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"Crap! What did I do to myself?"

Jul. 11, 2011
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Hangovers -- a hazard of the occupation.

No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar once wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.

But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like John Bonham has been using your forehead for a snare? I've had more than one person say to me, "I like red wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." At the wine salon, two different people told me versions of that very thing. The "red wine headache" is a not uncommon malady. I wanted to see if, as a public service, I could track down the cause. After all, what good is wine if you can't enjoy it.

The first explanation I generally stumble across: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the U.S. I've gone to [insert European country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red wines just lay me out." So, to cover my bases, I decided to go with an imported white wine. I used Il Palazzone 2010 Orvieto Classico Superiore Terre Vineate for this. ($10-13) It's a very flavorful white wine. (Side note: I'm warming more and more to Italian whites these days.) This wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.

I thought I'd solved the mystery. Find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? There are some of them out there. Unfortunately, a little more research turned up one very interesting fact: White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines.

There is such a thing as a sulfite allergy -- it usually causes breathing problems. It's also a pretty rare condition. These are generally people who can't eat dried fruit and the like, since it causes them breathing problems. Why more sulfites in whites? Sulfites are used as preservatives. Red wine has a natural preservative built in, generally. Tannin. Wines that age well are usually tannic, so…maybe avoiding tannic wines might stop the headaches.

For a low tannin wine, I used DuBoeuf Domaine de Grand Croix 2008 Brouilly Beaujolais. ($10-13) This wine is darker in color and somewhat richer than many Beaujolais. It sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of fruit balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices. I made a Thai beef noodle soup with it, and it was very tasty.

Tannins are known to cause a release of serotonin in the brain. High levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in a diet, and no one's ever complained of a tea or chocolate headache. So, back to the drawing board.

A third possibility is histamines. Histamines can trigger an allergic reaction in some people, brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, as well as flushing or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I went with the Martin Codax 2009 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($10-12) The Codax albarino went very well with New Year's dinner for us, and the Tempranillo was also quite positive. The nose was of dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins.The finish is easy and somewhat dry.

Histamines seem to be a somewhat more likely culprit for these headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, defense against histamines may fight off some of the headaches. A person can drink a cup of strong black tea before drinking red wine. A compound in black tea suppresses a histamine response. Aspirin before drinking can also help, although aspirin after the headache kicks in won't help. An antihistamine might stop the headache. However, because of the alcohol, you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl and down a couple of glasses of wine.

If you are one of those unfortunate souls that suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, then you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine -- it's probably the amount of it that you drank that fateful night. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets to help you out. If you determine that it's actually the wine causing your suffering, try the black tea or the aspirin. After all, why should headsplitting pain be a barrier from enjoying the good stuff?


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