4 MIN READ

Does Cheap Wine Really Give You a Headache?

Two wine corks mimic a boxing match
miriam-doerr/Getty Images


Never again.

It happens to the best of us. After a fun night laughing with friends over a glass or two (or four), you wake up feeling like someone’s taken an ice pick to your temples.

You reach for the Advil, gulp down the three glasses of water you should have been drinking over the course of the evening, and settle in for a few hours of misery. And you tell yourself you won’t let it happen again. Ever.

But as a Penny Hoarder, you may wonder if there’s a simpler solution than going full teetotaller, especially if your beverage of choice is vino.

Maybe your penchant for bargain wines is to blame for your headache. Everyone knows the cheaper the juice, the worse the fallout, right?

So, Does Cheap Wine Cause Headaches?

The short answer? No — or at least, not necessarily.

Headaches are only one of the set of nasty physical consequences of drinking too much, otherwise known as a hangover. Alcohol causes dehydration, inhibits vitamin absorption, interrupts sleep and produces toxic by-products as it’s metabolised, all of which might understandably leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck.

And when the wine is cheap and free-flowing, it’s easy to be less than rigorous when it comes to counting refills.

In other words, maybe you simply went a little too hard without realizing it.

But what about when you know you only had a glass or two and you still wake with a pounding noggin?

There are a few potential oenological culprits, to be sure, but none of them are directly related to the wine’s price tag.

For instance, a hangover can be made worse by the consuming sugar, which has its own delightful assortment of icky bodily ramifications, and doesn’t help if that $10 magnum of Moscato is your go-to vino.

However, some of the priciest wines on the market, such as French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokaji, are lusciously sweet and heavy on the residual sugar.

So you can’t call the low cost the problem. Give a dry wine a try and see how your head feels — you can find them for the same price as your sticky-sweet sipper.

Big red drinker? Some people have a sensitivity to tannins, the mouth-drying compounds from grape skins and seeds, and may get a headache after consuming them.

But again, some of the most tannic wines in the world are also the most expensive; it’s hard to find a sub-$50 bottle of Barolo. And white wines are extremely low in tannin, so if you’re plagued by headaches after a night of cheap merlot, it could be as simple as switching to a chardonnay at the same price point.

And while we’re on the topic of color, heads up: Red wines generally have a higher concentration of congeners, which are the impurities caused by fermentation that give darker liquors their unique flavors. According to the Mayo Clinic, congeners can augment hangover symptoms, including headaches — so there’s another point in favor of white wine for the headache prone. And that’s coming from a predominantly red drinker.

Many believe sulfites are to blame, perhaps because their inclusion is so prominently featured on wine labels. But according to Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, sulfites don’t cause headaches. They can, however, trigger allergy and asthma symptoms, he told the Wall Street Journal.

And either way, adding sulfur is a popular way to sterilize and safeguard wine for stable shelf-keeping, and some sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, so it can just as easily be found in premium bottles.

In other words, whether or not a specific wine results in a worse headache or hangover depends on a complex matrix of variables, both on the part of the wine itself and your personal physiology.

But it’s definitely not as simple as markdown = migraine.

Which is good news for wine-thirsty spendthrifts: If one cheap bottle (or box) consistently gives you a headache, simply try another one. Preferably dry and white, if you want to stack the odds in your favor. Just don’t get carried away and drink plenty of water.

Hey, life’s all about experimentation, right?

Cheers!

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

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