Wine Hangover 101: The Elements behind the Worst Wine Hangovers

A bad hangover is nothing to scoff at. It’s one of the few things that could get the most devoted of wine drinkers swearing off of alcohol—at least, until the next wine cellar tasting. The headache, nausea, and fatigue that comes after a night of overindulgence is a feeling that even the hardiest of drinkers experience once in a while.

For wine enthusiasts, it’s the dreaded ‘Red Wine Headache’ that has them shying away from the tipple. But is color really the main determinant when it comes to a drink’s hangover potential? To answer this question, Singapore Wine Vault gives you the hows, the whens, and the whys of wine hangovers.

Common causes of Hangovers

Out of the 11 popular tipples in the ‘Hangover Severity’ scale, red wine comes in at third place. Just behind Brandy or Bourbon, and high-sugar mixes. Champagne is the sixth culprit, just after Rum and Whiskey. And white wine ranks low at eighth place, behind Beer.

Although wine has its own unique hangover-inducing properties, like other alcoholic drinks, the most common factors behind wine hangovers include dehydration, mild alcohol poisoning, and the body’s depletion of vitamins and minerals. See, alcohol, in general, is a diuretic. As you drink wine, it hastens the body’s natural process of flushing out fluids. If you don’t drink enough water, this will lead to dehydration, which brings a bout of sluggishness and nausea.

Experts also argue that hangovers can be considered a mild type of alcohol poisoning. See, some of today’s tipples contain chemicals like methanol, acetone, and acetaldehyde, which in trace amounts aren’t lethal but will give you a nasty headache. Overindulging in alcohol can also strip your body from necessary vitamins and minerals—particularly vitamins A, B, and C. Lastly, drinking alcohol also leads to swollen blood vessels. Put all these factors together, and you have the recipe to a severe hangover.

Color Matters: Blame it on the Congeners

Now that we’ve covered the basic culprits behind some of the worst hangovers in history, let’s delve into specifics. To answer the question on whether or not color matters when it comes to hangover severity, the short answer is YES. Studies show that darker liquor ups your chances for a bad hangover. Experts believe that darker tipples hold more chemicals than their lighter or clearer equivalents. Take for example, bourbon and vodka. Bourbon has over 30 times more chemicals than your standard vodka—it also packs the meanest wallop in the hangover severity scale.

 

Now, out of the many chemicals you’ll find in your tipple, the most offending component is probably the congener. Congener is essentially an impurity that forms during the liquor’s fermentation phase. It’s a toxic chemical that helps determine how bad you’ll feel the next day. This chemical is also what gives alcohol its dark color. Consume too much congeners and it’s a migraine waiting to happen. This particular rule applies to wine. Darker wine, in this case, reds, contain more congeners than its sparkling and white counterparts. Hence, the dreaded Red Wine Headache.

So, does this mean that you should get rid of your reds and stock your wine vault with white wine instead? Not necessarily. See, while congeners play a huge factor when it comes to hangovers, quantity also matters. So, consuming a glass of red wine won’t hurt as much as when you finish a bottle of champagne or chardonnay.

The Red Wine Headache (RWH) explained

As we mentioned earlier, there’s a type of hangover that’s specific to red wines—this is the “Red Wine Headache.” Some red wine drinkers experience flushing, nausea, and migraines within 15 minutes after imbibing the tipple. For some people, RWH sets in after a single glass of wine.

For years, wine experts have been trying to pinpoint a single compound that causes this awful side effect. Extensive studies have shown that there’s more than one factor behind RWH. Some of the purported chemical offenders include tyramines, histamines, acetaldehydes, tannins, and prostaglandins.

Tyramine is a substance that mimics histamine, in terms of its primary side effects. Although it’s found in basically all aged and fermented food products, this compound is closely linked to the onset of migraines. Aside from containing tyramines, a lot of today’s red wines also come with histamines. In fact, the histamine content of red wine is about 20-200% higher than what you’ll find in white wine. This is why people who are histamine intolerant are bound to experience allergy-like symptoms upon drinking red wine. These symptoms include headaches, rashes, flushing, and even sneezing. Some wine enthusiasts have found that taking antihistamine before drinking wine helps in managing these symptoms.

Now, other wine drinkers experience allergy-like symptoms for a different reason. This has to do with the wine’s sulfite content. Although it can trigger breathing problems for people with asthma, it doesn’t necessarily cause RWH. Sulfite reaction is also experienced by very few wine appreciators. As for acetaldehyde, well, this substance is a form of wine fault or defect that results from poor wine storage and winemaking practices. It is a transitional byproduct of fermentation and oxidation, and is believed to cause hangovers. Wine that has high acetaldehyde content is said to have large tart and metallic notes.

Another supposed cause of RWH is tannin content. This one is a bit tricky, since tannin is a necessary part of red wine. This flavonoid, which is a byproduct of processing grape skins, stems, and seeds with the wine, is what lends the red tipple its bitter notes and dryness. It also prevents oxidation, and is an essential part of the drink’s aging potential. To find out if this is the root of your RWH, try over-steeping your black tea before drinking it. If you get a headache afterwards, then it’s best to stay away from your Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons.

Last on our list is prostaglandin, which is a substance that can exacerbate swelling and pain. One way you can minimize the ill effects of prostaglandin is to pop a paracetamol or ibuprofen about an hour before drinking. Some wine drinkers say that doing so helps lower the red wine’s hangover potential. However, we wouldn’t recommend doing this too often, as the frequent combination of alcohol and paracetamol can really damage your liver.

Now, before you stop drinking red wine altogether, it’s important to point out that there are some reds that offer significantly lower chances of RWH. Dry reds with low alcohol content, about 12.5-13.5%, may prevent future migraines and nausea. Also look for fruity and savory reds with moderate tannin content, like Tempranillo and Mouvedre.

 

The Champagne Migraine Conundrum: Blame it on the Bubbles

After red wine, the next type of tipple that’s likely to redefine the term, ‘pubcrawl,’ for you is Champagne. So, how can something so effervescent give you a killer headache? We say, blame it on the bubbles. If after New Year’s Eve, all you can think about is chaining yourself to the bed and sleeping off the rest of the year, then you’re probably dealing with the ill effects of carbonation and excessive alcohol intake.

See, bubbly drinks like Champagne contain carbon dioxide, which pumps alcohol faster into your bloodstream. Your liver is left at a loss trying to deal with the alcohol overdrive, and suddenly wine’s in your bloodstream and your brain. You’ll get drunk faster, sure. But you’ll also be left dealing with dehydration and the sudden spike of insulin, due to the alcohol’s high sugar content. The result? A throbbing headache that won’t quit. If you’re not keen on the hangover that comes after a night of drinking fine fizz, we say savor the tipple instead of downing it, or go for the safer alternative—white wine.

Despite all the aforementioned hangover factors that you just read, there’s no reason for you to scrap your wine cellar dream altogether. You can still indulge in your favorite tipple, just don’t overdo it. The greatest wine connoisseurs are rarely alcoholics. With a little bit of restraint, you can bid hangovers goodbye and continue your foray into the great big world of wine.