Ever wonder why you can spend a whole evening drinking wine and wake up feeling fine, or drink just a glass or two and wake up with a pounding headache? The anti-hangover rallying cry is typically "avoid cheap wine," but when your next-day happiness is in question, it's good to have an arsenal of more specific tactics. So we turned to Jordan Kivelstadt (winemaker at Qualia Wines and founder of Silvertap Wines), Keith Emerson (winemaker at Vineyard 29), Ignacio Delgadillo (winemaker at Delgadillo Cellars), Kale Anderson (winemaker at Cliff Lede Vineyards) and Kent Jarman (winemaker at Joseph Kent Wines) to get some answers. We found that while wine hangovers are not an exact science, the level of pain in the morning is directly related to these things: Alcohol level, yeasts, oak flavor, tannins, additives, congeners and sulfites.
Here's their breakdown:
Alcohol: In the industry, wines with a lot of alcohol are referred to as “hot." While it's obvious that drinking a lot of "hot" wine will give you a hangover, it's not common knowledge that certain wines can have significantly different alcohol levels. There is a big difference between alcohol content in different varietals (Cabs have more alcohol than Chardonnays, for example) and even within a single varietal (Zins can vary significantly). Although you’d expect more alcohol in a fortified wine (like port), there are plenty of innocent-looking Cabs that will sneak up and bite you, so check those labels for alcohol levels so you're not surprised.
Yeasts: Histamines (your allergy pill is an anti-histamine) are created by the yeasts and bacteria present in wine during fermentation (how grape juice becomes wine). While at low levels they are rarely problematic, wild ferments (common in Pinot Noir) and problematic ferments (caused from high alcohol and rapid fermentations) can lead to a painful morning. Cheaper wines can have problematic ferments, which increase the likelihood of histamine formation, while high-end “cultured” yeasts generally produce less. The only way to avoid this is to be aware of what you’re buying and be willing to spend a little more to avoid the extra histamines and the clogged sinus headache they may cause.
Oak: Cheap oak (most wines are aged in oak barrels) is often charred to greater levels or treated with chemicals to increase the speed of flavor absorption while the wine ages (it's how they get that “oaky” flavor people always mention in tastings). However, those “burnt” chemicals and phenolics can transfer into the wine. To prevent headaches, avoid juice that is exposed to these cheap barrels. Before you buy a bottle, ask about the vineyard's oak aging process. There are plenty of good oaky wines that won't give you a killer hangover.
Tannins: If you've been wine tasting, you've heard about tannins — they're what give wine its structure and flavor. But there are many types of tannins, some occurring naturally and some chemically created. The addition of synthetic tannins can definitely cause some people to have a negative reaction. Also, seed and stem tannins — which commonly occur in wines from over-producing vineyards that rush the de-stemming process — are very bitter and harsh on the body. Drinking carefully made wines or those produced by smaller vineyards is the best way to keep this issue at bay. Most high-end wineries take this issue very seriously and some, like Bialla, even hand de-stem every single grape.
Additives: Most of us don’t realize that there are lots of secret additives that go into wines, including gelatins, egg whites, milk, fish oils, plastics, clays and many others. Most of these settle out over time, but there are others that don’t — namely flavor concentrates. These flavor concentrates (liquid oak, Mega Red and Purple, grape juice concentrate) and food-safe chemicals are used in inexpensive wines to make them taste like more expensive ones. This can lead to all kinds of trouble. Also, wines with high sugar content and low price tags cause trouble because "you can blend away a whole lot of defects with a little bit of sugar." So if you see residual sugars at the bottom of a bottle, it's a sign that the wine is going to be a hard one for your liver to process.
Congeners and Sulfites: Unfortunately, it's hard to avoid congeners, which are the chemicals produced during fermentation that can contribute to the symptoms of a hangover. Most wine contains quantities of it, but red wine has it in higher levels. Also, many people are also allergic to or have trouble processing “sulfites," which are added to preserve and sterilize wine. Sweet wines typically have slightly higher amounts of sulfites, so watch out for those sweet desert wines and tasty summer blends that go so well with BBQ and spicy foods.
Above all, the best way to avoid a hangover is to drink lots of water, avoid drinking wine on an empty stomach and get to know your wineries and the wines that you consume. You don’t have to be an expert or pick the most expensive bottle on the shelf to avoid a bad hangover, but now you can choose wisely, knowing that the premium you pay for a nice bottle isn’t just about the flavor or brand.