Among the everyday conversations I have about wine, there’s one particular comment I hear on a regular basis that always puzzles me: “I can’t drink wine because it gives me a headache.” Of course, there isn’t really a mystery to solve if you’ve simply had too many glasses of wine at one time. In that case, a headache the morning after is pretty much a certainty. But I’ve heard many friends comment on how they get a headache with only a single glass of wine.
A lot of people write off wine altogether, claiming the tannins or sulfites are the culprit for the post-wine head pounding. But I’d argue there’s a more likely candidate that’s causing the pain. I’m no scientist, nor am I a doctor, but I’d be willing to bet that sugar and alcohol are the primary offenders. I may be wrong, but if you consider the points below, you may find your way to a better wine experience.
Before giving tannins a bad rap, it’s important to know that they play a key role in adding depth and structure to a wine. They’re the element that can be the difference between a one-note glass of boring and a revelatory glass of something special.
Tannins are naturally occurring flavonoids found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. Many red wines are macerated with at least the skins -- if not all three of these elements -- leaving a firm, drying sensation on the palate that I like to refer to as “kitten tongue.” (Think of the feeling when a kitten licks your hand with its dry, scratchy tongue.) The more intense the dryness (or, technically, astringency), the more tannin you’re experiencing. Over time, tannins are a key to helping some of the world’s greatest wines age and can soften to present a different, more alluring texture to wine.
The truth is, the majority of people are not sensitive to tannin. The best way to know for sure is to steep a cup of black tea for about 10 minutes and drink it. Tea is loaded with tannin--as are dark chocolate and soy. If you can enjoy any of these without a headache, then tannin isn’t your problem.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, about 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites. If you happen to fall within this 1%, then you can discontinue reading this paragraph. (If you want to conduct an at-home test, try nibbling on some dried fruit like mangos, apricots, or figs. These contain about 5-10 times as many sulfites as wine. If these don’t bother you then…).
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a preservative widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) be-cause of its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. SO2 plays a very important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine’s freshness.
One little-known fact is that red wines typically contain less sulfites than white wine--particularly in the case of European wines where the maximum levels of S02 are 160 parts per million for red wine and 210 parts per million for white. (Those levels are fairly similar around the world.) The reason is, red wines contain tannin, which is a stabilizing agent. Plus, almost all red wines go through malolactic fermentation, which means less sulfur dioxide is needed to protect the wine during winemaking and maturation.
Which brings me to my argument that the likely culprit for the morning-after hangover is alcohol and sugar.
These two elements can significantly dehydrate your body by pulling the water it needs from areas of your body--such as your head--in order to process through your system. When you neglect to drink ample amounts of water along with wine, you’ll likely regret the results.
To understand the relationship between sugar and alcohol in a wine, it’s important to understand how each is involved. When grapes are still on the vine, their natural sugar content rises as they ripen in the sun.
When grapes are used to produce wine, the natural sugars react with yeast to create a fermentation. These sugars are then converted and transformed into a new substance: alcohol. In general, the riper the grapes are when they are picked, the higher the sugar content, and there-fore the higher the alcohol level in the finished wine.
Some wines retain a bit of sugar and sweetness and yield a lower alcohol content, such as some Rieslings. Other producers ferment all of the sugar out of the wine, which pushes the alcohol content higher.
To avoid too much sugar in your wine, make sure you’re searching for wines that are completely dry, meaning all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol. But don’t neglect the level of alcohol either. If you’re at the store, take some time to read the label. Look for the Alcohol by Volume (abv) percentage. (It may be in tiny, shown in a micro-font, but it’s required to be there, so keep looking at both the front and back label until you find it.)
If it’s a big, bold red wine with big tannins, vanilla/cocoa flavors, and 15% alcohol, skip it. Look for red wines that are closer to 13% alcohol instead. For white wines, depending on your com-fort level with sweetness, 8%-12% is your oyster. (The lower the percentage, the more likely to have an element of sweetness, with the exception of Portuguese Vinho Verde, which is generally both dry and low in alcohol--the perfect summer wine!)
NOTE: It’s also wise to avoid cheaper, mass-produced wines that can often have added sugar--among other things--to boost the alcohol level to mask unwanted flavors or flaws in the wine.
Believe it or not, a few small percentage points of alcohol in a wine can mean the difference be-tween enjoying a refreshing evening with a few glasses among friends and feeling boozed up after just two servings, which may march you straight in the direction of a morning headache. In fact, with a lower alcohol wine at about 12%, you could have 2 glasses, and still enjoy a gin and tonic or two before reaching the same blood alcohol level as consuming half a bottle (2.5 glasses) of a 15% bottle of wine.
Finding the Right Wine
It’s easy enough to peruse the bottle labels for the abv content at a store, but it’s not so easy to decipher when you’re looking at a restaurant list. In this case, simply ask your waiter or sommelier to suggest low-alcohol wines on the wine list, or know a few cool-climate or high-altitude regions from which to pick. Cooler climates have a difficult time getting grapes to ripen in general. The growing conditions also tend to produce wines with higher levels of natural acidity, which makes them perfect for food!
Just a few regions of note: Mosel (Germany); Loire Valley, Champagne, or Burgundy (France); Willamette Valley (Oregon); Vinho Verde (Portugal); Central Otago (New Zealand); Piedmont or Alto Adige (Italy).
In terms of wine styles, here’s a general key you should commit to memory, hopefully, with a little taste test of your own, you’ll find your way back to loving wine.
German or Austrian Riesling (With key label terms: Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese): These wines may tend to be slightly off-dry to sweet, but are balanced with crisp acidity and can range from 7% to 9% abv. They are perfect to pair with spicy foods. Also, you can find dry (Trocken) Rieslings that register at or below 12% and lack the sweetness of the other styles.
Grüner Veltliner: This Austrian grape is a super star, and with an average 12% abv and generally between $11-$15, it’s a great wine to always have on hand. You’ll find a dry, light to medium body with crisp and juicy fruit with lots of apple and citrus flavors and hints of white pepper and dried herbs. $18
Muscadet: Not to be confused with the Muscat or Moscato grape known more for floral aromas and often a sweet style of wine. Muscadet comes from the French wine appellation of Muscadet and Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, on the west coast of the Loire Valley. This coastal, maritime region is known for making delicious bone-dry white wine with searing acidity and a touch of salinity from the Melon de Borgogne grape. Don’t worry, you don’t really need to remember any of that. Just remember Muscadet and Loire Valley when you go on the hunt for this wine. You should be able to find it between 11% and 12% abv.
Moschofilero: Don’t worry so much about pronouncing the word. Theses wines are primarily from the Peloponnese islands in Greece and due to climate and poor soils, they often struggle to get very ripe. 11% or 12% is pretty standard for the alcohol level.
Vinho Verde: A summer favorite, these wines are excellent to enjoy year-round, especially if you have a sensitivity to Alcohol. Vinho Verde actually refers to a region of Portugal, but these wines are so engrained in the culture, that you’re just fine sticking to this title. After all, consider-ing the grapes used in the wine blend--Arinto, Azal, Trajadura, Loureiro, and Alvarinho--you’ll likely find it loads easier to pronounce. Light bodied and loved with fruity flavors of melon and lemonade, Vinho Verde often has a hint of effervescence and is perfect for salads and all sorts of fish preparations.
Beaujolais: Not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that strange banana-grapey stuff your Uncle brings to Thanksgiving. Beaujolais is also wine region in France just below Burgundy. And it’s known for producing some of the most appealing wines from the Gamay grape with notes of tart cherry, cranberry, mushroom and violet. At between 10%-13% abv, the best Beaujolais are Cru Beaujolais, which is just a term of distinction for certain growing areas in the region. You’ll find wines at about $20/bottle. You can find value in Beaujolais Villages or Supérieur at about $10/bottle. This is a Thanksgiving go-to, and also nice to have chilled on the patio during the summer time.
Pinot Noir: Perhaps one of the more popular red wine grapes in the U.S., Pinot Noir has garnered a following for its fresh, cherry fruitiness, soft tannins, and generally vibrant acidity. It’s one of the world’s most approachable wines. For lower alcohol styles of this grape, look for wines from Burgundy, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and northern Italy, where it’s more commonly referred to as Pinot Nero.
Barbera D’Asti: From the mountainous Piedmont region of Italy, Barbera is one of the most planted grapes this northern part of the country. While it often takes second fiddle to the noble Nebbiolo grape of Barolo, Barbera is both rich and light bodied with notes of strawberry and sour cherry. Light in tannin, but higher in acidity, you can usually find these wines closer to 13% abv and they’re often at a great price, too!
Cabernet Franc from Chinon (Loire Valley), France: A special region of the Loire Valley that specializes in single-variety wines from a grape that’s typically used as a blending grape in Bordeaux. Cab Franc from the Chinon (as well as Bourgueil) appellation of the Loire Valley can be light- to medium-bodied with deep, dark, spicy fruit intermingled with roasted red pepper, dried savory herbs and sometimes notes of jalapeño. Look for wines with a little age of at least 5 years for a smoother mouth feel.
Zweilgelt (Austria): Making light-bodied red wines rich with red fruit, Zweigelt is an instant crowd pleaser. The second most planted wine grape in Austria, this grape yields wines with crisp acidity, lower tannin, and rich flavor. And often times you can find them hovering around 13% alcohol. These wines don’t age as well, but they are fresh and enjoyable young.
A Word About Sparkling Wine:
When you think of sparkling wines, Champagne usually leads the pack in terms of familiarity. But don’t forget wines like Crémant from Alsace or the Loire, German Sekt, or Italian Franciacorta, Prosecco or Moscato D’Asti. Many of these wines can be lower in abv, you just have to pay attention. The production of sparkling wine often include the addition of sugar for fermentation purposes, so in addition to a lower abv percentage, also look for terms like Brut, Extra Brut, and particularly Brut Nature (or No Dosage). These will ensure lower alcohol and sugar overall.