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Wine Headaches

Rebel Rose

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We covered this topic briefly in our threads:

Wine 101: Sulfites, Nothing to sneeze at!



But it seems this topic deserves its own discussion . . . there are a lot of theories, but little to no proof as to what causes wine headaches, as demonstrated in today's article in the Austin American-Statesman: Experts differ on the cause of headaches from red wine

One theory: Size of winery linked to high histamines

At the University of California at Davis, Linda Bisson is a microbiologist whose specialty is the chemistry of wine. Bisson said she's pretty sure she knows what causes Red Wine Headache Syndrome.

"The largest group of people who get headaches is because they're sensitive to histamines," she said.

Bisson said the main source of histamines in wine is malolactic "fermentation," a bacterial process that converts tart malic acid to softer-tasting lactic acid. It's an essential step in the making of all red wines. But only a few white wines undergo malolactic fermentation. Histamines are a byproduct of "malo," as winemakers call it.

According to Bisson, there's a difference between naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria and purified strains produced in laboratories for big commercial wineries. To wit: The natural strains throw off higher levels of histamines than the laboratory strains.

Frankly, this theory doesn't hold water for me at all, since Bisson is clearly out of touch with modern winemaking on any scale. ML bacteria is often started under a heat lamp by any size winery, large or small. It's easy to do, and it ensures that all your barrels get started at more or less the same time.

But the next expert also disagrees with Bisson's theory:

"The wine guys say it's histamines — except when you look at a variety of foods and beverages, red wine isn't particularly high," he said.

Both eggplant and some fish have higher concentrations of histamines, Freitag said, but "no one ever talks about eggplant headache syndrome."

Freitag, who has suffered from red wine headaches himself, suspects the cause might be flavenoid compounds found in the skins and seeds of the grapes. Red wines remain in contact with the skins and seeds for weeks after the grapes are crushed while white wine grapes are pressed immediately. Thus only red wines contain significant levels of flavenoids.

Freitag has one other theory: Most of the best red wines are aged in oak barrels that have been lightly charred to enhance the wine. The chemistry of the wood, more than the wine, might be causing your headache.

And part of the compounds found in winegrape skins and seeds are tannins--which brings us back to the discussions we had here on Tannins and Sulfites.


Mary Baker

Solid Communications

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And I had always been told that histamines were naturally occuring in the vineyard and came right thru the fermentation orocess...so, I will defer to Rebel Rose who is the proffessional...

And, who I might add, has written some very clear and informative articles on the wine making process in the past.

Ted Task

Rockville, MD

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"Both eggplant and some fish have higher concentrations of histamines, Freitag said, but "no one ever talks about eggplant headache syndrome."

My guess is that far more people drink red wine on a regular basis than eat eggplant! One thing to remember is that eggplant is part of the nightshade family, which many people have problems with as well (don't know if that problem is histamines).

“"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.”

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