August 10, 2015


Why does wine give me a headache? Why does my tongue tickle when I drink red wine? These are a couple of the questions that I hear over and over. When I used to work at a wine bar, I heard the “headache” question incessantly. I am lucky enough to not have these #WINEPROBLEMS, but I want to address them for those that do.

First of all, let’s be real, most “wine” headaches are really just alcohol headaches. As we all know, our body has to metabolize alcohol. We feel great when we drink in moderation, make sure that we consume enough water, and eat a full meal. There is nothing better than waking up after a night out and feeling great. You were smart….like a real adult...balanced your alcohol consumption with water and did not make the novice mistake of forgetting to eat. <high five!> I chuckle inside when I hear someone tell me that wine gives them a headache. I ask how much they drank and they’ll say something like “oh, I had 5 glasses, but I drank a lot of water”. Ok, so you drank an entire bottle of wine to yourself and you wonder why the hell you have a headache?? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to come to the conclusion that you drank too much. I’d say the good majority of people who say “wine gives me a headache”, were really just drunk and have a hangover or an overhang (my term for the hangover before you even go to bed).

Aside from that, here are some other reasons why wine MIGHT make you feel crappy.

Wine is an allergen. An allergen is a substance that can cause allergic reactions. The big 8 in the food allergy world include: wheat, soy, nuts, shellfish, fish, peanuts, eggs, and milk. However, virtually any ingested substance is capable of giving someone an allergic reaction, and that includes wine. In conjunction with allergens, we discuss histamines. A histamine is a chemical found naturally in foods that can be released when you have an allergic reaction and can cause itching, sneezing, or wheezing. If you get an itchy throat or a tickle in your throat when you drink wine, this could be why.  It (usually) doesn’t mean that you can’t drink wine at all, just that you need to consume in moderation. Also, pay attention to what type of wine gives you this reaction. It may be just red wines.

Another culprit for headaches from wine can be tannins. Tannins are found in the skin, seeds, and stalks of a grape as well as in the oak barrels used during fermentation and maturation. Tannins are what gives body and color to a red wine. Note that there are no tannins in white wines (unless they were aged in oak). A tannic wine gives you a drying sensation in your mouth. Another way to “feel” tannins is to do this fun experiment with tea. Brew a cup of black tea. Take the tea bag out of the cup and let it cool a bit. Insert the tea bag in your mouth and push down a bit and remove the bag. Your mouth should feel VERY dry as if the saliva was sucked out of it. THAT drying sensation that you feel are tannins. Brewed tea leaves are VERY high in tannins.

Sugar. We all remember being inexperienced drinkers when we were young and throwing back all those nasty sugary drinks in massive quantities. The combination of too much alcohol and sugar can definitely give you a headache. So maybe you’re new to drinking wines and only like sweet wines (i.e. a sweet Riesling, Moscato, or other dessert wines)? You can bet your bottom dollar that if you drink a lot of sweet wine, a headache is in your future. Also, very inexpensive table wines tend to have additional sugar and other additives added to the wine. This is both to please the “sweet” palate of many Americans and also to aid in fermentation if inferior grapes were used to begin with.  So if you find yourself drinking a lot of really, really cheap wines (i.e. Franzia boxed wine, jug wines, $5 and under wines, etc), chances are there is a decent amount of residual sugar (and other gross crappy additives) in those wines, which could be causing your headaches.

Lastly, I’d like to debunk the myth that sulfites can cause headaches. Yes, sulfites are an allergen (refer to the allergen paragraph above) and can cause a stuffy nose and allergic reactions, BUT, they don’t cause headaches. ALL wines contain sulfites, whether they are naturally occurring, added manually, or both. And for the record, a can of tuna or a package of dried fruit contains a lot more sulfites than are in a bottle of wine. If you are a severe asthmatic, then you need to be careful with sulfites, but for the rest of us, sulfites are rarely a problem.

Hopefully this post helped to answer some of your questions about #WINEPROBLEMS. Remember, drink in moderation and drink a glass of water in between every glass of wine. Yes, you’ll go to the bathroom a lot, but you’ll feel good and have no headache or hangover!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you are looking to Drink Better and Up Your Wine Game, check out my latest virtual wine tasting offerings, including both public and private wine tasting events. For virtual events, my tastings feature a small-format wine tasting set sent to each attendee for a shared tasting experience. What can you expect from a Virtual Vino event? Fun, approachable, interactive, and unpretentious wine education as we share smiles and wine!
Brianne Cohen is a certified sommelier based out of Los Angeles, California.
She has been producing events and weddings for over 10 years in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and also offers her services as a wine educator, writer, and consultant to inspire people of all ages.

Brianne completed the entire curriculum with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and traveled to London in order to receive her Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. Most recently Brianne judged at the International Wine & Spirits Competition and the International Wine Challenge in London.
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