If anything is certain about wine headaches it is that many triggers exist. For any given individual, one cause or a combination of causes may spark head pain. For migraine sufferers, the alcohol itself is often the headache culprit. In people who are born with certain genetic profiles, the wine headache – often accompanied by flushing and other symptoms – could be related to the absence of or a variation in the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) that helps the body metabolize alcohol. As a result, people with migraines or defects in ADH tend to self-limit or abandon their alcohol or wine intake, to avoid the near-certain headache that ensues.
But what about everyone else? As explored in the previous post, biogenic amines (BA) are some of the main headache offenders under scrutiny, the best known being histamine and tyramine.
The European Union is taking steps to heighten awareness of biogenic amine sensitivity, including restrictions on the BA content of wines. In the United States, outside of the BA content in foods for which tolerance limits do exist, no such consumer protections are yet in place regarding wine or other alcoholic beverages.
Rather, U.S. wine labels inform American consumers when wines contain sulfites in amounts greater than 10 parts per million (ppm), in part leading many headache sufferers to incorrectly conclude that sulfites cause wine headaches. Unlike sulfites, which can cause mild-to-severe allergic reactions that generally do not include headache in about 1% of people, no labeling requirements apply to wine biogenic amine content.
Without this information, what can the average headache-prone wine consumer do to limit their intake of wines that are likely to have higher biogenic amine content? Is it even possible for the average wine consumer to choose wines that are likely to be lower in biogenic amines, even when that information is not on the label?
The answer is a rousing maybe. Because the BA concentration in a given wine can vary widely according to factors such as the vintage, the type of fermentation yeast used, lees aging, whether the wine underwent malolactic fermentation (MLF) and if so, the type of lactic bacteria used, the wine’s aging and storage and a host of vitivinicultural practices that take place in the vineyard and in the winery itself, it can be daunting if not impossible to reliably assess a given wine’s biogenic amine content vis-à-vis its headache potential from one bottle to another. Further, because different individuals may have differing sensitivity levels to biogenic amines, it is difficult to predict the chances of the same wine precipitating headaches in different individuals.
However, if science continues to finger biogenic amines as likely and common headache triggers, expect some help for consumers in the future regarding labeling or adaptive vitivinicultural practices.
Meanwhile, here are a few types of wines that could be less likely to contain higher biogenic amine levels for wine headache-prone consumers who hope to limit their BA exposure from wine, given what's currently known about the BA content of wines:
Choose young, fruity and aromatic white wines that have not undergone malolactic fermentation. Whites that typically undergo MLF include Chardonnay and some other whites that have a rounder, fuller texture such as some Pinot Gris (but not usually Italian-style Pinot Grigio) and Pinot Blanc. Consider Albariño, most Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, among others, instead.
Avoid wines that have been aged sur lie. Examples of some wines that are aged on their lees for added softness or richness include Champagne and other sparkling wines, Muscadet, Chardonnay, white Burgundy (such as Montrachet) and infrequently, Sauvignon Blanc.
Experiment with red wines that are lighter in style or those from cooler climates. Examples to try include Northern Italian reds (except for Valpolicella and other ripasso-styled reds) and Chilean or New Zealand Pinot Noir.
Try red wines from producers who use bentonite for fining. This tip takes a bit of homework. Fining is a late step in winemaking just prior to bottling that removes excess proteins that may cloud a wine. Look up the technical sheet on the winery website of some of your favorite producers to find this information, which won't be on the label. Bentonite-fined red wines, most of which have undergone MLF, tend to have lower BA content.
Tempt fate with a rosé. Provided your wine headaches are not debilitating or disabling, you might want to try your luck with a young rosé that has not undergone MLF or sur-lie aging. Most rosés do not undergo either process, although some rosé makers do either or both to a small extent. The tech sheet should provide the information if you are unsure.
Just as uncertainty remains regarding the source and prevention of wine headaches, these tips may or may not work for you. Formal studies evaluating these theories are lacking so these ideas can't be taken as medical advice. However, if you are a wine enthusiast who gets somewhat bothersome but not disabling headaches from certain wines but not others and who wishes to try another approach in avoiding wine headaches, these tips may help you find wines that are lower in biogenic amines and perhaps, help you remain wine headache-free.