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Wine Headaches: Causes and How to Avoid Them

If you’re reading this article on wine headaches, you’re probably sitting there with a throbbing head asking the question “Why do some wines give me a headache and others don’t?”. It probably feels like your brain is being violently thrown around in your skull like a fat piñata at a birthday party… Well, that ‘red wine hangover’ always seems a little darker and moodier than all the other hangovers. And let’s not even talk about those stay-in-a-dark-room-for-12-hours hangovers, where do they come from? Our expert answers these questions!

Jimmy brings kate peck
Image: Kate Peck

Related: Looking for wines that won’t give you a hangover? Check out our favourite non-alcoholic wines here.

Our Expert Answers Everything About Wine Headaches

While we know our way around a bottle of Shiraz like any self-indulgent Aussie, we had to turn to the experts to understand the true cause of wine headaches. Meet Kate Peck. Starting from humble beginnings at MTV, she’s now the host of @ausmotoshow, @auspromx, and @aorc_, but more importantly, Kate has completed her WSET 3 qualification and is an expert wine writer at Delicious Australia.

Wine Headaches at a Glance

Your wine headache questions are answered below.

Now, let’s get into the causes of wine headaches.

Wine headaches
Image: Gaspar Zaldo | Unsplash

Causes of Wine Headaches

Do Sulphites Affect Wine Headaches?

Even our expert Kate thought this was the problem for years, telling Man of Many.

“You buy cheap wine and the hangover seems worse, for some reason I always thought bad wine has more sulphites. This is not always the case. Sulphite-free wine is still very rare as sulphites occur naturally in all wines to some degree, they are also added to wines for antibiotic and preservation purposes.”

“Only a very small percentage of the world’s population is allergic to sulphites, such as asthmatics who have sensitivity or allergy to sulphites. You’ll actually find higher amounts in packaged meats, canned soup and jam, so eat your prosciutto and drink your wine as these are not responsible for your brain belter.”

Sorry natural wine drinkers, you can still get a headache and hangover.

Is the Culprit Histamines?

Kate says we might’ve found the culprit in histamines.

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“Histamines are a naturally occurring by-product of the wine and fermentation process. Some people aren’t able to metabolize histamines and it’s common to have an allergic reaction like facial flushing or a headache.”

“They’re the most likely reason behind that immediate headaches you get from red wine. They occur at a much higher level in red wine than in white wine and champagne, in some cases measuring up to 200% higher than in white wine.”

Sounds like we need to hop on down to the local chemist for a few antihistamines (non-drowsy ones unless you want to fall asleep in your soup) before our next dinner party.

Do Tannins Affect Wine Headaches?

Tannins are the delicious and cheeky character-building delights that occur when grape skins, seeds and stems are involved in the winemaking process. They’re the reason for the drying effect on your tongue and gums after a sip. They help the wine to age, create structure, deliver flavour and are a well-known source of antioxidants. And as far as we’re concerned this is the reason most of us think red wine is healthy.

Our wine expert Kate says this could be a contributing factor, “Red wine is red because of the skin contact, therefore all red wine has tannins. But tannins may not agree with you. Tannin allergies are rare BUT if dark chocolate and black tea (other high-tannin foods) also give you a headache they may be your enemy so stick to white wine.”

Does Alcohol Level Matter?

You may have 3 glasses of wine over dinner. But 3 glasses of a 14% alcohol Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon over an 8% German Kabinett Riesling will make a huge difference in your blood alcohol level and how tipsy you feel, Kate says this could be a contributing factor.

“White wine often contains less alcohol than red and drinking a big beautiful 14% alcohol vino will mean you have consumed close to double the amount of alcohol in the same space of time than an 8% drop has. You will also be further dehydrated.”

What About Sugar?

Cheaper wine contains higher amounts of sugar. The more sugar you consume, the more water your body consumes. Sugar sucks the water from other parts of your body and your brain.. resulting in a smacker headache and Kate says you should avoid this by doing the following.

” stay away from scary/fruity/vintage-looking box wine, sweet and semi-dry wine, and spend a bit more on your dinner party vino as your wine is likely to have less sugar. Mass-produced wine often has more sugar to beef up the flavour and alcohol. And of course, DRINK MORE WATER.”

Related: These are the best wine subscriptions in Australia, according to us.

Jimmy brings kate peck question 2
Image: Kate Peck

Consider the Amount of Wine vs. the Quality of Wine

Whilst you’re delicately removing the cork from a bottle of 1996 Penfolds Grange and contemplating the delicious flavours you are about to share with your most worthy dinner guests, are you drinking 1, 2 or 3 bottles? Every sip is TREASURE and costs a small wad of $50s so you may only be drinking one bottle. Or are you busting out a 20-buck Redman Coonawarra that goes down an easy treat?

It might have even been 2 for 1 at the bottle shop #WINNING, but Kate says the more expensive the wine, the less likely you are going to drink a hell of a lot of it.

“Unless you’re a baller. In which case, you can probably afford a vitamin IV drip the next day so hangovers are a thing of the past. Drink cheap = drink more = endure physical hangover. Drink pricey = remain soberer = endure financial hangover and hopefully a reduced physical hangover,” she said.

We might give them both a crack.

How to Solve a Wine Headache

A number of clinical studies indicate that taking vitamin B6 before and after you drink will help your hangover, so Kate recommends putting that at the top of your list. You may also want to mix up your reds. Lighter reds like Gamay or Pinot Noir have fewer tannins, Sangiovese and Tempranillo are moderately tannic and Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo are high.

Try an anti-histamine before you head out. And pay attention to the level of alcohol in your wine, it will be written on the bottle. Spend a little more on your drop, if the wine has less sugar you might feel better the next day. One thing for sure, one water, one wine is always a good place to start and perhaps slow down after you have polished off your first bottle solo.

Wine Headache FAQs

Why do I get a headache from cheap wine?

Cheap wines contain higher amounts of sugar. Sugar takes the water from other parts of your body and brain, resulting in a headache.

Do sulphites in wine give you a headache?

Sulphites in wine are not usually the cause of headaches. While some people have an allergy to sulphites, headaches are not a common allergic reaction.

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Ben McKimm
Journalist - Automotive & Tech

Ben McKimm

Ben lives in Sydney, Australia. He has a Bachelor's Degree (Media, Technology and the Law) from Macquarie University (2020). Outside of his studies, he has spent the last decade heavily involved in the automotive, technology and fashion world. Turning his passion and expertise into a Journalist position at Man of Many where he continues to write about everything that interests the modern man. Conducting car reviews on both the road and track, hands-on reviews of cutting-edge technology and employing a vast knowledge in the space of fashion and sneakers to his work. One day he hopes to own his own brand.