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Ask a Somm: Why Do I Get a Headache From Red Wine?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a new column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Wondering about a bottle? Drop us a line.

Marshall Troy

Sabato Sagaria, Chief Restaurant Officer at Union Square Hospitality in New York, oversees food and drink happenings at all of Danny Meyers' restaurants, like Maialino, Gramercy Tavern, and newer addition Marta. And, as a Master Sommelier, he knows a thing or two about grape juice. Below, Sagaria demystifies red wine headaches.

Q: I seem to get headaches from red wine. Is this in my head, or is there something specific to red wine that makes this happen? And I try to drink a lot of water, but is there anything else I can do to prevent a red wine-induced headache?

Sagaria: Trust me, you’re not the only one. When people get headaches from drinking red wine, they often point the finger at sulfites, which is a common misconception. Compared to white wines, red wines in general actually have less sulfites. However, red wines do tend to have more alcohol than white wines, which is the main culprit here.

When people get headaches from drinking red wine, they often point the finger at sulfites, which is a common misconception.

By law, all wines must list the percent of alcohol on the bottle. Most people don’t realize that there is a bit of wiggle room built into what is actually printed on the label. If the stated ABV (alcohol by volume) is under 14 percent, legally the contents inside the bottle can be plus or minus 1.5 percent. Once the ABV on the label goes north of 14 percent, producers only have plus or minus one percent leeway. While it may not sound like much, it can add up over the course of a good/great night.

Let’s say you’ve just finished your second glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You are admiring the label and upon scrutiny of the fine print you see it says 16 percent ABV. The wine inside that very bottle that went down so effortlessly could actually be anywhere from 15 to 17 percent ABV. Now, when you compare that to the 12 percent glass of Sancerre you started off the night with, that’s 25 percent more alcohol per glass. Oh and that gulpable Spätlese Riesling you had with Thai food at lunch that clocked in at 8.5 percent? Well, you would need to drink a whole bottle of that deliciousness to feel the same effects as those two glasses of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which coincidentally are the ABV equivalent of about six beers!

In a cooler wine growing region, it is more challenging for grapes to ripen and develop as much sugar. With less sugar to ferment, there is less alcohol in the resulting wine. Since most restaurant wine lists don’t list the alcohol content, there is no surefire way to pick a wine lower in alcohol. You can stack the deck in your favor though by looking to places like Burgundy, Beaujolais, Austria, Germany, or Northern Italy where they produce wines that are extremely delicious but don’t pack such a punch.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, California Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, French Grenache and Syrah, and Amarone and Barolo from Italy tend to yield higher octane wines. They too can be delicious so it’s not to say you should avoid them, but rather enjoy them with a bit more awareness to ensure you don’t get over served.

Regardless of what wine you drink or how much of it you drink, one of the tricks of the trade that I learned from my six years training/consuming wine professionally at a high altitude in Colorado is the importance of hydration. One glass of water for every glass of wine followed by a big glass before bed was my self-prescribed ratio. Lastly always remember … everything in moderation, including excess.


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