My Guide to 'Healthy' Wines
I spent my childhood running through vineyards and munching on grapes, tasting wine at dinner tables, drinking fresh-pressed grape juice at the crush facility, and sniffing the fermenting grapes in barrels. Growing up in a family that had vineyards, wine was a huge part of my life. Living in wine country, you can barely drive 5 minutes before you come across rolling hills of vineyards - and it is certainly a gorgeous sight.
But behind all of the glamour of the picturesque wineries and fancy tasting rooms is big agri-business. Farming grapes is a long and arduous process in and of itself, but once the grapes are harvested, they go through a lot of manipulation before the juice, turned into wine, finally reaches your glass. Like any agriculture, growing grapes is done in many different fashions, but because it is a mono-crop, there have been many technological and chemical changes in the past two decades that have been developed to cut costs, increase mass-farming, and increase output.
As someone who thoroughly enjoys a glass of wine, and has also seen the behind-the-scenes of the wine industry - I thought it was time I shared some facts about what is actually hiding in your glass, the difference between conventional and organic farming, how to choose better wines, and why it's high time you considered wine a part of your wellness regimen (yes, I'm serious).
So what are you actually drinking in your wine glass?
Contrary to what you've been led to believe, wine contains many more 'ingredients' than just fermented grape juice. On average, conventional wines, AKA wines farmed using chemical sprays and additives and then manipulated by the winemaker, can contain up to 70 added ingredients — including synthetic yeast, preservatives, food dyes, residual pesticides, sugar, flavors, and sulfites.
It may surprise you that some 52% of all wines for sale in the U.S. are produced and sold by just three major wine companies. These giant conglomerates would like you to think that your wine comes from a small Chateau in the Napa countryside, when in reality, it most likely was made and bottled in a giant industrial factory. This large-scale industrial operation is what has pushed out the small farmers and created a giant push in conventional wines, the wines that contain all of these mystery additives and pesticides.
Most people aren’t aware that they should be wary of GMOs, sugar, pesticides and other additives when shopping for wine, and that is because the industry is not required to inform you. Ingredients hiding in wine commonly include preservatives, sulfur dioxide, calcium carbonate, oak chips, added flavors to enhance taste, and extra water to increase volume. Even more surprising, many wines contain several animal-derived by-products including fish bladders, egg whites, bentonite clay, mammal proteins and even plastics. These are used to “fine” and filter the wine, which basically means these help to improve the texture, clarity and mouth-feel of the finished product.
So why is this allowed? The Wine Cool Direct website states that:
“Unlike the food industry, wine producers aren’t required by any governing body or law to list the actual ingredients that make it inside the bottle on the outside.”
This is very much like the fragrance industry, which protects its ingredients as a way to preserve 'trade secrets'. Because of these loopholes, much of the wine on the shelves should be considered a beverage, not a natural product.
Organic Wine: What You Should Know
In my family, we have always grown organic pinot noir grapes. It is definitely more challenging to farm for top quality Pinot Noir organically, because it involves so much hands-on work and loving attention to every vine, instead of being able to use synthetic herbicides and synthetic fertilizers to control the weeds, insects and growth. I believe in organic farming for all agriculture because of the damage is causes to bees, groundwater, farmers, field workers and the environment - so when it comes to organic grapes, I'm very passionate about spreading this knowledge. Organic vineyard farming demonstrates better stewardship of the land, and allows the soil and water supply to be healthy for generations to come. This is because organic farming practices include the use of cover crops, green manures, biodynamic sprays, animal manure, animal grazing, water conservation, and hands-on labor instead of mass machinery. These natural practices help to fertilize the soil, to naturally manage weeds and insects, and reduce the presence of harmful bacteria or mold.
To put it plainly, organic wines are produced with organically grown grapes. Because growing wine grapes is considered farming, it undergoes the same principles as organic food does; the vineyard manager must implement an entirely different set of practices to maintain their vines, the most important of which is to never spray chemicals such as roundup and insecticides. But simply because a wine is labeled as organic doesn’t mean that the wine won't contain any additives; in fact, there is a list of acceptable additives including yeast, egg whites, and animal enzymes that are allowed in organic wines, because they are not synthetic and do not contain any chemicals. So contrary to popular belief, just because it is farmed organically, does not mean that the wine is going to be vegan-friendly.
Every country has different regulations about what organic actually means, and in the US, organic wines may not contain any added sulfites. However, wines imported from Europe and Canada can be produced from grapes which are grown organically, but have added sulfites during the wine-making process to keep them shelf-stable.
Natural Wines & Dry Farming
Natural wines go above and beyond organic farming practices, because the winemaking process starts in the vineyard, instead of in the cellar. Sustaining a healthy habitat of microbes in the vineyard is fundamental for the natural winemaking process. The microbiological life that exists in the vineyard will follow the grapes into the cellar, and it is these naturally occurring microbes that transform the grape juice into the final wine in the bottle. Natural wine is less well known, but it will become more popular as time goes on. To put it plainly, natural wine is living wine from living soil.
While no legal definitions of natural wine currently exist, all require a minimum of organic farming in the vineyard but prohibit the use of any additives, processing aids or heavy manipulation equipment in the cellar, with the exception of gross filtration.
Another farming practice that is far beyond the traditional label of organic, is “Dry-Farmed Vines” which are vineyards farmed without irrigating (watering) the land, which is of course conserves resources, but also forces the vines to push their roots down further in search of natural ground-water. When a vineyard is 100 percent dry-farmed, only natural rainfall will water the vines. Grapes produced from this farming method tend to be much older and are harvested later in the growing season.
So what to look for when buying wine?
Fortunately, there is a sneaky solution that you can look for when shopping for wine. My family has always included this on our wine labels, and it says: ‘Made with Organically Grown Grapes’. This phrase on a label of a wine bottle is excellent news for you as the consumer, because this certifies that:
1. The wine is made with grapes from a Certified Organic vineyard (yay!)
2. Wine must contain less than 100 ppm of sulfites (this is very minimal)
Certifications to keep an eye out for when shopping for wine:
1. SIP Certified: Sustainability in Practice
2. Demeter Certified: Biodynamic and Organic certification internationally
3. USDA Organic: Certified Organic in the USA
What to look for when researching the winery:
1. Low Alcohol Percentage: Ideally, you should be buying wine between 11% - 13.5% alcohol. Why? Well, commercial wine that is higher in alcohol (14% and up) is because the grapes are picked late in the growing season when the sugar levels are high (sugar turns into alcohol during the fermenting process), and are then watered down & manipulated with additives and sulfites.
2. Biodynamic — these old-world methods respect the land and environment due to using natural, bio-dynamic viticulture and farming practices. No chemicals are present during the farming process.
3. Grapes are hand-harvested — this is the traditional method of harvesting, and while it produces lower yields, it is less hard on the vines. Natural wines don’t use machinery and are not produced on an industrial, scale which means less emphasis is places on mass production, and more is placed on quality wine.
4. Low Sulfites — some sulfites are naturally occurring, but most are not. Small amounts are fine, and are not harmful - look for those that contain around 100-75 ppm
5. Unfined/Unfiltered or minimal filtering/fining — there should be minimal intervention during the vinification and aging process, so you want the least amount of filtering and fining as possible.
6. Minimal use of new oak — Natural wines are primarily fermented in clay, glass, stainless steel, concrete or neutral oak barrels. This is the way that wine has been traditionally made for centuries.
So is drinking wine healthy?
I may be biased, but I'd absolutely argue YES. Because wines contain polyphenols, it actually has significant health benefits, as long as its relatively clean and pesticide-free.
"Pretty much everything in wine that’s not alcohol or water in wine is a polyphenol. These include tannins, color pigment, aromas, resveratrol, procyanidins, and about 5,000 other plant compounds. Of these polyphenols, the most abundant in wine for health reasons are Procyanidins, which inhibit cholesterol plaque in blood vessels. This is why wine is connected with hearth health.
Polyphenols are found in the skins and seeds of grapes, so only wines that are made with skin contact such as red wine, have significant polyphenol levels. What you want to look for is wines that have a distinctly fruit-forward flavor, higher acidity, and a tannic finish. Basically, the more bitter, the better.
The good news for you, is that moderate wine consumption (3-5 glasses per week) has been linked to some of the following health benefits: higher intake of the antioxidant called resveratrol which helps fight free radical damage (anti-aging anyone?), improved heart health, protection against arteriosclerosis, decreases in triglyceride and cholesterol accumulation, protection against stroke, and reduced risk for obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Wine has been around for hundreds of years, and has long been apart of the Mediterranean European lifestyle - so let's not demonize a simple glass of wine with a meal! As with everything these days, doing your research and understanding where to source your wine from will make all of the difference. Wine is meant to be sipped and enjoyed in moderation, it isn't meant to be drank by the bottle, so keep that in mind :) But it certainly has its health benefits as long as you know what you are drinking is clean.
My Favorite Wineries & Clean Wine Companies
If you've made it this far in the post, I am so grateful to you! This post was a lot of research and time spent, but I hope that it has been educational and informative. If you're looking for somewhere to start in your new natural-wine journey, then here are a few of my favorites (and yes, I've linked the wine made from my family's vineyard so you can try it out if you're local to California!)
1. Dry Farm Wines - all natural, additive free, lab tested for purity, sugar-free, low alcohol wines
2. Thrive Market - my favorite resource for half-case & full cases of clean, organic and biodynamic wines
4. Gerard Bertrand (Narbonne, France) - dynamic farming is a strategic priority for Gérard Bertrand; all estates have now converted to biodynamic methods and practices.
5. Quivera Winery (Sonoma County) - a leading producer of Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhône varieties, with commitment to organic farming
Thank you for reading! Cheers!