In the news this week my attention was drawn to a Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague on her research into why red wine gives some people a headache.
This is a question I often get asked at our wine tastings and I’m sorry to say I don’t really have the answer. Many people report getting headaches from red wine specifically, so much so it has its own acronym …RWH, and, I was amazed to find, its own Wikipedia page.
Lettie consulted a few experts including Dr Alexander Mauskop, Director of the Headache Centre in New York, himself an occasional sufferer of Red Wine Headache.
The first thing to say is, of course, over indulgence will cause headaches, that’s a hangover, and if you suffer this regularly you really should consider reducing your consumption.
Many people report headaches even after a glass or just a few sips of red wine.
Dehydration is often cited as a cause of headaches.
Alcohol is a diuretic, it makes you lose water but this is true for all alcoholic drinks so wouldn’t explain why red wine specifically would be the culprit.
Another suspect often selected from the line-up is sulphites.
Sulphites can cause an allergenic reaction which is why products such as wine that contain sulphites must be identified on the label.
Sulphite allergy is very rare and in any case sulphites are present in all alcoholic beverages since they are a by-product of fermentation.
Sulphites are used in other food products also and I understand that a sealed salad tray from the chilled counter will contain more sulphites than a bottle of wine.
So the evidence seems weighed against sulphites being the cause of our headaches.
So what differs red wine from other alcohol products and specifically white wine?
The key part of the process is that the skins are present during fermentation, giving the wine its colour and most noticeably on the palate the drying sensation created by tannins.
Here we have introduced phenols into the equation and also a relatively higher level of histamines.
Perhaps the cause lies here but, as Lettie quotes, the experts urge caution for clinging to this as an explanation as there seems to be no correlation between likelihood of headache induction and a wine’s level of phenols or histamine (some grape varieties have thicker skins thus creating wines with high histamine and phenol levels, while some wine production techniques extract more from the skins than others).
Nevertheless some red wine drinkers are turning to antihistamines to cure their sorrow, while others ensure they drink water alongside red wine to stave off dehydration (not a bad idea anyway).
The upshot is, there isn’t enough research to identify the cause of RWH.
The good news is a project is about to start under the auspices of Dr Morris Levin University of California Headache Centre.
He is looking for 50 participants to take part in the study, but hurry, I think there is already a waiting list.