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. Histamines are ubiquitous in the body and common to most plants, animals and microbes. They are involved in many regulatory functions, including the response to allergens. They also are found in food products, especially those that are fermented. Some histamines make blood vessels expand or contract, causing pressure in the head, and ultimately a headache. Histamines are more common in red wines than whites, and this could be the culprit of your red wine headache.
Whether it’s histamines, sulfites or neither, the bottom line is that you should go with what feels best. If red wines keep giving you problems, there are plenty of great white wines to try!