Does Natural Wine Have Health Benefits?
Registered dietitian and plant-based diet specialist Cynthia Sass explores the natural wine trend, including what it is, the pros and cons, and the potential health benefits.
You may be seeing more wines marketed as “natural” these days, particularly at specialty shops and trendy restaurants. But what is natural wine, and is it better for you compared to conventional options?
One thing you should know is that natural wine can have a unique look and flavour, and it has something of a cult following. “Natural wine is a bit punk rock, and based on an overall dogma,” says Fred Dex, a Brooklyn-based master sommelier who pens the newsletter Drinking With the Juiceman.
One group of producers in France crafted a description of what they refer to as, “Vin Méthode Nature,” in an attempt to define the process, but there is no one global definition.
Here’s what you need to know about this relatively new category of vino, including the pros, cons, and what to consider before you uncork your next bottle.
(Related: 4 Natural Wine Producers to Try Now)
How is natural wine made?
Natural wines tend to be made in minimal batches by small, niche producers. Natural winemakers generally start with the highest quality handpicked grapes, grown via organic or biodynamic practices, and use minimal interventions.
“Man-made chemicals cannot be used, only natural fermentation is allowed, and there is no fining or filtering,” says Dex. Fining involves clarifying the wine to make it less cloudy, and filtering removes solids, so natural wine may be cloudier or have sediment.
The final level of sulfites in Vin Méthode Nature wines cannot exceed 30 mg/liter, which is the generally accepted maximum for all natural wines. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but they are often added to conventional wines (and other foods) to act as a preservative and give them a longer shelf life.
The appeal of this romantic back-to-basics approach to winemaking is likely fueled by an interest in a wide range of natural products, from food and household goods to clothing and cosmetics. According to a 2020 report from New Hope Network, a media company that provides news to businesses about natural products, the natural retail market grew by nearly 5 percent in 2019, and there are no signs of slowing. However, there are both benefits and potential disadvantages to natural wine options.
What makes natural wine different?
To understand the difference, it’s helpful to consider how conventional wines are made. “Because these wines are produced in a large volume, efforts are taken to control quality, maintain consistency, and improve shelf life,” says Dex. This process can involve mechanical adjustments, and the use of dozens of chemicals and add-ins to alter a wine’s flavour, colour, texture, and acidity.
Some of the approved compounds in conventional wine raise the eyebrows of natural-leaning consumers, including egg whites, gelatin, and milk products (which aren’t acceptable to vegans), defoaming agents, and preservatives.
Pesticide residue in conventional wine
Pesticide residues found in conventional wines have also fueled the natural movement. A 2017 study published in Food & Nutrition Journal found that pesticides used in conventional winemaking have detectable tastes. According to the researchers, most of the 11 pesticides detected in the wines sampled have been proposed or classified as endocrine or nervous system disruptors, or even as carcinogens.
Quality of grapes of natural wine
“Natural wines are more like foods found in the periphery of the grocery store, rather than the processed products in the center aisles,” says Dex. The lack of man-made chemicals, additives, and industrial practices are the main draws of natural wines, much like shopping for artisan bread made only with flour, yeast, water, and salt.
Another pro is the quality of the grapes used to make natural wine, which is superior to their conventional counterparts, according to Dex, who adds that both the fruit and soil are more nutrient rich.
Sediments and funky flavours in natural wine
That said, because natural wines aren’t manipulated like conventional wines, they can be inconsistent from bottle to bottle, and may contain sediments, or have funky flavours. They’ll also have a shorter shelf life, which varies but is generally within one year. “Natural wines are alive,” says Dex, but they can be unpredictable.
Organic wine vs. natural wine
For wine to be labelled organic, both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to wine must be certified organic. Grapes must be grown without synthetic chemicals, and must utilize methods that protect the environment and preserve the soil.
Other ingredients that go into the wine, such as yeast, must be certified organic. And organic wine cannot be made with genetic engineering, or the use of prohibited substances, including added sulfites.
Both natural and organic methods reject the use of synthetic pesticides, but that’s essentially where the similarities end. “Organic wines can be produced in larger quantities and can be made with added yeast and fine-tuned, as long as organic standards are followed,” says Dex, who adds that natural wine methods are much more rustic.
(Related: How to Find Your Favourite Red Wine)
What the science says about wine’s health benefits
Because natural wine is an undefined category, there are no studies specifically on the health benefits of wines produced in this way. However, they’re likely to parallel the outcomes seen in other published research.
A 2019 study from the journal Molecules concludes that phenolic compounds in red wine possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and have been shown to reduce insulin resistance and oxidative stress. These factors, in addition to wine’s ability to boost “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, are linked to its cardiovascular benefits.
Another 2019 study, published in Gastroenterology, found that among twins, those who drank red wine had a more diverse gut bacteria and a healthier gut microbiota compared to their non-red wine drinking siblings. The effect was not observed among those who drank white wine, beer, or spirits. Researchers say the gut effect, which is likely due to the wine’s polyphenols, is associated with positive health outcomes, including heart health, as well as immune function, and weight management.
Where to find natural wine and how much to consume
If you’re new to natural wine, Dex recommends starting at your local wine shop or online, as you’re unlikely to find natural options at big box stores or your local supermarket. Once you find a natural wine you enjoy, find out who the importer is and if it’s made outside the United States. “Because importers specialize in specific categories of wine, it’s likely that others in their collection will be to your liking,” says Dex.
For health benefits, opt mostly for red wine, and enjoy it in moderation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that means no more than five ounces of wine per day for women, or 10 ounces for men.
Keep in mind that drinking too much natural wine can harm your body as much as binge-drinking any type of alcohol. (Note: In the Gastroenterology study, drinking red wine once every two weeks was enough to trigger healthy gut changes. Talk with your doctor if you have any health conditions that can worsen with alcohol consumption.)