Tannins, the component in red wine that causes the mouth-puckering effect, and natural histamines, found in the skins of grapes, can also stimulate an allergic response. If the body perceives these compounds as foreign invaders, it will respond as it does to pollens and dust. Histamines are also known to worsen asthma and eczema. If you are sensitive to histamines you may also show symptoms when you eat chocolate, aged cheeses, pepperoni, salami, sauerkraut or sourdough bread.
Tyramines, found in red wine, constrict blood vessels and may cause migraine-like headaches. They are also found in chocolate, vanilla, many beans and nuts, bananas, cheese, yogurt and beer (especially the dark varieties).
Since wine is made from the fermentation of sugary solutions, there is residual sugar. This may be problematic for diabetics.
A very small percentage of the population may also have allergies to the yeast that remains in “unfined” wine (referring to a method of clarification) and an even smaller number may have allergies to the fining agents used to clear wine.
Sulfites are a natural product of fermentation, and additional sulfur dioxide is used in the winemaking process. (Surprisingly, dried fruit and processed foods like lunchmeat have far more sulfites than red wine.) Despite the general anxiety concerning sulfites, only 1% of the population is actually allergic to them.
Prostaglandins are substances that can contribute to pain and swelling, and are another possible source of wine headaches.
What can you drink if you are sensitive?
White and rosé wines will affect a histamine-sensitive person less than red because they have spent less time in contact with grape skins. Fruit wines also have lower histamine levels (depending on the fruit used). Light-bodied red and rosé wines are lower in tannins, while white wines have almost none. Some wine styles are high in tannins (red Bordeaux, Barolo and Barbaresco, vintage port when young, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) while others are less so (red Burgundy, Dolcetto and Barbera, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Spanish Rioja). Beaujolais and Tempranillo are even lower in tannin. This explains why a tannin-sensitive individual may be able to tolerate some reds but not others.
More sulfites are found in white wines, particularly sweet ones. “Dry” red and white wines have lower levels of residual sugar. Taking Loratadine (Claritin®) an hour before drinking should reduce the reaction to histamines, and drinking a cup of black tea will also have a histamine-reducing effect. Ibuprofen (Advil®) and aspirin are prostaglandin inhibitors. Some people get good results by taking a dose of Ibuprofen an hour before consuming red wine.
How do you know if you are sensitive?
One way to check for sensitivity to a particular wine is to drink about half a glass of that wine. If you are sensitive, you will get the beginnings of a headache in about 15 minutes. If you don’t begin to get a headache, drink that wine for the evening, but do so in moderation (no more than two glasses) and drink water between glasses. Repeat this on other occasions, noting your symptoms in a journal. Don’t confuse a red wine headache with the headache that comes six hours after a full evening of drinking — that’s usually called a hangover.