Some Thoughts on Tannins and Headaches

Headaches and wine. I never get them. Then again, I rarely drink too much. But there are some of us who at the whiff of a glass of red wine, have severe headaches. Read on….

Tannins: Why do plants produce them and what do they do for us? Tannins are used by a plant to prevent creatures from eating it. The bitter taste, as well as other effects it causes on the digestion system of the creature, tend to cause the plant to be safe from being eaten.

What are tannins?
Tannins – plant polyphenols – are an integral part of creating a red wine. The red color and the sharp taste both come from the skins of the grape, which are left on during part of fermentation to seep into the wine itself. That color and taste is the result of tannins.
Tannins are not only found in wine – they are found in many foods, such as cheeses and nuts, and even drinks such as tea. Wood aging also adds some tannin to red wines.

For humans, tannins are often found to be pleasureable. People who drink tea enjoy its bitter taste, and also the ‘buzz’ it can give to some, though I don’t think I get a buzz from tannins.

However, with anything consumed, some of us react differently than others. For me, I’m lactose intolerant, so no milk or ice cream for me. For some people, the tannins found in “nature” can cause too strong of a ‘buzz’, leading to mild or severe headaches. The reason I quoted “nature” is the wine industry has lots of powdered tannins available to us for addition at different stages of winemaking. I have often heard from folks that they can get sloshed on wine when in Europe and not get a headache but get a zinger of a headache drinking some wines over here. Could it be that maybe at the natural lower levels that are extracted from the skins only are at a low enough threshold to keep the headaches at bay? Possibly. And when tannins are added in the winemaking process, the threshold quantity is now high enough to provide a headache? Possibly. Could the grape variety have a bearing on it? I’d think so. Some will produce more tannins than others. And some regions, due to environmental factors, enable plants to produce more or less tannins. To me, I really think it’s the added tannins that cause the headaches — that’s just my theory. So….

What are tannins useful for?
Tannins are wonderful antioxidants. The tea industry has long promoted this aspect of tea, as well as other food and beverage industries whose products have lots of tannins.

Polyphenols in general are found to lower total cholesterol, and also improve the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol. They lower blood pressure, lessen risks of cancer, stimulate the immune system, and have anti-bacterial properties. The biggie that unites all of this is tannins are anti-inflammatory. And inflammation is one of the pinnacles of many health issues today as inflammation suppresses the immune system.

ADD kicked in. I forgot. How might tannins cause headaches?
Tannins tend to bind starches while being digested. These starches are needed by the body to produce serotonin. In some people, who are extremely sensitive to their serotonin levels, it appears the lack of serotonin can lead to a migraine. It sort of “starves” the body for this type of raw material, much as not eating for many hours might lead this person to have the same migraine. Tannin sensitivity is thought to be cumulative – a person who begins life with no tannin sensitivities may yet develop one as he or she ages. People who are sensitive to tannins need to moderate their intake of tannins in all forms, and also be sure to eat a reasonable amount of food while ingesting tannins, so the binding affects of tannins do not cause undue stress.

Here is an update from 8/4/2023

The red wine headache explained. Ever get a headache from just a little bit of red wine? Or a stuffy nose? Or a flushed face? Any other allergic reaction? By the way, what I type here cannot be found on the internet except at our Turtle Run Winery website. Here comes my strong hypothesis. Be ready. I am on my own island on this.

Most people believe that yeast only ferment sugars into heat, co2 and ethyl alcohol. If I were to make black bean wine, yeast would remove the inflammatory protein known as lectin. Now, there are no lectins in wine but I add this paragraph as another useful activity that yeast do when fermenting.

Yeast also remove histamines. And this is where I am heading. Grapes have a small amount of histamines in their skins and we ferment red wines on their skins. But in fermentation yeast will remove the histamines, so how can it be histamines?

Think of the allergic reactions that people have with red wine and all of them align with allergic reactions to histamines.

I never run into anyone who says they have an allergic reaction to our red wines, and I have had hundreds who have sworn off drinking red wines try our red wines and they have no problem. So if it’s indeed histamines and the yeast remove histamines, how are they getting back into the wine?

Think of it this way. If you swore off sugar and I handed you a small packet of sugar and said “eat this sugar,” you would probably do it and realize no negative health outcomes. Now, if I gave you a 64 oz liter of a sugary drink and said, “here, drink this,” you might feel a little woozy afterwards, right?

So if I gave you a bunch of grapes and you ate them, you probably wouldn’t have an allergic reaction because the concentration of histamines in the skins is pretty low.

Our wine industry is allowed to add more than 80 different ingredients into wine and one thing our industry likes is a consistent product. Wines naturally contain upwards of 1500 chemical compounds, so in order for wine to taste and look exactly the same year after year there are fining agents, coloring agents, liquid oak and powdered tannins added to wine to give it the look, feel and taste, the same consistency year after year.

Yeast remove histamines. There are super concentrated coloring agents and powdered tannins available to me to add to wine to fix color and tannins. Let’s think of that 64 oz liter at this point.

Super concentration of color and tannins added to wine to me, is like drinking a 64 oz liter of soda. These product are added after fermentation to fix color, mouthfeel, flavor and texture…when the yeast are no longer there to do their magic. My strong hypothesis is this. When natural grape skin derivatives are super concentrated, like anthocyanin, the color component, naturally the histamines will be concentrated. Added back into the wine after fermentation releases a super concentration of histamines, way more than what the grapes could have possibly delivered in grape juice. With yeast not around to clean up this excess amount of histamines, the human body is exposed to a 64 oz serving, so to speak of histamines.

I seriously don’t think anyone is allergic to red wine. I think there are plenty of people allergic to wine that has been modified though. If you stop by Turtle Run Winery, check out the color of our red wines. Yep, they are lighter in color than a great many that you can buy in the stores. And that is fine with me.

Cheers, Jim

The Red Wine Headache (updated Feb 2024) and the “Dry White Wine Allergic Reaction.”

Ever hear the story of “The Fountain of Youth?”  The conquistadors thought it existed somewhere in Florida and by gosh, by golly, they really sought its finding…to no avail.

That seems to be my motivation for the “Red Wine Headache.”  If you haven’t heard of it, you will at some point.  Some folks get headaches.  Some get flushed skin.  Some get a stuffy nose.  Some get reactions immediately.  Some go to bed feeling fine only to awaken in the morning with a head-banging zinger.

There seems to be a corollary – all of these reactions are aligned to a histamine reaction.

Histamines are both produced by our bodies and are ingested in foods and beverages we consume.  Histamines produced by our bodies via our immune system.  Histamines create inflammation.  That’s part of their deal.  For instance, a bee sting for many of us cause our bodies to produce histamines.  Yeast also produce histamines during fermentation, so fermented foods and beverages should contain a mild amount of histamines.

With many allergies and health issues, a lot of times it’s about quantity.  For instance, if you consume a small packet of sugar, chances are your body will be able to handle the sugar.  But guzzle a 64 ounce liter of soda and yikes, blood sugar and insulin issues on tilt, right?  Whoosh!

Perhaps it’s all about quantity.

Here’s the thing.  It’s beyond rare air for someone to complain about our red wines (or our white wines, or our sweet wines, for that matter) and having a negative health reaction from drinking them.  The same holds true for a vast array of European wines.  How often have I heard over the 25 years I have been making wine of people going to Europe, enjoying wine, perhaps too much, and awakening the next day feeling fine and refreshed.  Yet, pick up a bottle of wine from the store shelves in America and, what the heck, who whacked my head with a 2 x 4?  Or why did my nose get so stuffy?  Or my neck turned a brilliant red?  Must be the sulfites!  Sulfites is another subject, one you shouldn’t really worry about.

I’m still going to go “all chips in” on a histamine reaction but I cannot decide if it is the body creating excess histamines when presented with an allergen that has been added to wine or the sugar packet / 64 ounce example, in which a wine has so many added histamines that our body reacts to it.  So I’ll provide a possibility for both.  Let’s look at the chemical compounds of the grape skins, but before we do, I need to explain some additives that go into wines without naming names.

Coloring additives:  As I write this, I am in Hilton Head, SC with my parents, end of February.  Laura and Joe are here too.  Yesterday, the resort had a little wine and cheese tasting mid-afternoon, so of course went.  There were two wines served, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay.  Both wines are made by an extremely big brand and the bottles were 1.5 liter bottles.  The cabernet sauvignon was the darkest cabs I have ever seen.  Like, ever.  We opened a Turtle Run Cab from 2023 last night, our darkest cab we have ever made and it didn’t come close to the darkness we experienced in the afternoon wine.  The color component in grape skins is called anthocyanin and some red grape varieties really have some color (concord, aligoté, syrah, frontenac come to mind), while others (pinot noir) do not.  There are a couple of coloring products we can add to wines.

We’ve had fermentations over the years in which the anthocyanin from the skins simply didn’t pigment the wine (Montepulciano 2022, Mourvedre 2022, Cabernet Sauvignon 2022 (a vintage), cabernet sauvignon 2021, cabernet franc 2016 (certainly not 2015 – that was dark).  For major producers that have wines in stores across a great many states, consistent flavors and color is imperative for their marketing of wine.

Because wines contain upwards of 1500 natural chemical compounds and the weather is different every year, consistent color and tannins is nearly impossible. 

That’s where coloring additives come into play.  Of course, they are proprietary and the companies that make them will not divulge what’s in them, but from what I have been able to glean from the resources I have, they are seemingly more natural and are made by  super concentrating components from the grape skins.  Since grape skins contain histamines, could the concentrated coloring added to wine be the cause for added histamines thus garnering a reaction?  Perhaps.  We never use this stuff in our wine production

Another coloring compound which is legal to add to wine and which does not need to be listed on a bottle of wine is cochineal extract.  Ever heard of it?  The cochineal is an insect from south America and it has been used in the coloring industry since the 1600’s.  Carminic acid is found in the body and eggs of this insect which lives among the cacti.  When mixed with aluminum or calcium salts, carmine dye is created.  Now, here’s the trick and the words to take note:  the insect creates carminic acid to ward off predation by other insects.  Also known as natural red dye number 4, it can cause a variety of reactions including  facial swelling, rashes, and wheezing – sounds like a histamine reaction, doesn’t it?  And of course, we never use this substance in our wine production either.  As someone who studies health, “aluminum” is a code word for brain dysfunction. 

Here’s a third mechanism which could create the red wine headache (though I’d put a lot of poker chips on “door number 2” the last paragraph).  When grapes begin to ripen on the vine they produce high levels of sugar and the skin softens making them more susceptible to fungal attack. To counter this, grapes produce relatively high levels of chitinase as a defense during their ripening period.  So what is chitinase?  Good question.  Here’s something to think about.  I’ve recently been reading about the desire by certain folks that we should be eating insects for protein.  The exoskeleton in insects is highly inflammatory and inflammation can trigger a histamine reaction, same with shellfish.  And guess what, chitinase and insects and shellfish go hand in hand.  Here are some links that may be of interest for you.

And this one:

And lastly, this one:

Through the years, I have definitely seen wine grapes, as they ripen, change chemical structures.  For instance, one of the grapes we grow, St. Croix, has more of a merlot flavor if we pick the grapes between 16 and 19 brix.  Over 20 brix, the grapes take on a more concord flavor.  I’ve also commented before, “grapes today, rotted tomorrow” about several varieties we grow, including Vignoles.

White wines:  Lastly, we have heard of white wines people who have bought off the store shelf causing immediate negative reactions, including flush skin and shortness of breath.  There are a whole host of proteins that are used to in winemaking to smooth dry white wines and sometimes sweet wines.  The idea is to use proteins to attach to the bitter tannic acid that exists in grape skins.  Red wines are fermented on the skins, so tannins are extracted.  For white wines, our industry destems and crushes the grapes then the pressed juice is used to make the white wines.  Some tannins from the outsides of the skins are extracted by the juice during pressing, so proteins are added which then bind with the tannins and thus the tannins are removed from the wine.  At Turtle Run Winery, we rely on autolysis, the process in which the spent yeast cell walls break down and mannoproteins are released into the wines.  The process is known as “Sur Lees” or on the lees or on the spent yeast cells. 

Many of the fining agents are created from casein (milk), isinglass (fish bladders) and egg whites.  While in theory, we should be able to filter out any leftover additive, my educated guess is some of these fining agents are left behind in the wine, which, if one has an allergy any of these products, they could have a negative reaction to a wine.

Conclusion:  I’ve provided a number of mechanisms through additives in wine, which could trigger negative health reactions to the body.  Is it one?  Two?  Which ones?  Who knows.  Here are some key thoughts.  First, our physical body today is not much different than it was 90,000 years ago.  Our bodies learned, over a great many thousands of years how to adapt to our natural world.  What it cannot be expected to do is adapt on a dime’s worth of time, to the massive chemical bombardment that it has been experiencing over the last 100 years.  You see a one year old put nearly anything in their mouths, yet never an insect, so perhaps we should pay attention to what a one year old avoids, like cockroaches! 

Who doesn’t know of someone with a chronic illness?  Who knew of people with chronic illnesses 50 years ago?  When we start mixing and matching and putting this, that and the other into our consumable products, it is possible and perhaps inevitable that we could experience stuffy noses, flush skin and headaches.

We’ve been drinking alcoholic products for at least 10,000 years, perhaps longer.  The fermentations back then were a natural phenomenon (naturally occurring yeast).  The thing is this.  In Europe, they pride themselves on grape varieties and terroir (the climate, soil type, subsoil type) to make their wines over mass manipulation of wines.  I got to try in college 65 and 100 year old wines, wines that tasted great even at that ancient age, and they weren’t made with all of the additives that today’s modern winemaker is armed with.  And so many people have told me that they have traveled to Italy, drank too much wine and awakened the next day refreshed and fine. 

Environmental mismatch science is the science in which disturbances arrive in our bodies and cause disruption from unforeseen chemicals which our bodies simply have not adapted to experiencing.  When I tried the 65 and 100 year old wines and found them to taste fantastic, I immediately realized that we didn’t need the additives that our US universities say we need to use in winemaking.  Then, it dawns on me rather readily.  Rarely, if ever, do I run into anyone who drinks the Italian wine in Italy and they experience unpleasantries with their body.  The same with Turtle Run wines.  We don’t use the great many myriads of additives and nor do they.  Consumers don’t experience the health problems with our wines or their wines.  So it’s something having to do with the additives.

Coud it be insect coloring agents that cause our bodies to create a histamine reaction?   Perhaps.  Or concentration coloring agents from the skins which concentrate too many histamines?  Perhaps.

All I know is this.  Natural wines, following the natural ways to make wines, do not cause people immediate health issues.  Yes, I would definitively love to know the answer – it’s the Holy Grail for me.  But I have several pretty solid hypothesis and by avoiding those additives and fining agents, our wines don’t cause those immediate disruptions, so we’ll continue to make wines this way and just forge our own direction – for the good of the consumer.



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