European Wines and Headaches

I get a message every three months or so on this topic. Someone has gone to Europe for the first time, and had wine there. They don't get headaches, like they do when they drink wine in the US. They think it's something special about European wines. Usually they think, because European laws don't require the "has sulfites" warning on the label, that European wines are sulfite free, while American wines have sulfites added. This is definitely not true at all.

I've been to Europe several times. Here's what is happening.

First, the wines in Europe are NOT different than the European wines in the US. They don't make an Italian wine "without preservatives" and then create a different US blend "with preservatives". To begin with, ALL wines made everywhere have sulfites in them. This is a natural substance found on the grapes, and is a natural preservative. If wine didn't have sulfites in it, it would turn to vinegar immediately.

The Europeans think Americans are ridiculous for saying "has sulfites" on wine labels. To them it's like requiring a label saying "Has seeds!" on each apple you buy. Yes, apple seeds have tiny amounts of cyanide in them. Still, it's a normal part of that object. That's why the labels are different - it's the same item, but a different attitude about it.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes Now, in addition to these natural sulfites, the vast majority of wineries add more sulfites to their wines, to help the wines age more than 6 months. This is true for pretty much every winery in the world except for the rare few who have labels which read "no sulfites added".

You might say to yourself "Heck I'll drink the wine the night that I get it from the store, it doesn't need sulfites". However, remember that while you might intend to drink this wine you buy within six months, you don't necessarily know how long it sat at the winery before shipping ... how long it took to ship to the warehouse ... how long it sat there ... or how long it was sitting in the store.

Because of all of these cumulative delays, wineries almost universally add sulfites to their wines. This helps the wines survive until the consumer opens the bottle, to ensure that the wine is still drinkable.

A second reason that wines have sulfites added is that sulfites kill off nasty bugs that result from a not-super-clean winery. Some brand new wineries in California have constructed themselves in a way that is extremely hygenic, and can use low sulfites for drink-quick wines. The wineries who can do this promote this very loudly on their bottle labels, because it is so rare! This couldn't happen at centuries old European wineries.

Remember, even if a winery is super clean and does not need sulfites to keep its equipment clean, the winery would still need to add sulfites to the wine unless they were making sure that you, the consumer, were going to drink the wine immediately. Without the sulfites added in, the wine starts turning into vinegar very quickly.

The easy way to see if sulfites are a problem are for you is to eat a food high in natural sulfites - say, dried apricots. On average, 2oz of dried apricots have 10 times the sulfites as a glass of wine does. If you eat those apricots and have a reaction, now you know it's time to talk with a doctor. If you don't have a problem with the apricots, the wines with sulfites are not going to cause you a problem either.

So in general it's very UNlikely that sulfites are suddenly "not a problem" when you go to Europe. If anything, you'd have more of a problem in Europe if you were sensitive to sulfites. So what else could it be?

How about tannins? Many people who get a "red wine headache" are sensitive to tannins. However, European wines certainly aren't "less tannic" than American wines! In fact, most Americans have a sweeter palate than Europeans do, so most European wines are generally made in a style which is more tannic than US wines are. Tannins come from the red skins of the grapes. It's the thick, tongue-leathering, tea leaf aspect of wine. In fact your tongue IS being "tanned" by the tannins, just like leather gets tanned. In any case, all red wines are going to have tannins. If you're sensitive to tannins, do you have a problem with tea? That would narrow it down for you there. If you can drink strong tea without an issue, then tannins in wine probably aren't going to bother you.

Strawberries and Histamines How about histamines? We all know how histamines cause allergies. Yes, red wines have histamines in them. Again, like tannins, histamines come from the skins so red wines (which sit on the skins during fermentation) will have more. Histamines are also found in strawberries, tomatoes and ripe fruits. Some poeple are allergic to bee stings, and have reactions to histamines in foods. These reactions can range from nervousness to panic attacks and more. Sometimes it takes 2-3 days for these reactions to begin, because of the way the body metabolizes histamines.

To test if it's histamines that cause you problems, eat a bunch of strawberries and then note your feelings for the next 3 days. Of course I caveat that if you've never tried at strawberry at all, maybe you should start with one in case you have a serious reaction :) In any case, after you eat the bunch, if you seem to have an issue, talk with a doctor. But as far as wine goes, wine has far less histamines than these natural fruits do - and European wine would have the exact same amounts (if not more) than typical American wines. It's unlikely, if you've been drinking wines in the US, that you'd have a "better experience" with wines in Europe, based on any histamine issues.

OK, how about cogeners? Cogeners are the impurities found in alcohols. Careful winemaking techniques can often reduce the amount of cogeners in a wine. Really, this is usually seen in hard alcohol and sake production. It's very unlikely, unless you drank $2.99 wine in the US and were drinking $50 wine in Europe, that this would be any different.

So what does this leave? It leaves HOW you are drinking the wine in Europe, vs HOW you drink wine in the US. Numerous tests have shown over and over again that this is the real difference, when people drink wine at home in the US vs when they travel in Europe and drink wine there.

In European wine culture, you always have a bottle of water on the table, your glass of wine, and a lot of healthy, natural food. You drink the wine, you drink the water, you eat the food, over a multi-hour long meal. The wine is absorbed in small doses. The water helps to moderate the dehydration the wine causes. The food slows down the absorption. In between meals, you are walking around and getting exercise.

In comparison, when you drink in the US you usually eat far less variety of healthy food in one sitting. The food you eat doesn't absorb the wine as well. You're often eating processed white bread instead of hearty fiber-rich bread. You're rarely drinking water. You usually aren't getting nearly as much exercise. You're usually eating much more quickly. All of these things combine to cause the wine to hit you with a much harder effect.

Of course, there's an easy way to prove this to yourself, if you don't believe our tests. The next time you go to Italy or France, get a bottle of a known wine - say Ruffino's Chianti or a known Bordeaux. Drink it there and write down your reactions. Then, when you get home, get the exact same bottle. You don't have to carry it back with you - the winery ships the same bottle to all locations, only the label changes. Drink it one time in your normal eating style. Write down notes. Then re-create an atmosphere of the restaurant - make rich, healthy food. Eat high fiber bread. Make multi courses over several hours. Play relaxing music. Spend the time talking with friends, and drinking water. Go for long walks before the meal.

See for yourself that your body doesn't magically react differently to the wine. It's the same wine. Your body is reacting to the way you're drinking the wine. The Europeans have been doing this for thousands of years, and know how to drink wine in a healthy way. It's time for US drinkers to catch up!


A great deal of research and work went into my wine / health pages. If you use this information, please credit me properly. Thanks!

Cogeners and wine - Cheap Wine Headaches
Sulfites and wine
Tannins and wine
Histamines and wine

Wine and Health

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.