Sulfites, Red Wine Headaches & Histamines

Sulfites, Red Wine Headaches & Histamines

A frequent question in our tasting room is if we have sulfites in our wine.  This common question is asked due to the theory of headaches and red wine.    We thought we would share a little wine research about “Red Wine Headaches”.

What are sulfites?  Sulfites are a term for sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative that’s widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. SO2 plays an important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine’s freshness.

Often times people think that red wine is the culprit for “Red Wine Headaches”, as red wines are thought to have more sulfites than white wine.  But actually it is the opposite.  Red wines contain tannin, which helps stabilize the wine.  Therefore, less SO2 is needed to protect the wine during winemaking.  You might be surprised to learn that wine contains about ten times less sulfites than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 parts per million (ppm). So, if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have any adverse reaction you are probably not allergic to sulfites. Any wine containing more than 10ppm of sulfur dioxide must bear the famous ‘contains sulfites’ mention somewhere on the label. This is why you see it on almost any label or back label.

Here at Del Rio we range from 60ppm to 140ppm of total SO2.  This would depend on kind of wine and level of residual sugar.  Red wine is typically in the lower range and white would be a bit higher, while sweeter wines would have the most.

Apart from the potential allergic reaction, many people are against sulfites, because they feel they are an unnatural addition when making wine. While that view is valid, it is important to remember that sulfites are also a natural by-product of the yeast metabolism during fermentation. So, even if you do not add any additional SO2, your wine will still contain sulfites.

We must then ask the bigger question – Why do people get “Red Wine Headaches?”  A lot of research suggests that the headache culprits might be histamine and tyramine, other chemical substances that are naturally present in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels and tyramine first constricts then dilates blood vessels.

People who most often have trouble with histamine in wine are those who lack an enzyme in their intestines that can help them metabolize histamine. Tyramine, meantime, can cause your blood pressure to rise, and that triggers headaches in some people too. These same people might get headaches from aged cheeses, smoked or cured meats, and citrus fruits. Red wine has 20–200% more histamine than white wine, and those who are allergic to it may be deficient in the enzyme diamine oxidase.

May all your wine drinking be headache free.