Headache in the bottle

Perhaps it’s because its self-evident, but wine reporting hardly ever discusses the after-effects of indulgence. Of course, it’s clearly not in the interests of an industry that’s promoting the elegance and enhanced life style of wine consumption to focus on the deleterious side of the noble liquid. Usually, this “dark side” relates to alcohol, that sly old joker in the pack.

Alcohol gives, for a while, and then it takes away, for a much longer while. But its dangers are well-known, and people habitually play with its fire – we’ve been drinking alcoholic beverages of some description for millennia. But there are other perils, some of them potentially new, in wine.

Over the summer season, I tend to drink more white wines and especially the fresh whites like Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc and blended whites. On more than one occasion, after having had a half bottle of a fresh white, I wake up the next morning with a sore head and the irritation that the dull ache is a gross mismatch to the relatively moderate amount of wine consumed.
Some white wines do it; others don’t, so clearly some have been made in a way that affronts my system, while others haven’t. First off, it’s notable that this is a problem with fresh, unwooded and newly-released wines, not in wood-matured wines. Since I know that all wines get a sulphur dose prior to bottling, which dose is then absorbed in the wine over time, my first suspicion would be the levels of sulphur in the wines, which can vary significantly.

Sulphur has been used in wine-making for centuries, all the way back to the Romans. It’s a preservative, an anti-oxidant, preventing oxygen from robbing the wine’s flavours. I have never been a sulphur alarmist. I know that products that are high in sulphur can be terrible for asthmatics, but I also know that wine is much lower in sulphur than fruit juices or dried fruit, and no-one talks of a prune headache. Studies show that less than one percent of people actually have a physical intolerance to sulphur.
So that’s probably not it. Another suggestion made to me by a winemaker is that the cause is the histamine level in some wines. As he explained, when the flavours of white wines are “artificially” enhanced through processes like reverse osmosis (yes, it happens here in our wine lands), the histamine levels spike and can cause nasty allergic side effects.

I now think I should keep a diary of offenders. Wouldn’t it be interesting to collate hundreds of drinker’s lists and see whether common culprits begin to emerge?

*There’s a fascinating evening planned at Aubergine restaurant on 9th February. The wines of Loosen, Niepoort and Sadie with a 7 course dinner. Contact [email protected] for more.

5 Replies to “Headache in the bottle”

  1. I just found your blog– and while I’m no expert, I certainly enjoy a glass of wine now and again. But like you, I’ve had headaches a day after drinking what seemed an innocent amount of wine. I thought maybe I hadn’t had enough water that particular day and was a little dehydrated, but maybe I can blame the wine after all. As you suggested, I think I’ll keep a running list of the offending bottles!

  2. Maybe its a good idea to drink lots of water after your drink some wine? I know people do that with beer to help stop a headache.

  3. Hello! Really enjoyed your site.
    A few years ago I was talking at dinner with some Italian winemakers in McLaren Vale, South Australia. I mentioned the headaches and they told me to drink a glass of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water between red wines. They were adamant that it must be sparkling water.

    It seems to work well for me, one glass of wine to one glass of sparkling…all the best,


  4. Hi
    New UV technology from South Africa radically reduces sulphur levels needed to preserve wine. Check out website. Variouis top SA wineries are using the system, such as L’Ormarins, Steenberg, Bouchard Finlayson.

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