• Sulfites, tannins and GMO yeast.. Oh my!

    A couple of friends of mine have at different times asked me about wine headaches. What causes them? How can I find a wine that won’t give me a headache?

    The most common urban legend is that sulfites are to blame. There is the possibility that sulfites are the cause of your headaches, but it is highly unlikely, seeing as though the amount of people allergic to sulfites is about the same percentage as those allergic to peanuts – not a lot. Another reason sulfites are probably not the culprit is that they occur naturally in both red and white, and usually only one or the other causes headaches.

    Sulfites are often used on salad bars to preserve freshness. So, if you’re not getting headaches from the dinner buffet, then it’s gotta be something else.

    So, then – what are the something elseses?? (Yes, I know it’s a made up word.)

    Well, one cause could be the other elements of wine, such as tannins. Tannins and various chemicals break down with age, so you could try some older red wines and see if they solve the problem.

    If it is a histamine in the wine that is causing the aches, then try an antihistamine before drinking the wine. Zyrtec works as soon as an hour after ingestion and Claritin takes around 3 hours. If you don’t get a headache, then we know it’s something to do with a histamine.

    Like a detective following the clues so too shall we uncover the mystery.

    One such headache afflicted person is Hendrik van Vuuren. He is a professor of Biotechnology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Plagued by this headache conundrum and wanting to be able to imbibe, he and several others took up the challenge of finding a solution. Over the course of 14 years, utilizing resources of three universities, Hendrik found what may be a solution for some.

    A new GMO yeast strain, ML01, has recently been engineered to stop the production of the biogenic amine histamine. This histamine is typically produced when the wine goes through malolactic fermentation. However, ML01 bypasses this secondary stage by combining it with the original fermentation.

    If histamines are actually the problem, I can see why white wines that don’t see any of that ‘malo’ (for short) don’t give headaches, while reds do (remember that white wine has more sulfites naturally).

    Sidenote: The yeast strain would be filtered out after production, so no fear on it being GMO.

    Where can I find some of this wine to see if it works?

    Unfortunately it’s not widely available and is not required to be on the label so your guess is as good as mine.

    In an effort to figure out what causes the headaches, let me present another possibility.

    Let’s say you wake up one morning in a haze, lying on the hardwood floor thinking you lost an arm, only to find that it was merely asleep because you’d been dozing on it for hours. You look at the puddle of saliva pooling next to your mouth and a few disconcerting thoughts begin to slowly amble into the fog that is your consciousness.

    As you pull your arm out from under you and flop over onto your back, you notice a ceiling fan. ‘Hmm I don’t have a ceiling fan,’ you ponder, as you begin to poke the ghost arm, wondering if you’ve managed to permanently pinch the nerve this time. Soon the numb arm starts to tingle with a couple of prickles and after the moment of relief you get because the arm is still working you have a minor freak out knowing what’s next. Yup, it’s as if a thousand little sprites are stabbing their needle sized spears into that recently awakened arm. Ow.

    You forget about the pain long enough to realize that you’re naked. Panic sets in… hardwood floor, ceiling fan, no clothes. I’m in someone else’s house! You frantically look around, and take inventory. You’re in a living room, with a comfortable couch that you could have been sleeping on, several empty wine bottles, a garden gnome (weird), and a roll of paper towels. Rather than mopping up your saliva with the towels, you wrap them around your unmentionables until they feel like they won’t separate at the perforations as you walk. Walking towards the hallway to see if you can achieve a better understanding of your predicament, you slip on the saliva you left behind, slamming your head against the floor.
    ‘Bloody hell!’ you curse to yourself as you sit up to find your head throbbing…

    If this happened to you and you blame your headache on the wine. Well, I can’t help you.

    I’m not saying any of the above happened to me,

    Then again, I’m not saying it didn’t.