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KEITH BROFSKY/PHOTODISC

The question

I've developed serious headaches from various wines, reds in particular. I am of course going to seek a medical opinion. It may be that I'm becoming intolerant to alcohol in any form. There is also the possibility that I'm becoming allergic to tannins or additives such as sulphites. Could you recommend reds and whites that have low tannins, sulphites and other additives?

The answer

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Alcohol is, as you note, a likely culprit. A person need not overconsume wine to the point of inebriation to experience the downside of ethanol. Intolerance to alcohol is common and can exacerbate with age.

While you are wise to seek a medical opinion, I suspect you may not find a conclusive answer from that source. Smart doctors and wine scientists I've spoken with concede that the precise source of many wine intolerances remains a mystery.

You could, in fact, be sensitive to amines, which are produced by micro-organisms and are present in beer and cheese as well as wine. If you lack an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase, bingo, you'll get a migraine.

As you note, your problem could, on the other hand, be either tannins or sulphites. If you want to try avoiding tannins to test that theory, then steer clear of red wines. Tannins, which come from the skins and seeds of grapes as well as from oak barrels, exist in far higher concentrations in the former. White wines tend to be drawn off the grape skins prior to fermentation, and many are not aged in oak, so they are virtually tannin-free. Specifically, avoid fuller-bodied reds based on such thick-skinned red grapes as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Try lighter-tannin reds such as pinot noir and gamay. Or stick to purely whites, especially fresh, unoaked varieties such as riesling, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, to name just three.

Sulphites? They're generally added to wine to preserve freshness and guard against corrosion from oxygen, but they also are a natural byproduct of fermentation. It's hard to avoid sulphites entirely when it comes to fermented beverages. To get a sense of whether sulphites are giving you trouble, take white wines out of your rotation. Unlike reds, whose tannins act as antioxidants, whites generally require a stronger dose of added sulphur to keep them fresh.

I hope all this technical and possibly frightening discussion hasn't given you more of a headache than you already had.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.

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E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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