Wine headaches: That glass of Cabernet at lunch may hurt

Winemakers are keeping quiet about a potential new remedy to 'red-wine headache'.


(Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine LLC)

What is it about wine, especially red wine, that makes as much as a third of humanity unable to drink it without getting a headache? We’re not talking about a hangover here. Drinking just one glass can trigger immediate discomfort, raise blood pressure or morph into a days-long migraine. Until the 1980s, red wine headache, as the condition has become known, was put down to alcohol intolerance—yet those afflicted could consume beer or spirits without feeling pain. Perhaps the greatest injustice is that it even affects people who love the taste of wine and the way it pairs with food.

No one knows for sure whether this was always the case or whether the condition arose with industrial winemaking. And the discussion, rumours and outright myths circulating on the Internet have proven as much a hindrance as a help to the potential remedy recently developed in Canada.

A decade ago, the web chatter around wine headaches focused on sulphites, a form of sulphur dioxide that occurs naturally in wine but is often added as a preservative. In 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered wineries to label vintages containing more than 10 parts per million in sulphites because of the potentially fatal reaction some asthmatics had to the substance. But sulphite allergy, subsequent research has confirmed, affects at most 1% of the population. Since then, the hunt for the rogue agent has focused on glycoproteins (part of the grape vine’s immune system); tannins; substances produced during fermentation such as histamine, seratonin and tyramine; and pesticide residues (though organic wines have been found no less likely to generate a reaction).

Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Wine Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, is pretty sure he’s figured out the problem, though the success of his solution hinges on the vicissitudes of the marketplace. He himself suffers from red wine headaches, which he believes stem from the way most reds and some whites, such as Chardonnay, are fermented. These wines get fermented first with a wine yeast (the alcoholic fermentation) and, second, with malolactic bacteria that turn malic acid to lactic acid, mellowing the taste and helping to prevent buildup of carbon dioxide in the bottle.

These bacteria have another effect, though: they convert some of the amino acids in the grape into biogenic amines—histamine and tyramine. “These are neurotoxins,” van Vuuren says, and are linked to most allergic reactions. He has no doubt they are responsible for the vast majority of wine intolerances.

Van Vuuren and his team went further to engineer a strain of yeast that will perform both the alcoholic and the malolactic fermentation at once. Licensed to French-based Lesaffre Yeast Corp., the ML01 yeast is approved for sale by the FDA, Health Canada and other national regulators.

Now, you’d think a technology that could enlarge the market by as much as 50% would be widely adopted and promoted by wine producers. Instead, the wineries that do use it are quiet about it, because the yeast developed at UBC was genetically modified. As a result, it’s all but impossible for susceptible consumers to choose wines that won’t give them a migraine.

“Winemaking is about tradition, not new technologies,” says one Canadian winemaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He claims not to know of any colleagues using ML01, for explanation pointing to the many winemaking innovations that flopped, from synthetic corks to macro-oxidization. “I’ll wait and see what happens before I even touch it.”

Van Vuuren attributes the industry’s hesitation to the influence of the anti-GMO movement. Still, he hopes in the future the public will grow more aware of the health benefits of genetic engineering. “I’m pretty sure 20 years from now it’ll all be over,” he says of the current controversy.

Until then, the best advice for sufferers of red wine headaches is to keep a record of your reactions to different wines, and not buy or order ones that make you feel ill. Rieslings and Sauvignon blancs seldom undergo malolactic fermentation and should be OK for most people, van Vuuren says, as should old wines whose bioamines have degraded. Eating food and drinking water with the wine may lessen the symptoms, too.

Some physicians suggest taking antihistamines, such as Claritin, or common painkillers such as ibuprofen or Aspirin when you imbibe, but check with your doctor. As van Vuuren says, “I don’t want to enjoy a glass of wine and then have to take a pill afterward.”