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Red Wine Gives Me a Headache

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Three years ago, I used my first article of the new year to vent a little bit about some wine stuff that I thought needed some attention. It was based on my personal observations of issues that I found came up regularly when people discussed their wine experiences.

Well, here I go again.

Please don’t think that I’m just preaching or complaining; my intention is to hopefully shed some light on a couple of points that will help you to get more pleasure out of your wine experiences. There are a few items from that February 2012 article that bear repeating, as well as something that is a topic of much discussion and misinformation.

Try Something New

I say that all of the time. I challenged everyone to try a new wine each month back in 2012. Did anyone check out an Arneis from Italy? How about a Gruner Veltliner from Austria? Last week, I tasted a Mencia from the wine region of Ribeira Sacra in northwest Spain. It was delicious, loaded with lots of dark berry fruit and smooth as silk.

I also recently tasted a red wine from the northern Italian region of Alto-Adige made from Schiava grapes. This was light-bodied with nice red berry fruit, a little smoke and good acidity. I tried it with a slight chill on it, and know it will be the perfect summer red.

The Gruner Veltliner and Mencia wines shouldn’t be too difficult to find, but the Arneis and the Schiava might be more of a challenge. As long as we as consumers are satisfied with the same old brands and reluctant to try anything different, retailers will be reluctant to stock anything but the usual Chards, Cabs and Pinot Grigios that they know will sell themselves.

My point? Go out on a limb, be adventurous and, most of all, have some fun. Try wines made from grapes you’ve never heard of or wines from regions in other parts of the world.

Again, the Ratings Thing

I realize that wines that receive 90-plus point ratings will sell almost sight unseen. There are many consumers who will trust the ratings over their own palates when making a buying decision. This fact isn’t lost on retailers. Many will stock their stores with ratings in mind, rather than take a chance on something new and different.

I also realize that it’s natural for us to want some guarantees in life, but the ratings may not always be the last word.

Many of the “raters” said that the 2011 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) wines were disappointing when compared to the 2010 and 2012 vintages, and rated them as such. Because of this, many CDP fans only wanted the 2010s and 2012s. Well, recently a couple of the “raters” re-tasted the 2011’s and said they had been wrong about them and rated them higher. So what do we do now … run out and buy up the 2011s?

I have tasted 2010, 2011 and 2012 CDPs. The vintages are all very different in style, but which one is the best? That depends on whether you like big and fruity, balanced and traditional or whatever.

Don’t go by what the ratings say you should like; trust your own palate.

Pain on the Brain

Almost daily, I hear, “I can’t drink red wine because it gives me a headache.” Before I tackle this one, I must point out that I am not a doctor or a scientist, but I have spent a considerable amount of time researching this subject since it comes up so often. It even has the label of RWH Syndrome (which stands for, of course, red wine headache).

I must also point out that no one has done a comprehensive, in-depth study of this to get the definitive answer. And there are many differing and conflicting opinions about the cause.

First of all, it is not the sulfites. Sulfites occur naturally in all wine, and winemakers use small amounts of sulfites during the production process. Back in the 1980s, the Food & Drug Administration found that about 1% of the population had a sensitivity to sulfites and required that wines containing more than 20 ppm (parts per million) must include “Contains Sulfites” on the label.

Red wines have between 50 and 350 ppm and white wines contain even more, between 250 and 450 ppm, because of their sensitivity to heat and light that causes discoloration. There are more sulfites in a single dried apricot than in a glass of wine. And on top of that, people with sensitivity to sulfites might suffer from respiratory problems, not headaches.

So if it’s not sulfites, what is it? Following are a few possible causes to consider before you give up on red wine completely, because that would be a real shame.

  • You might be drinking inexpensive, large production wines. Some producers use additives to produce more alcohol and to improve the taste. They are more concerned with quantity than quality.
  • You might be dehydrated. Try drinking a glass of water before drinking wine and make sure that your water glass is handy when having wine with dinner.
  • It might be the alcohol content or you’ve had a little more to drink than you realize. With modern production methods and the use of cultured yeasts, some wines these days boast alcohol contents of 14.5%, 15% and even16%. You may be getting more alcohol than you think.
  • You might be sensitive to the histamines or the tyramines contained in wine. Foods that have been fermented or aged have higher levels of histamines and tyramines. In addition to wines, aged cheeses, cured meats, soy sauce and yogurt also have increased levels. It’s been suggested that maybe a pain reliever or antihistamine before drinking would help; however, I strongly recommend that you consult with your doctor before taking any pills when you’re drinking wine.
  • It might be that you are sensitive to the higher level of tannins in red wine. The problem with this theory is that there are also high levels of tannins in tea, chocolate and other foods. If those don’t bother you, tannins might not be the culprit.

I’ve given you a few things to think about as we begin another year of sipping and hope that you take some of it to heart. If any of this helps you to enjoy wine half as much as I do, I’ve done my job. Cheers.

Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at sippingwithsam@verizon.net.