Red wine causes headaches often enough that the condition has its own name: RWH or Red Wine Headache. But according to Yale Scientific Magazine, no one is sure why it happens. Several components of red wine might contribute to headaches, but some white wines contain these same ingredients. Yale Scientific Magazine cites research that indicates a high amine content in some wines might have something to do with it, but other theories exist as well.
Wines Low in Histamines and Tyramines
Histamines and tyramines are amines, or organic compounds. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the first dilates blood vessels and the second constricts them. When both are present in the same wine, the potential exists for headaches. Red wines contain histamines far more often than white wines do. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and sauterne are low in tyramine.
Wines Low in Tannins
Another theory blames tannins for wine headaches. Tannins provide the dryness common to red wines. They also prompt the brain to release serotonin. Serotonin is a “happy” neurotransmitter, but too much of it can cause headaches. The dryer the wine, the more tannins it is likely to contain, so to avoid headaches, avoid red wines, especially very dry ones. White wines like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, sauterne and pinot grigio are good choices.
Wines Low in Congeners
The National Headache Foundation cites congeners as the cause of wine-related headaches. Congeners are chemicals formed by the fermentation process and also take the blame for hangovers when you drink too much. They occur in dark wines and liquors more often than white wine and clear liquors.
Wines from different regions can have different levels of tannins, congeners, histamines and tyramines. For example, California wines are usually lower in tyromines. According to Frederick Freitag, a board member of the National Headache Foundation, people prone to wine headaches tend to do better with American wines, specifically those from California, Oregon and Washington. Although many people blame the sulfites commonly found in wines to preserve shelf life, Yale Scientific Magazine indicates that these do not cause headaches. A wine headache will usually hit within 15 minutes or so and shouldn't be confused with a hangover, which you'd feel the next day. Hangover headaches are the result of over-indulging.