Monday, January 11, 2016

Apple #724: Champagne and Headaches

I was talking with a co-worker about various Christmas and New Year's celebrations we each had in the past month or so, we discovered we'd both had some champagne. She said, "I don't usually drink champagne because it always gives me a headache."

I said that was usually true for me too, but this particular time, I didn't get a headache.  I suspected this was because the champagne that was purchased for the group was higher-quality than what I've had at New Year's celebrations in the past.

My co-worker and I aren't alone in this champagne-gives-me-headaches business, I know.  I've heard other people say that of champagne.  But why is that?  Is it something to do with how champagne is made compared to other wines?  And please don't say it's the bubbles.

Champagne: festive beverage, or headache producer? This champagne is from Château de Bligny in France.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

  • First of all, let's get it off the table right now that if you drink too much of any alcohol, you're going to get a headache.  That's a given. But I'm not talking about hangover headaches, I'm talking about drink half a glass and bang, you've got a headache.  This happens to me only with champagne and with no other alcohol that I've tried.
  • There are a lot of theories out there that say various compounds in this or that wine may give you a headache.  Most of the compounds are those that are present in red wines -- sulfites or tyramines, or tannins from the barrels in which the red wines are aged or fermented -- but champagne is a white wine, so none of those can be the headache-inducing culprits in champagne.
  • The other compounds which people say could be a factor are histamines.  Yes, the same thing that can trigger allergic reactions or make you sneeze. If you drink a wine that has lots of histamine in it, your blood vessels could dilate in response to the histamine, and bang, you've got a headache.
  • However. Sources disagree about whether white wine has more or fewer histamines than red wine. Histamines come from the grape skins, one source says. Champagne does not have grape skins, as you'll learn, so there won't be histamines there. Histamine comes from bubbly wines, another source says. But how can there be histamine in carbon dioxide? I smell a poorly-researched explanation that's just getting passed around the internet without any rigorous inquiry.
  • I also think the histamine explanation is kind of bogus. It smacks of Americans' tendency to view food and drink as a vitamin-resource or a curative thing or a nutritionally problematic thing, and if you eat this like a pill or drink that like a restorative draft you'll be healed.  
  • The theory that holds more water with me is that most champagne is bad liquor.  It's not the champagne that's giving you the headache, it's the badness of it.
  • The reason I think this is probably the truth is I discovered this about gin.  If I had some well gin, the next day I'd have a powerfully bad headache. But when I upgraded to Tanqueray, the headache the next day was not so bad.  I upgraded further to Bombay Sapphire. Barely a headache, if any at all the next day.  So Bombay Sapphire is my gin of choice and I've enjoyed all the gin & tonics I've had since.

Bombay Sapphire. Fewer headaches than the well gin. It's their big selling point.
(Photo from Bacardi Limited)

  • Back to the champagne.
  • People who actually know things about wine (this is not me) say that most of the stuff that's drunk on New Year's Eve or other celebratory occasions is not actually champagne.  It's white and it's bubbly, and it's got the word champagne on the label, but it's a distant imitation of the real stuff.
  • Real champagne is first of all made not in California or Australia or who knows where else, but in the northeast region of France called Champagne.
  • This is not just the French being snooty; actual champagne from Champagne has several characteristics that make it unique -- and better, compared to sparkly stuff made elsewhere.

The northern region in France called Champagne includes the town of Riems, which is the visually impaired Dom Pierre Pérignon's Benedictine monastery was located.
(Map from Wine Lovers Village)

  • To explain this, let me tell you a story.  In the late 1600s, the only wine being made was red wine. A nearly blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon (Dom is an honorary title for monks) took over as cellar master for his monastery.  The red wine that his monastery was producing was coming out as a pinkish red because of the cooler temperatures of the region where they lived.  The king was preferring a darker red wine from Bourgogne -- a Burgundy -- so Pérignon wanted to try to make his wine competitive.
  • Worse, not only was his wine turning out pink, it had bubbles in it.  This was a mistake!  Wine is not supposed to have bubbles!  
  • The cause of the bubbles was the same as the reason for the pink color: the region's cooler temperatures (Riems is at about the same latitude as southern Canada). When the monks bottled their pink wine, the cooler temperatures halted the fermentation process.  Then when spring came along and warmed up the wine in the bottles, the fermentation started up again.  The resulting gases could not escape inside the sealed bottles, so the wine became bubbly.
  • The bubbles were causing all kinds of problems, actually.  Come springtime, bottles of wine were exploding in the cellar, shattering glass and spraying wine everywhere.  If the glass wasn't exploding, the stoppers that were made of hemp and oil were shooting out and wine was spraying everywhere.  The Dom had to do something to fix the problem.

Statue of Dom Pierre Pérignon
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • Pérignon made various alterations to try to get rid of the bubbles: he removed the skins of the grapes, and he declared that the grapes should be pressed quickly and efficiently to keep any part of the skin out of the resulting juices. 
  • He also experimented with blending three types of grapes: Pinot Noir (red grape that hails from nearby Burgundy), Chardonnay (white wine grape also from Burgundy), and Pinot Meunier (red wine grape which, by itself, does not produce stellar wines).
  • He further dictated lots of quality improvements: the first press (cuvée) of grapes should be achieved  only by the weight of the grapes piled on top of each other.  Any bruised grapes were to be rejected. Harvesting was to be done only in the cool of the morning. The vines should be pruned so as to grow no taller than 3 feet, which would produce small, flavorful, and easily harvested yields.
  • Legend has it that when Pérignon tasted his new 3-grape blend (the first white wine, by the way), he said, "Come quickly, brothers! I'm tasting stars!"  (True champagne enthusiasts will dismiss this story as hogwash.) His new wine was lighter in color and although the bubbles weren't entirely gone, he found the new wine so delightful, he decided to keep going with it. The king apparently found it delightful, too.
  • Pérignon came up with still more improvements.  He changed the shape of the bottle and used heavier glass, which kept the bottles from exploding. He also had stoppers made of cork shipped from Spain, and the cork did not shoot out of the bottles as the other stoppers did.  So he and his monastery continued to produce champagne -- the wine named after the region where they lived -- to great success.
  • About a hundred years later, a young Frenchwoman whose husband died unexpectedly took over the running of his champagne house.  She improved her husband's product still further.  This was the Widow (Veuve, in French) Clicquot.
  • She had her cellar master rotate the bottles once a day to reduce the build-up of bubbles. She also had the bottles stored on their sides so the sediment collected there, and then she had the bottles uncorked during the second fermentation period (in the spring, when temperatures warmed up again). The bubbles that had accumulated would force the collected sediment out of the bottles, and then they would be re-corked to retain the wine.

Champagne bottle tipped sideways, sediment visible at the bottom. This is what they would uncork the bottle to get rid of.
(Photo from Ekaloria)

Champagne bottles are stored on special racks that allow the neck to tilt downwards. Each day the bottles are rotated and the racks are tilted so that by the end of the process, the bottles are almost entirely upside down.
(Photo from Ekaloria)

  • These two procedures, called riddling and dégorgement respectively, are still undertaken in houses that produce the real French Champagne (together, these processes are called the méthode traditionelle).  It's very expensive to have somebody turn each bottle of wine each day, and then undertake the tricky business of getting rid of the sediment and re-corking the bottles without losing the wine. 
  • Places that produce the cheap stuff don't do these things.  Or they may do the riddling and the disgorging, but they don't use the particular 3-grape blend  (most omit the lesser-known Pinot Meunier). The worst offenders use the cheapest white grapes/wine available, they dump a crapton of sugar into it, they don't put the wine through a second fermentation period but rather inject the bubbles into the wine, and they don't even age the wine in bottles but use vats.
  • You see? Once you know how the real stuff is make, the pretend process seems pretty offensive, doesn't it?
  • But people buy the cheap stuff because it's much more affordable than the real thing. Unfortunately, with the cheap stuff you get headaches. 
  • I return to my initial question, why should that be?

Och, if only I'd gone for the actual champagne instead of the cheap-o sparkling wine!
(Photo from Juicing for Health)

  • Any cheaply made liquor is going to be harder on the noggin than better-made stuff because the better-made stuff has gone through more processes that remove the impurities.  The liquor has gone through extra distillation or filtration of some sort so that the sludgy by-products of fermentation have been removed.  When you buy a more expensive bottle of liquor or wine, the extra that you're paying for is mostly someone's time to make the contents of the bottle better.
  • The bad by-products of fermentation that the better houses filter out can't be processed by our bodies.  Our bodies therefore interpret those by-products as toxic. Poison. Drink a little of it, you get a headache. Drink a lot of it, you throw up.  The more poorly-made the thing is that you're drinking, the faster you're going to hit those toxic levels and get a headache or other Reject signals from your body.
  • So I'm going to recommend that, if you're going to go with champagne, choose the higher-priced and probably better-made stuff if you can. The truly good stuff can go for around $100 to $200 a bottle, so that may not be the best choice for most people.
  • The true French Champagnes are made by vintners you've heard of: Mumm, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Perrier-Jouet, Moet et Chandon, Louis Roederer, etc.  But they are often really expensive. Are there other options to choose that might be tasty and non-headachey but that aren't so pricey?
  • There are some vintners in California which are owned by French wineries. They grow their grapes in the Champagne district and ship them to California where they use nearly all French grapes and maybe some California grapes to bottle and produce the wines there. These California-produced wines are called champagne, even though they don't entirely originate in Champagne. These French-American champagnes include
    • Domaine Cameros (owned by Taittinger in France)
    • Domaine Chandon (owned by Moet and Chandon in France)
    • Mumm Cuvee Napa (owned by G.H. Mumm in France)
    • Piper Sonoma (owned by Piper-Heidsick in France) 
    • Roederer Estate (owned by Louis Roederer)
  • Also, it is better to choose the Brut (dry) champagne because this means it's not as sweet. Extra-dry is a little sweeter than Brut. Sec or demi-sec and it's downright sweet. The sweeter the champagne, the more likely it is to make your head hurt. 
  • If the bottle says cuvée, that means it's made from the first press of grapes. Like extra virgin olive oil, that means it's the good stuff. If it says faille, it means it's from the second press. Not so good.
  • If the bottle says "charmat bulk" or just plain "charmat," that means it was fermented in a vat. Put that bottle down and run in the other direction.

Once the champagne is poured, the bubbles are an indicator of its quality. The bubbles should be small -- pinpoint size or smaller -- and they should travel in a trail up from the bottom or along the sides of the glass.  Large bubbles mean more gas, which means more impurities in the champagne. Bubbles that cling to the glass as opposed to traveling indicate a lower-quality champagne -- and in fact, it's probably only a sparkling wine.
(Photo from Fodor's Travel)

  • Even those California/French hybrids can be costly, so some people will choose the even less expensive stuff anyway. But be warned, if you choose a cheap masquerader instead of the real thing, your body will start giving you the Toxic Alarm (headache) signal way sooner than you'd like, and you won't enjoy it much at all. And the whole point of champagne, after all, is to enjoy it.
  • Finally, a serving tip: If you do serve true champagne, do not wrap a towel or napkin around the label.  This may seem to us now like a tried & true convention, but it's only become common when waiters were instructed to hide the cheap-o label so the host could pass it off as the good stuff.  Richard Nixon was famous for serving himself Chateau Lafite Rothschild or similarly super-expensive wines and then serving his guests dreck and having the waiters cover the label so they'd assume they were getting the good stuff too. The practice of obscuring the label for this purpose is called "pulling a Nixon."

If you're going to go to all the trouble of purchasing a real Champagne, don't go hiding the label with a towel. You wouldn't want anyone to suspect you of pulling a Nixon, would you? Pour the champagne as you would any wine, but keep the towel handy to catch any condensation drips.
(Photo from WikiHow)

  • P.P.S. Some research suggests that compounds in the 3-grape blend in Champagne may improve spatial memory, our ability to navigate and perform complex tasks. Researchers are investigating champagne as a substance that may delay or possibly even prevent dementia.

champagnebythebottle, Champagne headache (Why you don't get them from Champagne)
Wine Searcher, Champagne Blend Wine
Etiquette Scholar, Champagne
Laurel Hiestand, The Story of Champagne
The Wine Company, Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne, December 6, 2012
About Food, Champagne History
Ekaloria, Champagne -- The Most Delightful and Romantic Wine in the World
CNN Money, Why this champagne costs $2,000 a bottle, November 7, 2014
Veni, Vidi, Vino, Wine FAQ: Why Do Some Wines Give Me Headaches? July 21, 2013
Gizmodo, Why Cheap Booze Makes Your Hangover So Horrible, 12/7/2012
The Wall Street Journal, Why Do I Get Headaches From Wine?
MigreLief, Don't Start the New Year with a Champagne Headache, December 28, 2011
David Wolfe, Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease with Champagne

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