When it comes to waking up feeling fresh after a night out, bubbles often get a bad wrap, and I see it as one of my missions in life to help people understand what the issue might really be and develop the art of indulging without the headache.
When I tell people about The Bubbles Review, mostly I get an excited response, but sometimes people tell me that “I tried champagne when I was younger and it made me sick, so I haven’t drunk it since.”
My next question is to ask when that was. If it was as a teenager, I then ask if they know what they drank? My response is usually that is more likely the quality of the fizz they were drinking, than it was champagne. And it is probably more than likely that they were not actually drinking champagne!
“Bubbles gives me a headache.” Once I again, I tend to ask a few more questions. I would suggest that it was the quality (and perhaps the quantity) of the drink, not the bubbles.
If I am handed a glass of bubbles at a function and I don’t know what it is, and at first sip I get a hint of a headache in the making, I’ll sit out and drink a glass of something else, even sparkling water. I’d rather feel good the next day than drink bad wine, and life is too short to drink bad sparkling!
I also ask what they drank after the champagne? The story then leads onto the other drinks they had. I find mixing the drinks is often the issue. If I stick to good champagne or sparkling and drink water in between, I wake up fresh the next day.
Tasting sparklings in tasting pours and having little food tastes in between is one of my favourite ways to try sparkling wine. It’s a great way to test to see the different wine styles that you like, and it is why we chose this format for one of our main events – The Bubbles Festival. Even with tasting pours though, the amount you taste can be surprising. We do indicate that to our guests before they come, and a 2-hour tasting session is the perfect amount of time to taste a responsible amount and still leave bubbly. If you then go and drink more afterwards, that’s not the result from our event!
I sat in on an interview with Clovis Taittinger from Champagne Taittinger a few years ago, and I loved one of his quotes – “Taittinger will look after you.” You’ll still wake up fresh the next day.
But let’s add a bit of scientific research into the mix.
Bubbles go straight to my head!
There have been a few scientific studies conducted at different universities around the world that indicate that with bubbles, you get a faster rate of absorption. It is thought that the carbon dioxide (bubbles) move the alcohol through your system more quickly. This can produce higher blood alcohol levels (and brain levels), if you drink sparkling wine as opposed to something non-carbonated. It’s also been mentioned that this effect may also occur with carbonate mixers in other alcoholic drinks and drinking carbonated water along with wine. I’ve then read interpretations that some scientists go on to say that it is this that makes the hangover worse and to avoid champagne. I would argue that there could still be a range of factors to consider. My personal interpretation is that if it moves the alcohol through your system more quickly, and you pace yourself accordingly, and have a gap between glasses and stay hydrated in between, then you’ll be more likely to have it out of your system earlier.
We want to keep those beautiful bubbles! Not only do they add to the mouth feel and experience of them bursting onto your palate, but they also contribute to the flavour and aroma of champagne, because they oxygenate the wine after it’s poured and this diffuses compounds in the wine with them as they rise.
And you’re consuming less alcohol than with a lot of still wines (or spirits), as most sparkling wines are lower in alcohol. Proseccos are usually around 11%, and champagne and other sparklings around 12–12.5%. Other wines are usually around 13–15%.
This article includes my interpretation of information and personal opinion. I’m not a scientist, or a medical expert, so if you are having reactions from drinking bubbles then please seek further advice. We do not suggest that anything in this article represents medical advice or a replacement for medical advice.
A small sip gives me a headache – let’s explore some possible causes.
It’s the sulfites
There is a heap of research about this, and at The Bubbles Review we try to keep things simple, rather than quoting all the scientific data. I’ll break it down to a few points that might be of interest, and if it piques your interest or concern, I suggest you investigate further.
Sulfites are found naturally on grapes, and sulfur is also commonly added in small amounts at the beginning of fermentation and prior to bottling. Typically, red wines have about 50–350 ppm (parts per million), and white wines have more because of the sensitivity to light, heat, and discoloration with about 250–450 ppm. The general litmus test for sulfites sensitivity is dried fruit. Dried mangos and apricots contain about 4–10 times as many sulfites as wine (1,000–3,000 ppm).
Preservative (INS 220) (popularly known as sulphur dioxide), is a food additive that is used as a food and wine preservative. Its main role is to prevent enzymatic and bacterial spoilage of food products. The use of sulphur dioxide goes back to Roman times, where they would use it to help preserve wine. It is commonly added in foods and beverages like dried fruits, pickled vegetables, sausages, fruit and vegetable juices, cider vinegar and wine.
Preservative (E 224) is a food additive that is a well-established and proven preservative used in the wine and food industries. It is a white crystalline powder that is a potassium salt of sulphurous acid. Preservative (E 224) is commonly added to wine or must (crushed grape juice – that contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit) in which it forms sulfur dioxide gas (SO2). This helps prevent micro-organisms from growing, and it acts as an antioxidant, protecting the colour and delicate flavours of wine. It is also used to preserve the taste of dehydrated foods and makes these foods more palatable. It is also used to preserve frozen vegetables, frozen shellfish, fruit juice, and pickles and increases their shelf-life.
About 1% of the population is allergic to sulphites and some people have a reaction to certain preservatives – namely 220 and 224 – that are often found in wine. These allergic reactions can be severe, and if you think it is a concern, it is a good idea to get tested. It is because of the health concern for the sensitive population, depending on the country you’re in, wines with sulfites (the limit amount may vary in different countries), anything above 10 ppm must be labeled with ‘contains sulfites’.
From the research that I have read, for most of us it is probably more likely the tannins or a reaction to another compound. Here is a breakdown of a few:
Sulfites – Naturally occurring substances in wine that are created as part of the fermentation process. Additional sulfites are often added to wine prevent oxidation and maintain freshness. Sulfites also naturally exist in eggs, teas, and other fermented foods, plus sulfites are added to other foods (like baked goods) to help maintain freshness.
Tannins – Naturally-existing compounds in plants with extremely astringent properties, contributing to bitterness and the dry mouth feeling present in bold wines (such as cabernet). Tannins are heavily present in all parts of the grape plant (seeds, skins, and stems), therefore red wines (that are typically fermented with these parts), tend to have more tannins than white wines. They are less present in most sparklings, as they don’t typically spend time on skins after pressing. This is certainly something to keep in mind, as some people are sensitive to tannins.
Tyramine – Another natural food-based phenomenon, this compound is created from the breakdown of a specific amino acid and is also often found in aged or fermented foods like cheese and wine. High amounts of tyramine in the blood can affect blood pressure.
Histamine – Yet another compound created through the fermentation process, histamine is also produced by the body’s immune system. A specific enzyme is needed to process histamine and those with lower levels of this enzyme may experience adverse effects.
There are some producers making sulfite-free wines, and this could be something for you to explore. If you’re have a reaction with sulfite-free wines, some recent research suggests that the culprit is more likely to be a group of compounds called biogenic amines (BA). Present in all fermented food and drink, BAs increase with food spoilage. They’re produced from amino acids via enzymic activity in living organisms like microbes, most often a subset of bacteria. The best-known biogenic amine – histamine – is produced when microbes remove carbon dioxide from the amino acid histidine. Histamine is also produced by the body and is involved in immune and allergic responses.
There are many methods and tools that winemakers use to make wine, and with sparkling this includes the first fermentation process to create the still wine, and then the second fermentation process to create the bubbles.
For the second fermentation, it takes years to create a traditional method sparkling, which is why this wine will usually have a higher price tag. Quicker methods are the Charmat or Tank Method, which can be done in weeks. It has spent time on lees (yeast), which creates complexity, but not a great length of time or concentrated as it is not in bottle but in a large tank. It creates a wine displaying more fruitier characteristics. Another method that is used that is the cheapest method is pure carbonation. This is adding Co2 to a still wine – yes just like a soda stream!
Spumante just means Sparkling Wine in Italian. But if you were drinking sparkling wine in Australia in the 70s and 80s, you may remember colloquially the ‘spu’ part of this word was used to describe some wines. The trend was for very sweet and cheap wines on the market. Don’t let the name fool you, we have some lovely sparkling wines from Italy available in Australia today. If you see the name Spumante on the bottle, it just means sparkling, no need to think back to your teenage years.
Cheaper wines can often mean cheaper processes, or additives to try to emulate qualities of more complex wines. This can include higher alcohol and added sugar. Price is not always an indicator, but it often is.
Sugar in wines
We are noticing a trend for low or no sugar wines on the market. Looking after your health by seeking drinks that are low in sugar is a good idea. The good news is most sparklings are already low in sugar! If it says Brut on the label, which most champagnes are, it is somewhere between zero to less than 12 gms of residual sugar. If it says Extra Brut, it is the drier scale of Brut at below 6 gms, and Brut Nature or Brut Zero is 0–2 gms. Confusingly, higher than Brut on the sweetness scale is Extra Dry – you’ll often see Italian sparklings like Prosecco in this range, which is 12–17gms. Then it goes Dry, Half Dry then Doux, which is sweet at 50gms or more. I have noticed some companies promoting champagnes in the Brut Nature or Extra Brut as Keto wines. Yes, they are ‘Keto’, but they are designed for the wine style not a diet, just look for Brut Nature on the label. In the Extra-Brut range, it calculates at up to around 0.9 carbs per serving. Brut is up to 1.8 carbs per serving. Compare that to a potato at around 37 carbs. And your glass of bubbly is low calorie too, with the Brut range at less than 100 calories. You don’t need to buy bubbly sold as low sugar, just learn to read the labels. If you are interested to discover more about sweetness levels and labels, we cover this in our Tasting Techniques Masterclass in our online Bubbly Appreciation Course.
Now that we’ve finished the research bit, here are a few tips for staying bubbly!
Moderation – of course, consumption of alcohol in moderation is recommended.
Keep hydrated – it’s often easy to forget but keep hydrated and drink a glass of water for each glass of bubbles.
Eat something when you drink – food helps absorb alcohol. Champagne and sparkling wine is often served as a ‘pre’, an aperitif, the drink that you have before a meal. I do argue that champagne can definitely be paired with a full course menu, and I opt for this and tend to stick to champagne all evening. It’s also why we include food at our events including The Bubbles Festival. A good food match can also enhance the food and wine experience, as well as providing some absorption for the alcohol.
Invest in quality sparkling – if you’re drinking in moderation and staying hydrated, and still waking feeling ‘dusty’, it may be the quality of wine that you’re drinking. As I’ve matured in age (just like a fine wine), I’ve changed my preference to quality over quantity. I’d much rather have one glass of something of quality than more than that of cheap fizz. If you’re getting a headache from bubbles, it could from methods of cheap winemaking, which are often high in residual sugar and other additives.
Investigate the reaction
There are a lot of factors that can be causing a reaction. You could try some alcohol-free days in your week to see if it changes how you wake in the morning. I know when I had some gut health issues, I was still waking with low energy, even if I hadn’t had bubbles, and I understood there were other lifestyle aspects that needed to be addressed. If it is of concern, then seeking medical assistance and getting tested for allergies may be of benefit.
If you think it is a histamine reaction, tannins do cause reactions in some people and headaches are a possibility. If you are sensitive to tannins, then you may also have that reaction when drinking red wine or tea. Tyramine may also be to blame, as it can affect blood pressure and has also been suggested to cause headaches. If you also get a headache after eating aged cheeses, smoked fish or cured meat independently of wine, this may be a sign you have a tyramine sensitivity. You could investigate these and if it is the case with these, it is probably the same with all wines, not just bubbles. Antihistamines might be a relief if you find yourself suffering from this.
While sulfites can trigger reactions, and it seems that this is not typically headaches. There isn’t much science supporting the link with sulfites and headaches. Wine contains about 10 times fewer sulfites than dried fruits and several other foods, and if you’re not having a reaction to these, the sulfites in wine are probably not affecting you either.
On the other hand, for those of you who know or think you might be part of the 1% of the population who is allergic to sulphites or have a reaction to certain preservatives, avoiding products containing these are one solution. There are also a few products making their way onto the market that are aimed at helping you lower tannin and sulfite levels in wine, as well as rehydrate after a couple of glasses. While they are not TGA (or FDA in USA) approved treatments, they offer some interesting options. I recently tested Glow After, a product that you add a drop into your glass to negate the presence of sulphites. I tried it at home with a few different glasses of sparkling, and I detected a slight difference in aroma, bead, and flavour after adding (but I do have a sensitive nose and palate). If you think you’re having a reaction to preservatives, this could be something to try. This brand is Australian-owned by two female entrepreneurs based in Newcastle, NSW. The purpose of the preservatives to keep the wine pristine before you open it, but they are not necessary once the wine is poured. This product claims that by adding a drop, the level of sulphites left in your glass is so little that it is considered preservative free.
Bubbles with low or no alcohol
If you wanted to lower your alcohol consumption, there are new no or low alcohol wines coming onto the market that include sparklings. This can be a good way to still be out enjoying being social drinks with friends. I haven’t tested them but let me know if you do and if you have any feedback. Here are a few things to consider when choosing no or low alcohol alternatives.
Fermentation to create wine is what creates the alcohol. Winemakers work with this fermentation to get the desired end result of alcohol for their drink. It is also part of what creates the body in wine.
Some non-alcoholic wines are created using wine grape varieties that haven’t gone through the vinification process. They are really a varietal grape juice – pressed to get juice, but never fermented. More likely to be fresh and fruity like a juice.
What is becoming more prevalent is dealcoholized wine, going a step further than bottled varietal juice by taking fully vinified wine and then removing the alcohol. This process is more likely to produce something that tastes more like a ‘normal wine’. Some people tell me they can’t tell the difference.
Then there are Proxies. As the name suggests – a proxy is someone with the authority to represent someone else – they are not really a wine but are designed to emulate wine. Unlike dealcoholized wine, which is a wine first and then has the alcohol removed, proxies are made by layering ingredients like varietal wine grapes, fruits, teas, spices, bitters, and more, to produce the complexity, tannin, texture, acid, and body intrinsic in wine. Many proxies are designed specifically with a food pairing in mind. It does make me think it would be more like an iced tea that tastes like wine, or maybe a wine mixed with spice.
Don’t drink late at night
My favourite time for bubbles is lunch, afternoon, or early evening. Start early, home early. Time to recover before bed. You’ll see the timing for our events reflects this trend as well. Alcohol is known to cause dehydration, drops blood sugar levels, depletes minerals, and can disrupt your sleep. A good tip is to finish early (after dinner at latest), and drink a few glasses of water after your bubbles. Make sure you have a few alcohol-free hours before bed. It will help take out that 4am wakeup call you sometimes get after drinking alcohol (which alternative medicine practitioners have told me is the time your liver wakes you up processing the days events).
Have a bubbly morning
Ok, we like it for breakfast too! It’s the breakfast of celebrities, according to the quote from Marilyn Monroe “I go to bed with a few drops of Chanel No. 5, and I wake up each morning to a glass of Piper-Heidsieck; it warms me up.” As much as I love a champagne breakfast (and I do this on special occasions a couple of times a year), I’m not suggesting we take wellness advice from celebrities or that you drink champagne for breakfast daily. I find a glass of good quality sparkling mineral water will give you a lift in the morning – not just soda water, as it is the mineral replacement that makes the difference.
At The Bubbles Review we like to debunk the myths and make the art of drinking champagne and sparkling wine accessible. We do that with our blog, our courses, and events and tours. If you found this article interesting you may also like our:
Stay bubbly – cheers!
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Natalie Pickett is the Founder of The Bubbles Review which is for people who like champagne and other bubbles, written by people who have a love of all things sparkling! At The Bubbles Review, we like to debunk some myths, make the art of drinking champagne accessible, explore bubbly regions and champagne bars, and provide events for you to join us and indulge.