Natural Wine Causes More Headaches For Wine Drinkers and Natural Wine

New research shows that one of Natural Wine’s most important claims, that it contains fewer nasty sulfites than (what do they call it? “Commercial”? “Industrial”) wines is in fact a headache-inducing circumstance. In other words, the new research shows that wines with low levels of sulfites are more likely to leave a drinker with a post-drinking headache due to the fact that these low sulfite wines have greater levels of biogenic amines, the compound likely to cause headaches.

I find this funny.

Writing for VinePair about this new research, Julia Larson didn’t find this news as funny as I did, but she does take aim at the funnybone when she wrote, “Nowadays, it’s a common practice among so-called “natural” producers to not add sulfur dioxide (SO2) during winemaking. And many have been eager to tout the health benefits of not doing so, saying that drinking natural wine reduces the chance of headaches and hangovers.”

The champions of Natural Wine have been getting it wrong for years and the new research showing that their fixation on low levels of sulfites is more headache-inducing than non-Natural wines is just one more evidence of their disassociation with reality. But the new research is unlikely to persuade the Natural Wine Brigade. Nearly a year ago, writing in Saveur, Ben Kemper investigated the claim that “conventional” wine with its higher sulfite levels caused wine headaches. To fully flesh out this claim, he spoke with the doyenne of Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron:

“Legeron insisted that there must be a connection, even if the science hasn’t caught up yet. When she accidentally drinks higher-sulfite wine, for instance, she does get headaches. “It’s probably the combination of sulfites and alcohol that brings on headaches,” she told me over the phone. “There isn’t enough research to prove things one way or the other, because getting people drunk for science presents ethical issues.” (Biogenic amines are another possible headache factor, but that’s a tale for another time.)”

Well, there is research now.

Ms. Legeron has been making the “Natural Wine = No Headache” for a very long time. Back in 2013 I quoted her in this blog on the issue of headaches:

Natural wines result in fewer hangovers] This is only based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, but I certainly feel much worse if I drink conventional wine, especially pounding headaches. But again, this is hardly surprising as approximately 60 additives are allowed for use in winemaking by law, and none of them have to be included on the label.”


But in fact, getting the science wrong is the worst sin of the Natural Wine Community. The worst sin is their long-running insinuation that those “commercial” or “industrial” or “conventional” wines (read: anything other than “natural wine”) provide no authenticity, are all the same, and don’t express terroir. Again, back in 2013, I quoted Fabio Bartolomei, winemaker at Vinos Ambiz concerning Natural Wine:

“I think we’ve been living in ‘Parkerworld’ for the last few decades, and many consumers are fed up with homogenized supermarket wines, and now need a bit of singularity, uniqueness and authenticity, not to mention some real quality. So natural wines fill a need for authenticity, for a singular product that was made by a real person, and that tastes unique, and that expresses the terroir of where it came from.”

The other lie Natural Wine proponents have long been telling is that if it isn’t Natural Wine, then it’s a chemical soup. In 2016 I quoted April Kilcrease, writing in the East Bay Express, concerning a new Natural Wine bar. Like so many other champions of Natural Wine have done over the years, she implies that non-natural wine is bad for you because it always includes ugly additives:

“While many consumers assume that grapes are all that goes into a bottle of wine, a typical recipe can read more like a chemistry experiment.”

Over the years I’ve come to understand what Natural Wine marketers and champions do as nothing more than “Denigration Marketing”, that cynical form of sales and marketing that requires other wines to be disparaged in order to promote their own wines. In fact, this form of marketing Natural Wine begins with the very name, “natural”. The moniker is absurd, in every respect. Of course, it’s all unethical too. Everyone knows this. But too many have been willing to give the natural wine world a pass.

Now, what I wonder is, if given the research that Natural Wine is likely, with its fewer Sulfites, to cause more headaches, will the champions and marketers of Natural Wine refrain from claiming the stuff causes fewer headaches? Will they return to the question and retract their claims? Will they make any mention at all of the headache-inducing character of their “natural” wine?

Posted In: Natural Wine


11 Responses

  1. Ken Volk - December 1, 2021

    Regardless if a wine is produced by natural or by conventional wine making techniques. The wine industry is obliged to produce wines that are safe for human consumption and that are stable enough to age for a reasonable time period.
    Unfortunately, in both wine production camps, there are wineries that fail to do so.
    I personally prefer to use cultured yeasts and bacteria but that does not make a natural wine making wrong.
    In regards to headaches and true health dangers I’m most concerned with
    Biogenic amines potentially produced by rogue microorganisms metabolizing amino acids.
    Putrescine and Cadaverine can be produced by some strains of malolactic bacteria which will not only give you a headache but are known carcinogenic compounds.
    High levels of Sulphur Dioxide will give you headache but so does alcohol consumption.
    Keep it clean and cultured, an everything in moderation

  2. Cindy Ranz - December 2, 2021

    Could you cite the source of the research please. Thank you.

  3. Tom Wark - December 2, 2021


    See the linked article.

  4. Brett Isenhower - December 2, 2021

    I have banged a spoon on my high chair for years that biogenic amines are the cause of headaches among middle aged (esp. female) wine consumers. It is not SO2. There is more SO2 in dried fruit and salad bars than almost all wines.

    Biogenic amines are caused by pediococcus sp. and are commonly found in wines that are poorly cared for in the cellar. High pH, low free SO2, damaged fruit, bad barrel topping protocols, lack of argon/nitrogen/CO2 gas applied to tank headspace, inadequate barrel sanitation, … all can lead to biogenic amines production in wine.

    A lack of filtration of wines can leave pediococcus in the bottle to have a good time producing biogenic amines.

    Dehydration is also a cause of headaches after an enjoyable evening of wine consumption. Wine (re alcohol) is a diuretic. Drink water and wine.

  5. Aaron Lieberman - December 3, 2021

    Thank you for this article and everyone for the comments. I’ve been telling wine consumers for years that biogenic amines rather than sulfites are the likely culprits when it comes to hangovers and headaches. It will take a lot of time and effort to counter the conventional wisdom around wine and sulfites even with articles like Parker-Thomson’s. I did find some other assertions in these articles interesting. One being that white wines tend to have higher sulfite levels than red wines. In my winemaking program white wines typically have much lower total sulfite levels than reds because white wine pHs are almost always lower than reds. So, the whites require much smaller additions of sulfite to achieve the same level of molecular SO2 which is the anti-bacterial form.
    I don’t think the importance of a clean cellar can be emphasized enough when it comes to this subject. Another important component here is nutrient management. Yeast usually needs less than 200mg/L of available nitrogen to complete a fermentation. Anything not consumed by the yeast is available for bacteria to use, including Pediococcus sp.

  6. Donn Rutkoff - December 3, 2021

    Can someone expound or explain more what biogenic amines are. Where are they found in nature, where else might I be consuming, what role do they play in human biology?

    I do like to point out on occasion to customers, that alcohol is by far the dangerous thing in any alcohol beverage. The arsenic lawsuit a few years ago apparently died its deserved death, ditto the accusatio of use of termite poison in a fizzy drink brand. Termite poison at question is good old orange oil. Used to flavor fizzies, and to exterminate termites without tenting or arsenic or whatever else is used by termiters.

  7. Brett Isenhower - December 3, 2021

    A quick Wikipedia search will answer questions on biogenic amines. Most wine writers have little biochemistry knowledge and therefore do not help educate wine consumers about the human response to sulfur dioxide vs. biogenic amines.

    Alcohol, like all substances exposed to humans is toxic. Its all about the dose.

  8. Patricia - December 3, 2021

    Sophie Parker-Tomson’s Research formed the basis of her Institute of Masters of Wine Research Paper, (a.k.a. UK Master’s Dissertation) and was favourably received. Interesting and informative. She may kindly ‘share’ with others. Contact via the IMW website, if you wish. Another who believes that bio-genic amines are an issue is Schlumberger in Wien, Austria. Their not-basic-tour for MWs and professionals explains why they believe what they believe.

  9. Ken Volk - December 6, 2021

    Like virtually all organisms, grapes can harbor an array of microflora. Some strains of yeast, bacteria are capable of producing substrates that can make people ill. Yeast typically will produce an array Sulphur compounds during fermentation including Sulphur dioxide.
    A great tome of information regarding various micros that exist in wine and their metabolites they can produce is:
    Biology of Microorganisms on Grapes, in Must and in Wine, Editors Helmut Koenig, Gottfried Unden, Jürgen Frohlich, Springer Publications
    Chapter nine, gives an excellent coverage on both Biogenic amines, Ethyl Carbamate and Histamine production via the metabolism of amino acids by some strains malolactic bacteria.
    Ethyl Carbamates are carcinogenic at high concentrations and are present at some level in virtually all fermented foods and beverages.
    Histamines can cause allergic reactions and headaches be it caused by pollens, animal dander, foods, beverages…. Certain strains of malolactic bacteria (which there are 1000’s) can produce large concentration of histamines in wine and beer.
    Headaches and adverse side effects from wine can come from many potential sources so it is difficult to blame it on one cause. We all have different metabolisms and tolerances, that is why
    we have different reactions to the same wine.
    Remember the solution to pollution is dilution. Drink moderately an enjoy at least two volumes of water for every glass of wine.

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