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Why does red wine give me a headache, but white wine doesn’t (assuming I haven’t had too much of either)?

TroubleShooting

Jack Anders — Richmond, Virginia asks,
Q

Dear Wine Wizard,

Why does red wine give me a headache, but white wine doesn’t (assuming I haven’t had too much of either)?

A
The “red wine headache” is one of those wine questions that lies somewhere between legend and reality. However, there are some real answers. I’ll lay them out and you can decide for yourself. Many people immediately fault sulfites as the culprit and mistakenly assume that red wines have more SO2 (sulfur dioxide, which when in solution forms “sulfites”) than white wines. The opposite is actually the case, because most winemakers add more SO2 to white wines than to reds. White wines need more protection from oxygen than red wines do, and sulfur dioxide acts as an antioxidant. Some folks, however, really are allergic to sulfites or lack the ability to digest them. About 0.001 percent of the population lacks the digestive enzyme sulfite oxidase. These people can’t process sulfites, commonly found in foods like lunchmeat, sausage, cheese, dried apricots and even beer. A headache can be one of the symptoms of sulfite allergies, but this is most likely not the cause of your malady. Some studies point to histamines in wine as being the cause of allergic-type reactions, especially headaches.
Response by Alison Crowe.