Having the opportunity to work closely with wine producers, I see the myriad of chemicals at their disposal and was always curious how this cocktail of ingredients (or lack thereof) made a dependable bottle of delicious wine. There are ingredients like bentonite that clarify white grape juice and prevent spoilage during fermentation or malolactic acid that mellows out the tannins and acids in red wine giving it a smoother texture. Winemakers have thousands of different yeast strands to choose from if they so desire with a hundred different fermentation methods to use. One thing usually never changes though: sulfites.
What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites have been used in production as a preservative for thousands of years. A chemical called sulfur (also used for mineral extraction and water processing) is utilized in winemaking to stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing. Sulfur addition is a popular and vital step in the winemaking process to ensure the disruption of fermentation while adding stability and shelf life to the wine. Sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation so there will almost always be at least small amounts of sulfites found in wine.
Video Explanation of Sulfites Here
According to the FDA, 1 in 100 people has a sensitivity to sulfites, leading the FDA to make it law that wine labels include sulfite amounts found in the wine.
Chemicals in wine that cause headaches
While sulfites aren’t the true problem here there are a couple of chemical culprits in wine that are proven to be headache-inducing: Tannins and Histamines. A study was done by Harvard University in getting down to the bottom of what actually causes these “sulfite” headaches that people are so worried about. In fact, it has a lot to do with the natural tannins, mostly in red grapes, which spur the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin which can cause headaches in high amounts. It could also have a lot to do with another grape skin dweller called histamines. Too many histamines could dilate the blood vessels in the brain which can cause headaches.
Wines that you can drink more of
The only thing worse than having to sacrifice one of your favorite bottles of wine because of nagging headaches is not finding a good substitute! Wines that have a lot of these two chemicals in them (reds), are high in sugar and alcohol or are made fast and for the masses, try and stay away from them if you want to avoid headaches. Find a reliable producer who makes light-bodied wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Alberino, or Lambrusco with relatively low sugar and tannins.
Science is key when explaining wine’s role in headaches, however, there may be more external factors at play than we’d like to admit. Wine is a living, breathing entity directly curated from Earth’s fruits and labor while undergoing fascinating changes through fermentation; there’s a lot to unpack in that bottle! If all else fails in stopping these evil headaches once and for all, try and drink on a full stomach and enjoy at a safe and comfortable pace. Easier said than done sometimes, I know! Cheers and safe drinking.
What’s better than great wine and artisanal pizza?
The New York Times described Ridge Monte Bello as “America’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon.”
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