I was at a dinner party recently when I noticed that a longtime red wine-drinking friend of mine was nursing a soft drink. Not being one to pry (yeah, right), I asked him if he was nursing a cold. "No," he replied. "Red wine gives me a headache." Now I know that there are far greater tragedies in this world, but if you're a wine writer, this ranks right up there with total destruction of the universe.
It turns out that my friend's affliction began about a year ago. He noticed that each time he enjoyed a glass of red wine, he got a headache. They started off mild at first, but after six months or so, they quickly escalated. Headaches associated with minimum ingestion of red wine are nothing new, of course. Red wine headache (RWH) is a well-documented condition that results in headaches, and sometimes nausea, after drinking small amounts of red wine. The specific cause associated with RWH is unclear, but my friend swears he knows the answer -- oak.
While many people assume that RWH has something to do with sulfites, it is more likely that other elements are responsible, since less than 1 percent of the population is sensitive to sulfites. Tannins are another popular hypothesis. They are found in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, and because red wine gets its red color from prolonged contact with the grape skins, red wines have a higher concentration of tannin extract. But the oak used for barrels and casks also departs a fair amount of tannin into wines, along with other chemical compounds. And therein lies the rub.
My friend is convinced that his RWH stems from an allergic reaction to oak. The problem is, almost every red wine made is in oak, so you would be hard-pressed to find a decent red wine that is produced "naked" -- until now. Retail prices are approximate.
In the 2011 Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir ($12) from Mendoza, Argentina, the delicate pinot noir grape is actually aged for eight months in "neutral" oak barrels so the bright fruit shines through. Floral aromas of cherry and strawberry on the nose lead into flavors of red berries and plums on the soft frame. Highlights of graphite and earth appear on the smooth, supple finish. QPR 8.5
The 2011 Cigar Box Reserve Malbec ($12) from Mendoza, Argentina, is carefully fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. The interesting thing about this wine is the vanilla highlights on the nose, which are typically associated with oak aging. The big mouthfeel features flavors of blackberry jam, dark plum and hints of pepper. The finish is rich and intense with penetrating notes of dark chocolate. QPR 9
Grenache usually needs a bit of oak to tame its intense flavors. But the 2009 Quo Old Vine Grenache ($15) from Campo de Borja, Spain, works well without it. Intense aromas of red cherries and plums mingle with notes of green olive and spice on the nose. Medium-bodied and well-structured, the focused flavors of black cherry and wild berries play out on a smooth, pleasing finish. QPR 8
From the largest wine-producing area in the southern end of France comes the 2009 Cabirau Malgre Les Fonctionnaires Grenache ($15) from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. A soft, mellow red with scents of berries, raspberries and cherries on the fragrant bouquet. It is well-balanced, displaying flavors of plum, cherry and warm earthiness with lively acidity and a smooth, round finish. QPR 8
The barbera grape is known for producing wines with low tannins and high levels of acidity. The 2009 Cascina Adelaide Barbera d'Alba Le Mie Donne ($20) from Piedmont, Italy is dry, well-balanced and delightful, with concentrated aromas of fresh red berries and violets on the nose and flavors of ripe cherry, red plum and a hint of licorice on the mellow finish. High acidity keeps the palate bright and fresh. QPR 7.5
Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.