The question: I am sure you know that red wines are often listed as triggers for migraine headaches. My wife went to a function recently and returned home with the name of a red wine, Pascual Toso malbec, which her friends claimed is low in histamines, ingredients that apparently cause migraines. Have you heard of one red wine being lower in histamines than another? Do you know of any wine being "good" for migraines?
The answer: Research on the subject is all over the map, but it appears some wines are bigger headache hazards than others …
Histamines are part of a family of substances called biogenic amines, which have long been fingered as culprits in red-wine headaches. Amines are produced by otherwise harmless micro-organisms, often in the course of fermentation, and are found in many things we consume, including beer, cheese, sausages, bananas, chocolate, canned tuna and wine. Some people lack sufficient quantities of an enzyme that synthesizes dietary amines, leaving them susceptible to headaches or severe migraines.
While scientists have published many papers on the subject, I have yet to come across findings that could be called comprehensive. I must admit I don't know specifically whether the Pascual Toso malbec you cite is indeed low in amines. Amine content is not listed on wine labels but it does appear to vary depending on the specific soil and weather in the vineyard. One study has concluded that French wines have higher amine content than wines from several other countries. That study also concluded that California reds are particularly high. But that's painting the world with a broad brush. Amine content also depends on winemaking methods.
If you want a general guide, I believe it's safe to say that red wine tends to contain more amines than white. Several reasons may account for this, notably the fact that white wine, lacking the higher protective tannin content of most reds, is stabilized more frequently and to a higher degree with sulphur in the winery. Amines are produced by microbial activity, and sulphur is a germ killer. This fact also has led some researchers to speculate that organically produced wines, which tend to contain low amounts of sulphur, may in fact contain higher histamine levels than non-organic wines (another vast generalization). On the downside, some people have adverse reactions to sulphur. For them, white wine can be more problematic.
The red-wine-headache question is tricky. If Pascual Toso malbec works for you (or your wife) and you like the wine, it could be a solution – and probably a more practical answer than any you'll get from a doctor or wine expert.
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