Skeptical Wine-ing, Part II: My Sulfite Headache
“I think I’m allergic to sulfites. This wine gave me a headache.”
“Well, how much did you drink?”
“… a bottle?”
It happened so many times during my time as a wine salesperson that it had become one of our most standard jokes, some of us even going so far as to just cut out the second line: “This wine gave me a headache.” ––“Well, you’re not supposed to drink the whole bottle!” Most of the customers grinned sheepishly at this and agreed that maybe they’d overdone it. Yet the next time they shopped for wine, they’d ask for the “sulfite-free wines,” and I had to adopt several meditative breathing practices to avoid barraging them with Well Actuallys. Once in awhile, I’d get one who was sure the headaches were coming from “tannins,” and I’d fight back a Nathan-Lane-in-The-Birdcage shriek: “TANNINS?!” It’s no wonder my manager referred to the topic as “the retailer’s headache.”
The second installment of Skeptical Wine-ing is dedicated to all those customers with headaches.
I’d like to focus this discussion on sulfites, the most commonly implicated culprit, though I’ll touch on other components of wine that have been studied as possible headache triggers. In the wine world, sulfites are commonly found as powder (potassium metabisulfite) and a gas (sulfur dioxide/SO2). By the time I started encountering the Sulfite Fear on a regular basis, I’d already worked for two years in wine cellars. That means, at least once a season, opening up a jar of potassium metabisulfite without remembering to exhale and hold it away, and getting a face full of the stuff as it rises in a cloud from the jar’s lid. What ensues is coughing and sputtering like you just took a sip of beer right before seeing your ex walk into the bar with your arch nemesis. It burns a little, makes you cough; I’m an asthmatic, and it reminds me of a mild, short-lived flare-up. It’s something you try to avoid, especially because it shouldn’t get in your eyes, but unlike many accidents that can happen in a cellar, it’s not a rush-off-to-the-hospital scenario. And the only headaches I’ve ever gotten from sulfites were due to frustration about their bad rap.
Sulfites act as a preservative in a wide variety of common foods, from raisins to shrimp. We add potassium metabisulfite (affectionately known as “meta” or “KMS”) repeatedly during fermentation is to kill off wild yeast strains, preserve color and freshness, and increase shelf life. I make small sulfite additions throughout my winemaking process; if I didn’t, my wine would be even more susceptible than homemade wine already is to spoilage and other annoying problems that ruin a wine’s flavor. I’m glad sulfites exist, to be honest. They’re insurance and protection against many flaws.
Sulfites are also––repeat after me––a natural byproduct of fermentation. We add KMS a few times throughout the winemaking process (about 50 parts per million), but even if we didn’t, SO2 would still be there in trace amounts––about 10 ppm––as a byproduct of yeast metabolism. When you see “no sulfites detected” on a wine label, it means no added sulfites, and the wine will probably have a much shorter shelf life than the average bottle. (That means approach with caution: unless a salesperson has tried it recently and can advise you, you have no way of knowing if it’s still good.)
That said, even mainstream wine doesn’t have a lot of sulfite in it compared to other things we encounter regularly. While the maximum allowed in winemaking is 350 ppm, most commercial wineries, including everywhere I’ve ever worked, keep their additions at around 50 ppm; unless you’ve somehow neglected your wine to the extent that a wild yeast menagerie is setting up shop in your tank, there’s no reason to use anywhere near the upper limit. Dried fruit, by contrast, has over 100 ppm and sometimes as much as 1,000 ppm. The FDA requires that all food containing more than 10 ppm of sulfite must include sulfites on the label.
Now’s a good time to mention that you probably aren’t allergic to sulfites. The incidence of sulfite sensitivity among asthma sufferers is estimated at 3.9 percent, and very rare among the general populace. While a sulfite reaction is not a true allergy, the symptoms are similar: wheezing, shortness of breath, swelling, and/or a rash. So although sulfites create a reaction for a small number of people, they’re not specifically a cause of headaches.
However, if you are diagnosed with a sulfite sensitivity, keep in mind that white wine contains a much higher level of added sulfites than red (if you smell a glass of recently bottled white wine, you might get a little prickle in your nose from lingering sulfites, since there’s typically a final addition at bottling time), and preserved foods an even higher amount. No-added-sulfites wines vary in quality, but I’d like to save that discussion for a forthcoming post on the “natural wine” movement.
Other possible headache causes
Tannin is a compound that comes from grape skins and seeds. When you’re making a red wine, you ferment it with the skins included, rather than pressing the juice out and discarding the skins, so that your wine will have both color and tannin. On the palate, tannin coats your lips and tongue, stains your teeth and lips purple (widely advertising your previous night’s excesses to the world), and leaves a drying, gritty texture in your mouth. When they’re not overdone, tannins give wine heft and “structure” (a wine term for the frame or “muscle” of your red wine), and, to some extent, contribute to a wine’s ability to age. Big tannins (you’ll see them described as anywhere from “supple” to “face ripping”) are your wine’s way of letting you know that it totally blasted its pecs today.
If you’ve ever blamed a headache on tannins, I’d like you to ask yourself if you’ve ever gotten a similar headache from chocolate, walnuts, or tea. All have tannins, yet it’s rare to hear people complain of a “chocolate headache” or “walnut headache.” However, the way tannins bind starches may inhibit serotonin, so if you’re very sensitive to serotonin deficiency, you may get a headache from anything with tannin.
Ultimately, there’s no proven link between any individual component of wine and headaches.
Yet the search isn’t over. Also naturally present in wine, histamines and tyramine have recently been studied as possible headache triggers. If you’re sensitive to tyramine, a chemical compound that can raise blood pressure, then aged cheeses, smoked or cured meats, and citrus fruits would also give you a headache. Histamines have not been shown to cause headaches in the general populace––again, unless you’re histamine-sensitive, in which case your doctor may recommend taking an antihistamine to avoid headaches. Histamines are found in many fermented foods, so if you get headaches from tofu and tempeh as well wine, that could be the culprit.
Migraines, of course, are much more serious than the typical hangover headache. If you get migraines, you know that trying to eliminate variables and figure out your triggers can be challenging. Scientists continue to study the incidence of migraines in conjunction with alcohol and food to try to determine triggers. A 2007 study led by Alessandro Panconesi, the full text of which is available for free, noted, “Recent studies show that alcohol acts as a trigger at least occasionally in a percentage similar to that of the previous studies (37%), but as a frequent/consistent trigger in only 10% of the patients,” adding that variations by country may indicate that cultural drinking habits play a role. Stress drinking, too, has been indicated to relate to an increased frequency of migraines. If you get migraines, it’s possible certain types of alcohol could be a trigger for you, and this is a special medical case on which I as a non-doctor won’t try to advise.
For the rest of us, I hate to be Captain Obvious, but it might just be the alcohol. It’s not necessarily common knowledge that red wine is higher in alcohol, generally speaking, than white. When I drink Australian shiraz, I get flushed and usually experience a headache, but I know it’s not sulfites or tannins due to the rest of my habits. Instead, I suspect it’s the super-ripe, fairly high alcohol content style common among these wines: for someone who typically drinks delicate, cool-climate reds that are 12.5 to 14% alcohol by volume, 16% is a lot, and the jammy sweetness goes to my head pretty fast.
My advice for avoiding a wine headache? Have your wine with food (it’s more fun that way… stay tuned for the next post in this series!) and chug a glass of water with every drink to avoid a hangover. And let’s be clear: if you have more than four or five drinks in a sitting, you’re meeting the standards for a binge drinking session, and I’m not judging you, but your body might. All the no-sulfites-detected wine in the world isn’t going to make your drinking habits more responsible.