Why Drink Natural Wine?
Natural wine is, of course, not going to be everyone. But for those who are sitting on the fence and open to being swayed, there are a lot of reasons to consider them as a viable drinking option.
If we think of what we eat and drink as investment into ourselves, then natural wine makes sense.
When shopping for food, chances are you consider a number of different factors before making a decision about what you’re going to buy. Brand, ingredients, price, value for money, purpose, nutritional information, recommendations, taste, ethical considerations — and so the list goes on. But we get there eventually, secure in the knowledge that we’ve made the best choice for whatever our needs might be. When it comes to wine, things are a little more convoluted. Two main reasons for this spring to mind.
Firstly, winemaking is a mysterious process to the uninitiated. I’m sure that everyone’s had the experience of a winemaker or sommelier who describes a wine in terms that are difficult to understand, which I’m sure that I have been guilty of in the past as well.
As consumers, the principles of winemaking can be tricky to grasp. Food is a little easier to get because many of us have grown up with very deep and personal connections to it - cooking has historically played a big role in our culture and daily life.
But how many people do you know who casually ferment a wine in their home? Without that personal experience to draw on, the process remains puzzling.
Secondly, wine labels tell us close to nothing about how the grapes were farmed and the wine was made. As an industry professional, I still find them lacking in information.
At best, I might be able to tell you where a wine is from, how it was farmed if it has a certification, the vintage, what grape varietal(s) it contains, whether it’s been fined and that there has been preservative added to it. I won’t be able to tell you how much preservative has been added, if it’s been filtered, gone through reverse osmosis, had water added to it before fermentation — or most of the other 50+ permissible additives in Australia. Nor are most winemakers or larger wineries generally inclined to part with such information- it’s part of the allure, apparently.
When buying wine, I’ll generally sit down with a winemaker or distributor, ask them a series of questions about the wine such as how it’s made and farmed, where it comes from, taste the wine and find out how much it costs. Then I make my assessment, in full knowledge that it has the characteristics that I’m interested in.
Most of us don’t have the resources to go through this process with every single wine that we drink. After all, I do it as a profession. So it can be pretty difficult to make an informed decision.
When it comes to natural wine, things are simplified a little.
Natural wines are farmed organically at a minimum, even if not certified. There’s far less chance of them containing residual chemicals such as Roundup. The grapes are also richer in phenols and their derivatives, the compounds that are responsible for many of the colours, flavours and aromas that we detect in wine. Phenols play a number of roles in the human body. They act as antioxidants in cells, slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and fats in our digestive system, and inhibit the production of glucose by the liver, mediating our insulin response to certain foods. They are also what’s known as a hormetic compound, placing cells under a small, beneficial amount of stress. This stress induces a process called apoptosis. In plain English, this means the programmed destruction of defective or degraded cells- including cancer cells. This is a necesary and natural process that allows the body to “tidy up” and work more efficiently.
Natural winemaking follows a maxim of “nothing added, nothing taken away”. Those 50+ additives that winemakers can put into wine? You don’t even need to know about them, other than sulphur dioxide (SO2), also known as preservative 220.
SO2 is the compound in wine that is largely responsible for hangovers, as it depletes glutathione, an antioxidant that our bodies use to rid ourselves of alcohol before it has a toxic effect on us. Winemaking regulations stipulate that a maximum of 250 parts per million may be added in Australia. Natural winemakers add very little SO2 — if any at all — compared to their conventional counterparts. Most natural winemakers that I know use wines made with 30ppm added sulphur or less. When you switch to natural wine, the days waking up in the morning with temples pounding will be long-gone.
And because the wines are not filtered or fined, the phenols that were present in the grapes are also found in greater concentrations in the wines made from them compared to conventional wines. Fining agents (proteins such as egg white) bind to phenols and particularly their larger derivatives, polyphenols, stripping them from wines, as does anything beyond a coarse filtration. Wines are said to be more stable when they undergo these processes, yet they also lose much of their nutritional value and their inherent ability to protect themselves against oxidation.
There’s an ethical factor to consider with natural wine as well. This is particularly important to me because of my background in agroecology and interest in sustainability.
Natural wines are made almost exclusively by small producers. There are some products out there made by bigger companies that pose as natural wines, but, driven primarily by profit and bottom-line outcomes, they tend to neglect some of the key principles around farming and ignore the fact that their wineries are full of commercial yeasts. I’ve yet to try an example from one of the big guys that meets my standard. It ain’t natural just ‘cos it’s cloudy, baby.
Small producers also tend to be more efficient with their resources, placing greater emphasis on environmental sustainability. They’re real people with names and faces. Their children are raised in the vineyard and winery. They work the land to earn a living, but take care of it as well, so that their children might one day too.
But what about flavour? There’s no point in having a myriad of health and ethical advantages if you can’t stand to drink the stuff. So here’s some good news. Natural wines are full of flavour, more like food than the wines that we’ve grown used to. It takes a bit of getting used to (much like getting your kids to eat broccoli) but once you make the change and your palate adjusts, it’s difficult to go back — I find conventionally made wines insipid and boring by comparison. I’ve heard the same anecdote time and again from natural wine converts, “I just can’t drink other wines now!”
It's been almost six years now since I started drinking natural wine and I haven't looked back once since I decided to make the change. Each and every sip has been worthwhile.