Many of our regular somMailier members tell us how they love our French wine club because French wines don’t give them headaches like other wines. Since we’re curious folk and we hate a wine headache as much as any of you, we thought we’d do a bit of investigation to find out exactly why that is and if drinking certain types of wine can help you avoid waking up with a sore head!
Lower Alcohol Content
First off, one consideration is that French wines often have lower alcohol contents than typical American wines. While a powerful Californian Zinfandel might have up to 16 or 16.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) and a rich, oaky Chardonnay from Napa might have up to 14 or 14.5%, many French wines are much lower in alcohol. For example, red Burgundies typically have 13 or 13.5% ABV and crisp Chablis wines made from Chardonnay might have 11 or 12% ABV.
This difference has a lot to do with climate since when grapes are grown in warmer conditions, like in California, they become riper and have a higher sugar content. When these grapes undergo fermentation this means there is more sugar to convert to alcohol, resulting in a higher alcohol content. You do find French wines with a higher ABV such as red wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other parts of the Rhone Valley which often have an ABV of 14 or 15%, but generally French wines like the ones we send out to our somMailier wine club members tend to be lower in alcohol which should reduce the chance of any potential headache episode!
It might sound obvious, but one really common reason for getting a headache after drinking wine is because your body gets dehydrated. This can particularly be a problem when drinking white wines as our brains perceive them as cool and refreshing without noticing the dehydrating effect they are having until it’s too late! With red wines, on the other hand, the drying effect of the tannins on our gums makes us feel thirsty and encourages us to drink water.
Drinking wine makes you dehydrated because it acts as a diuretic. To minimise this unpleasant dehydrating effect of alcohol which can lead to headaches, it’s better to stick to lower ABV drinks and to consume in moderation.
Red Vs White
Prevailing wisdom holds that red wines are more likely to give you a headache than white wines, but is this actually true? One reason why red wines might give you more headaches is that they naturally tend to be higher in histamines since the grape skins have a much longer contact time with the grape must during the red winemaking process.
Unfortunately, one symptom of histamine sensitivity is getting headaches, so that could be the culprit if you notice it more when you drink red wines. Weirdly enough, histamines are also present in high amounts in strawberries, so if you feel unwell after eating these fruits it could be that you have a sensitivity to histamines.
Many people who get red wine headaches pin the blame on sulfites, but in fact white wines usually have significantly more sulfites. Sulfites are used as a preservative and most white wines need higher levels since they don’t naturally contain antioxidants like red wines. There are individuals who have an allergy to sulfites, but this is only 1 out of every 100 people, so it is unlikely to explain why so many people suffer from wine headaches. And sulfhite levels in many preserved foods like dried fruits can be dozens of times higher than those found in wine!
Some French wines may be lower in sulfites since artisanal winemakers in France try to use minimal amounts of them. This is particularly true of French wines from sunnier regions like the Rhone Valley where the hot sunny days help to develop plenty of antioxidants in the skins of the grapes which help to preserve the wine naturally.
The final factor we’re going to talk about isn’t something you’ve probably heard of before. This naturally-occurring substance found in many aged and fermented substances including mature cheeses, beer, and cured meats can cause your blood vessels to slightly constrict and then dilate which can give you a painful headache. Luckily, many French wines contain pretty low levels of tyramine, such as most of the famous red Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
To conclude, the simple answer that there are lots of different elements in wine which can cause headaches. The only way to find out what works for you is to try different types of wine and see how your body reacts. The good news, though, is that some French wines may give you fewer headaches thanks to lower levels of alcohol, tyramines and sulfites depending on how the wine is made and which grape varieties are used. Time for another glass of Burgundy, then?!
Has this whetted your appetite to learn more about French wine? We’re here to help! Why not check out our French wine club. Every three months we send direct to your door three or six bottles of boutique French wines which have been carefully selected by wine experts in France along with detailed information about each wine and food pairing ideas to help you really discover French wine. And as if that wasn’t enough, we also have a wine club gift option for that special wine lover in your life!