There was a great piece in the Chicago Tribune (http://trib.in/1Vj94Of) explaining the science behind red wine hangovers in layman-speak. Bottom line, it has nothing to do with sulfites. The reason many people think sulfites are the cause is because the statement about sulfite use is legally required to appear on the label. That’s often the only production or component information on the label, therefore it must be the cause. But correlation is not causation.
In point of fact, sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, and are also added in very small quantities to prevent oxidation and maintain the freshness of a wine through the production process and into the bottle. Their presence is so minimal– single digit ppm– they get a bad rap for doing good.
There are other factors that contribute to hangover headaches. All are natural byproducts of fermentation that in fact give the wine flavor, structure and mouthfeel. These include phenolyics, a large class of compounds which includes tannins (the “chalky” mouthfeel in red wines), flavonoids (the nutrient group known for the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits), and a host of other individual chemicals that contribute the individual flavors people sense: “green apple” (malic acid), “buttery” in Chardonnay (diacetyl) and so on.
Unfortunately, many of these chemicals have some unpleasant side effects. They can be diuretic and cause vasodilation which may contribute to the end result of a headache. Put them all together and it boils down to the body using up water to “process” the wine you drank. And that in turn causes dehydration which leads to a headache.
So Steve’s non-medical solution to avoiding hangovers? Simple. Just drink two glasses of water before you start drinking wine. And when you wake up in the middle of the night, to, well, you know, drink a glass of water then too. Chances are you’ll wake up feeling fine.