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WHY WINE IS GIVING YOU HEADACHES

wine headaches

One of the main questions I get asked when I mention my profession is: why do I get headaches from drinking white or red wine? Before I have a chance to answer, the asker generally presents me with a few explanations they have read or heard about. These theories are often misguided. So I decided to review current literature and let you know why wine is giving you headaches.

***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a three minute YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series. 

Sulphites

Let’s start with sulphites. Sulphites are a group of sulphur-based chemicals, which include sulphur dioxide. They are a naturally occurring by-product of wine fermentation. Sulphur is also added to many wines over the course of the winemaking process as it is a highly effective preservative against spoilage and oxidation. For these same reasons, sulphur is an ingredient in many processed foods like fruit juice, jams, flavoured yoghurts, pickled foods, mustard and dried fruits.

The European Union legal limit for total sulphur dioxide at bottling ranges between 100mg/L for organic dry red wines and 200mg/L for non-organic dry white wines – with all other organic and non organic dry wines falling between these limits. These are the maximum amounts, and most conscience winemakers are using far less nowadays. The majority of health professionals agree that, at these levels, the sulphites in wine do not cause headaches. Dried apricots can contain up to five times the sulphite levels of wine, and yet you rarely hear anyone insisting that dried fruit gives them migraines. It has been found that in roughly 1% of the population, generally people already suffering from issues like asthma, sulphites can cause breathing problems, but not headaches.

The tannin in red wine acts as an anti-oxidant, meaning that red wines generally contain less sulphur than white wines. If your wine headaches come primarily from red wine consumption, then there is even less likelihood that sulphites are to blame.

So why is wine giving you headaches? Several culprits have been identified by researchers:

Alcohol

People never seem to want to hear this but alcohol is often the problem. Many types of headaches are caused by simple dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee more frequently. This causes the body to lose more fluid and become dehydrated. Happily, there are lots of simple ways to avoid alcohol-related dehydration:

  1. Drink moderately (health officials advise limiting consumption to 1 – 2 glasses of 120 – 150mL per day, depending on sex, weight, and tolerance)
  2. Try switching to lower alcohol wines
  3. Avoid sweeter wine styles (the combination of sugar and alcohol in wine is said to dehydrate the body even faster)
  4. Drink lots of water while drinking wine to make up for the fluid loss (a good rule of thumb is one glass of water for each glass of wine)
  5. Never drink on an empty stomach (food will help dilute the effects of alcohol)

Histamines

Histamines are compounds found on grape skins. These same chemicals are released by the body during an allergic reaction and cause symptoms like headaches, a runny nose, or dry, irritated eyes. Red wines tend to have have higher histamine concentrations as they are fermented with their grape skins. White wines are pressed off their skins before fermentation. So if red wines make your head throb, histamines might be to blame.

Why would histamines bother some wine drinkers and not others? Because certain people lack sufficient levels of an enzyme that breaks down histamines in the small intestines. If histamine levels are too high in the blood, they can dilate blood vessels and cause headaches. If you suspect that you might fall into this category, you could try taking a histamine blocker before a glass of red wine that has previously caused you a headache. Obviously, this cannot be your long term solution for continued red wine consumption however!

Tannins

Tannins are also naturally occurring compounds, or plant chemicals, found on grape skins, stems and seeds. Just like histamines, they are present in far higher concentrations in red wine. Tannins have been found to release serotonin in the brain. At low levels serotonin gives a sense of well-being and happiness. However, at high levels, it can cause some people to develop headaches.

Highly tannic wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Nebbiolo, have a very firm, astringent texture on the palate. If you get the sense that these types of wines are causing you headaches try switching to white wine, or lower tannin reds like Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache. Keep in mind though that many beverages and foods,  like strong black tea and dark chocolate, are high in tannin. If these things don’t bother you…tannin is probably not your issue.

The Good News!

You don’t need to stop drinking wine altogether just because you are getting headaches. There are thousands of different wines and wine styles out there. It is unlikely that they will all give you a headache. Use the tips I mentioned above, and when you try a new wine, start with a small amount then wait to see the effects (usually within 20 minutes or so) and continue – with moderation – if the headache doesn’t come.

Education Life

Refreshing Wines to Beat the Heat

refreshing wine low alcohol

Remember when you were a kid, and your mum would help you make lemonade on a hot day? You would get a little table ready with your cups, your pitcher of juice, and your home-made “Lemonade for sale” sign.

The adults would dutifully line up, buy a cup, and make jokes about how it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

Stepping out into the searing heat that is Montréal this week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some street omelettes forming…that is, if it weren’t for the tropical humidity.

So, for those of us who have moved on from lemonade, what wine should we drink to beat the heat?

Lemonade is high in acidity, and generally served ice cold. This makes it thirst-quenching, with a cooling sensation. When choosing wine for a hot summer’s eve, this same refreshing quality is a must.

Look for wines that can be chilled down to 8 to 12°c. These tend to be lighter in body, and predominantly white or rosé in colour. Combine this with crisp, lively acidity, and tart fruit flavours, and your palate is sure to feel invigorated.

Sound good? Not so fast…

Our bodies produce sweat to cool us down in hot weather. This process dehydrates us, so we need to drink more. Alcohol is a diuretic. It makes us ***ahem*** expel more liquid than we are taking in. Drinking lots of alcohol in hot weather is never a good idea.

Still want that glass of wine? I know I do. Lucky for us, there are lots of fantastic grapes/ regions producing lower alcohol wines. Here are but a few:

Vinho Verde

This wine style hails from the cool, rainy northwest of Portugal. While its literal translation is “green wine”, the name refers to the youthfulness of the wine, rather than its colour. Vinho Verde is bottled a mere 3 to 6 months after harvest.

Vinho Verde can come in white, rosé, and red. The most popular exported style is white wine. It is made from a blend of indigenous white grapes including Alvarinho, Avesso, Azal, Arinto, Loureiro, and Trajadura. Vinho Verde generally has subtle effervescence, tangy acidity, a light, delicate structure, and low 8.5 to 11% alcohol. Aromas and flavours are usually quite restrained, ranging from marginally ripe stone and citrus fruit, to floral, and sometimes mineral nuances.

Value to Premium Recommendations: Aveleda (for good value), Quintas de Melgaco (Astronauta series, for high quality)

Niagara Riesling

German Riesling is an obvious choice for high quality, lower alcohol white wine with racy acidity. To read more about this, click here.

But perhaps you don’t think of the Niagara region when you reach for a Riesling? This is a situation which needs to be rectified…immediately. Niagara produces some beautifully precise, bracing, light-bodied Rieslings in styles ranging from bone-dry to subtly sweet. Highly aromatic, brimming with lemon, apple, peach, and sometimes tropical fruit notes, these wines are dangerously drinkable. 10.5 to 12% alcohol is the norm.

Value to Premium Recommendations: Cave Spring, Tawse, Henry of Pelham

Prosecco

If it’s bubbles you are after, Prosecco often sits at a modest 11%. Made from the Glera grape in the north east of Italy, this frothy semi-sparkling wine is softer on the palate than Champagne or Cava. It boasts fresh acidity, pretty pear, peach, and floral aromas, and a very light palate profile.

Be sure to read the label before picking up a bottle though, as the term “dry” is actually (confusingly) used for the sweeter styles. If you want something literally dry, look for the word “brut”. A subtly sweet style will be called “extra dry”.

Brut to Dry Recommendations: Bisol “Crede” (brut), Adami “Vigneto Giardino Rive di Colbertaldo” (extra-dry), Marsuret “II Soler” (dry)

What about Rosé?

My favourite rosé wines are generally from the sunny south of France or similarly hot regions. Alcohol tends to creep up to 13% or higher here. I would be lying if I said this stopped me, but I definitely try to keep better track of consumption when imbibing the pink stuff.

Value Recommendations: Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Rosé (great value, SAQ Dépôt), Château de Nages Vieilles VignesS. de la Sablette Côtes de Provence 

It’s Gotta be Red?

For you red wine lovers out there, lighter styles (~12%) with vibrant acidity, and mouthwatering fruit flavours can be found in Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Pinot Noir. The Loire Valley and Niagara make great cool climate examples. Cabernet Franc has lovely raspberry fruit flavours, but can be quite vegetal (leafy, bell pepper notes). This quality can be very attractive, when amply balanced by fruit.

Beaujolais is king for the Gamay grape. Gamay features pretty red berry and violet notes. It ranges from light bodied, with silky tannins, to grippy and powerful. For the lightest styles of Beaujolais, look to the villages of Brouilly, Chiroubles, or Fleurie.

Cool styles of Pinot Noir can be found around the globe. Burgundy is the best known and arguably the finest region, but prices are creeping ever upward. For best value options, look for the generic, region-wide designation of Bourgogne AOC, or southern Burgundian village wines from Mercurey, Rully, or Givry.

All three grapes can be served quite cool, at around 14 to 16°c.

Recommendations: Agnes Paquet Bourgogne RougeDomaine Michel Juillot Bourgogne Rouge, Thierry Germain “Domaine Roches Neuves” Saumur-Champigny, Bernard Baudry Chinon.

Parting Thoughts

A glass of wine, a glass of water. This golden rule has always stood me in good stead on nights where temptation gets the better of moderation.

Santé!