcohol in very ripe grapes, and these compounds cause red-wine headaches.

It's just a theory, but it fits the facts as we know them.

* White wines are usually lower in alcohol than reds so the yeasts would be less stressed

* Not many European wines are made from grapes as ripe, and thus high in sugar, as grapes get in California.

* People report getting red-wine headaches from inexpensive U.S. wines that have alcohol under 14%, the same as European wines. However, that may have been achieved (for the purpose of paying lower tax) by having the alcohol reduced mechanically, through reverse osmosis or spinning cones. If that is the case, some alcohol would be removed but the headache-causing compounds would stay in.

* This would explain the no-headache-from-vodka conundrum. It's not the alcohol itself; it's what it does to the yeast.

It's worth noting that most doctors will point out that your stress is a factor in headaches. You don't get red-wine headaches in Europe because you're on vacation.

That said, if you want to drink red wine without a headache, "take a plane to Paris" isn't a great solution. But Howell's theory gives a promising avenue.

It's worth trying wines of lower alcohol but ONLY in cases where you know something about the winery. You can't just go by the alcohol percentage on the label. You'd want to know that the winery uses "native yeast fermentation;" in other words, it doesn't use commercial yeast.

Unfortunately there's no "safe label" to read about this. Wineries don't have to tell the truth about what yeast they use. Plus, as every winemaker who reads this will comment if I don't say it, last year's yeast can live in the winery over the summer and survive to ferment this year's wine.

Moreover, we don't know what percentage of alcohol is "lower alcohol." Cain's wines are generally a little above 14% alcohol, low for Napa Valley but higher than you might find in some parts of the world. I would argue that "low for Napa Valley" is what's important. The yeast in Cain's vineyard could be well adapted by now to the sugar levels that the grapes are harvested at. Cain's yeast would be unlikely to have trouble at a sugar/alcohol level that yeast in Germany or Austria might struggle with.

The upshot is, if you want to try drinking US red wines without a headache, talk to your local wine shop (NOT a supermarket) about this theory and ask them to recommend some lower-alcohol wines made with natural yeast. Good wine shops know this. You won't find many $10 wines that fit the bill; the safety of commercial yeast is important to volume producers. You'll have to spend $20 or more to find a winery that does, in essence, more work in the vineyard and less in the winery. Good luck. And remember, you are not allergic to sulfites.

This theory comes from a Q&A I did with Chris Howell for Wine-Searcher. He has a lot of other interesting things to say. Read it here.

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Kimmo S said...

"The upshot is, if you want to try drinking US red wines without a headache, talk to your local wine shop (NOT a supermarket) about this theory and ask them to recommend some lower-alcohol wines made with natural yeast."

Jesus. What's the role of natural yeasts in this? They have lower alcohol tolerance than S. cerevisiae or brett. I think following your logic the proper recommendation would be to avoid natural yeasts and have a wine made with the most tolerance to sugar/alcohol not which would not trigger these stress mechanisms.

Larry Brooks said...

I almost don't know where to start with this, but Kimmo is on the correct track. The cleaner, healthier and more controlled all your fermentations are the less chance that there will be the formation of products that will give you a headache or other adverse allergenic type reactions. In general innoculated fermentations are cleaner and complete with fewer issues. The last thing you would want to do if you wished to make a wine with the least chance of creating a headache is go "natural". This is especially true when it comes to malolactic fermentations. The stuff that comes in plastic bags as you so dismissively put it has actually been vetted so it does not produce nasty side chemistry that's much more likely to cause headaches. The same can't be said for the random microbes that are floating around your vineyard and winery, which have been proven to vary greatly from year to year. So, even if you get a good outcome one vintage you are not assured of the same thing the next year. I'm not a fan of random outcomes myself. I was reading Peynaud's small masterpiece, The Taste of Wine just this morning, and I'll let him speak to this. "General copetence and continual following of a wine's development are what is required for quality. The opposite of the laissez-fair or so called natural proceedure." Even 30 years ago when this was published it was recognized that natural or hands off was not the path to quality.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: Who tests commercial yeast? Has anyone ever tested whether it produces "side chemistry" that's more likely to cause headaches? Has this research been published? Can anyone send it to me? I'd be happy to share it with readers if it exists.

Wink Lorch said...

Odd to read this whole report without mention of histamine, which is generally mentioned in any discussion of possible 'allergy to red wine', even if no-one that I know have has come up with the definitive answer.

Also, the thing is, I believe that I'm old enough to remember the whole issue of red wine allergy being discussed long before cultured yeasts were used on a regular basis in Europe.

Jeff Siegel said...

Fascinating, since I field the sulfite question all the time, too.

My first question: Do people get headaches from other yeast products, like bread? I assume not, but I don't know that anyone has actually ever studied this. If not, what's the difference between the way yeast works in bread and in wine?

Second, we don't hear about people getting headaches from sweet wine. How would this play into his theory?

Unknown said...


There are lots of studies on biogenic amine production (one of the leading headache causing theories, because of its vascular effects) and yeast. I'll supply a link to just one below, but to quote from the summary, "As yeast biogenic amine production among strains tested in our study appeared to be a strain
characteristic, the spontaneous fermentation of wine could be represent a risk in consequence
of formation of high amounts of biogenic amines in the final wines, as a consequence of the
activity of undesirable yeast strains present during spontaneous grape must fermentation. "

You can find it here: file:///C:/Users/Adam/Downloads/09e4151405544edaf0000000.pdf

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Unknown said...

Oops, guess I provided where I downloaded it....try here:

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Unknown said...

One last point (sorry) after reading the entire interview with Chris --- brett is, per the study I quoted and several other studies, the yeast the produces the highest level of biogenic amines. Just an interesting footnote as Chris mentions he doesn't have an issue with brett.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Man About Wine said...

Fascinating. And useful, where to do more research. I disagree that use of native vs. cultured is the crux. As you point out, it is the ferm products that are created when the yeast is hitting a top of the curve in its livability. That is an intersection of 2 datas sets, the yeast with the amt of sugar, not a single data point. Now I have to read the other citations, talk to David Ramey, etc. ANd I recall recently some researchers in Europe isolated a yeast from South Africa, that works on hot weahter grapes and leaves a wine that is less susceptible to oxidization, allowing for less dosing with SO2.

Molybiogeek said...

I am not sure where to start. EVERY fermentation involves some degree of alcohol toxicity to the involved yeast, and the presence of alcohol in higher concentrations locally than is present in the must as a whole is a given. Natural yeast are MORE likely to be extremely alcohol sensitive, dying off prior to fermentation completion, and/or making more chemicals other than ethanol. It gets worse. Spraying systemic pesticides late in the season (within 4-6 weeks of harvest) virtually guarantees that yeasts in the fermentation will be exposed to these toxins which have been shown to drastically change the chemical profile of the fermentation (make-up of non ethanol chemicals and even ethanol concentration). Drinking commercial wine gives Russian Bear hangovers because commercially farmed fruit is sprayed more heavily (cheap fruit means no/little canopy management which leads to very high disease pressure which leads to shit loads of systemic pesticides late in the growing season). Now let's get to the good part. Many/Most of the systemic fungicides used are human toxins that effect the liver.

Put it all together. Cheap fruit with high levels of pesticides make wine with high levels of alcohol and hepatotoxic and or vasoactive non alcohol aromatic chemical compounds which are then consumed in the context of hepatotoxic systemic pesticides. It's a wonder everyone who drinks cheap red wine doesn't wind up hung over.

Wine Walker said...

Check my wine column on why I think red wines cause headaches per the below link...

Unknown said...

Weighing in on this because I get those headaches and have talked to doctors about them. 1. whoever said these headaches have nothing to do with allergies is full of crap. Those headaches ricochet through my sinuses worse than anything but the barometric pressure changes. 2. I've had several doctors tell me (and my Mom, who has the same issues) that the thing causing the headaches is a tiramine sensitivity. Tiramine is a compound? found in colored liquors but not in clear ones. I found this out because I complained to a doctor when I noticed I couldn't drink as much beer without reaction having gone on a particular med. She explained that said med was known to cause greater tiramine sensitivity.

(and yes, I'm fine with you being the greatest blogger of all time :))

Zzzz said...

Given the fact that there are a such a wide range of responses to what is always a hotly debated topic, it's clear that actual, controlled studies need to be carried out on the issue.

For me at the moment, it seems akin to the issue found in cultivating truffles in that while possible, is difficult as we don't really understand them.

Winemaking, despite the centuries we've spent doing it is still something of a mystery to us as shown by this issue. While not a hardcore "natural" wine fanatic, I agree that there are aspects to non-interference winemaking that might make it better for people with this problem. Still, controlled studies would need to be carried out.

Also interesting would be to see if there are any historical records or texts from the 19th century and before that talk of someone getting blinding headaches from red wines back then when grapevines were un-grafted, varieties were grown in regions best suited for them, and the wine make about as naturally as you can get with local ambient yeasts in other words, before New World wine became such a thing.

Wine on Six

Alex Baldonado said...

MolyBioGeek's comments correlate best to my own empirical experience drinking "natural" vs "commercial" wines. I noticed that lesser-interventionist wines or, as a different category from this, higher-quality wines (as generally accepted by worldwide experts but perhaps with more "intervention") lead to a much faster recovery the day after, whereas with commercial wines, the hangover starts earlier (especially as I get older).

Not only would it be interestng to research historical accounts of drinking as Miquel suggests, but as the industry as a whole is going towards a more organic approach to grape-growing, it will be interesting to track if even commercial wines (such as Big Champagne) lower their headache/hangover potential.

Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought here. I think the industrially-made wines, more likely fermented with cultured yeasts and more intervention, higher SO2 levels, industrially-farmed vineyards, tend to cause more headaches. I hear all the time from my customers that they can drink our red wines without getting the headaches they expect from red wines. How sad that people "expect" red wine headaches. Yes, I use native yeasts and bottle with probably less SO2 than industrially made wine. Perhaps Molybiogeek is right about the pesticide sprays, maybe its not the natural vs cultured yeasts or SO2 levels...perhaps its because I source grapes from organic/sustainably grown vineyards with less chemical intervention? I would love to see some more info on the tiramine compounds if anyone has it.

Lucie said...

I rarely get red wine headaches. However, the few times have always involved central valley CA jug/box wines. One time about 20 years ago,I had an Inglenook Burgundy that gave me such a sudden and sharp headache after one glass that I actually tried again the next night to see if it would happen again... it did in exactly the same way. In my case, that would have been the wine to fully analyze and see if other vines with the same profile did the same thing. But there were/are so many other characteristics about very cheap, hot climate reds that I did not like and so many other choices it was nothing to spend a lot of time over.

Anonymous said...

Histamines; vascular restriction; improper elevage, rushing the wine to bottle. (hence "jug and box wine" headaches). European wines historically were not as ripe and rich in phenolic structure that needed as much resolution as CA wine. There was less sun there and more rain during the growing season to moderate the grape chemistry.

Lisa said...

Late to comment, but WOW, there is so much here to consider!

Your friend's theory on yeast stress is fascinating, and reasonable.

Molybiogeek brings some interesting points of view re. how our use of pesticides and other toxins affects the fruit, throughout the growing and later fermentation cycle.

Then you have the individual -- that great wild card. How have they been sensitized by past exposures or current diet and environment?

You could really develop this topic into a lengthy piece or even a book, I would think.

Evolutionary botany's a hot topic now, y'know?

(Oh, and to 2nd Elizabeth, I'm fine with you being the greatest blogger of all time, too :))

Unknown said...

From this weekend's Wall Street Journal wine column:

"Wine Headache? Chances Are It's Not the Sulfites"


From The Wall Street Journal (October 2000):

"Why Do I Get Headaches From Wine?"