If you’re someone who enjoys a glass of wine or two, you’ll be happy to know that research continues to show that wine drinkers reap certain health benefits. Red wine, in particular, has been associated with many improved health outcomes, such as reduced risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease. That being said, while drinking wine (in moderation) may contribute to positive effects on your overall health, not all wine is created equal.
Contrary to what most people think, wine is made of much more than just grapes. In fact, some conventional wines can contain up to 70 added ingredients — including unnatural yeasts, preservatives, food dyes, residual pesticides, added sulfites, and sometimes added sugar.
A little known fact is that 52 percent of all wines available in the U.S. are made from just three major wine conglomerates. Large-scale wine manufacturers want you to believe that you’re drinking wine made in a small farmhouse or chateau, when in fact you’re actually drinking wine ultimately produced in an industrial factory. The bottom line is that it’s impossible to make very large quantities of wine without the use of additives and chemicals (much like with farming and food production). This is why organic, natural wine producers are very small and only produce limited, sometimes difficult-to-find wines.
Drinking organic wine, or better yet organic wine that is also produced using natural and bio-dynamic viticulture/farming practices, has certain advantages over drinking standard/conventional wine. According to the Organic Vineyard Alliance, organic wine is made with
grapes that are certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program … grapes must be grown, handled and processed in accordance with uniform national standards. When wine is labeled organic by the USDA, it means that the entire production cycle — from grape in the field to wine in the bottle — has been done in a way that promotes ecological balance, conserves biodiversity, and uses unadulterated ingredients
Problems with Standard Wine
Most people aren’t aware that the same types of concerns regarding the processed food industry, such as the use of GMOs, added sugar and other additives, also apply to the wine industry.
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 means that unbeknownst to consumers, ingredients commonly found in wine can include: preservatives, sulfur dioxide, calcium carbonate, oak chips, added flavors to enhance taste, non-vegan materials, and extra water to increase volume.
1. Grapes Are Not Organically Grown
Standard wine can contain residual pesticides from grapes sprayed with various types of chemicals. Organic farms that produce grapes for wine on the other hand must meet organic farming standards, meaning the grapes cannot be sprayed with chemical pesticides, insecticides or herbicides that can wind up in the wine.
Organic/some natural wines are produced with environment-friendly methods that lead to improved soil quality and better nutritional content. Healthy soil and dirt that contains more beneficial organisms has more protection against mold and other harmful microbes, plus it leads to wines having more unique, complex and interesting tastes.
2. Higher in Sulfites
Sulfites found in wine are used as stabilizers to preserve wine and prevent spoiling. The term sulfites describes a number of sulfur compounds, especially sulfur dioxide (SO2), that are produced during fermentation and help to reduce bacteria and other microbes. Because they prolong the shelf-life of foods and drinks, sulfites are found in many, many processed foods, such as dried fruit, crackers, beer, juice, potato chips, processed meats, jams/jellies and coconut flakes. In fact, many types of processed foods typically contain 10 times more sulfites than most wine does!
Do all wines contain sulfites? Yes, because grapes naturally have sulfites within their skins (so do other plants like onions and garlic) and because sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation. All wine naturally contains some sulfites, whether it’s organic or not. In other words, there’s no such things as 100 percent sulfite-free wine. That being said, some wines contain much more sulfites than others, due to having added sulfites. Manufacturers will add extra sulfites in order to make sure their wine lasts longer. Wines that are labeled “sulfite-free” are those that have very low levels of sulfites, 10 mg/L or less.
Why is low-sulfite wine better, and has research shown that sulfites are actually bad for you? Contrary to what most people think, sulfites are not responsible for hangover symptoms, such as headaches or nausea. Some studies have found that people experience the same types of headaches after drinking sulfite-free wines. What actually may be contributing most to hangovers is both alcohol and histamine responses. A natural chemical found in wine called tyramine has been linked to changes in blood pressure that may also contribute to headaches. This doesn’t mean that sulfites are not problematic in any way, just that they are poorly understood.
- The legal limit of sulfites is 300 ppm (parts per million). Most conventional wines will have sulfite levels between about 50 and 100 mg/L.
- Sulfites that are added to wine can be made from sulfur dioxide (SO2), potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite or sodium sulfite.
- White wine tends to have higher sulfites because red wine is preserved partially by natural tannins.
- Some people who have “sulfite sensitivity” may experience strong reactions to consuming foods or drinks with sulfites, similar to having an allergic reaction. Symptoms can include trouble breathing and wheezing (asthma symptoms), tingling, swelling, nausea, vomiting, headaches, itchiness or a rash.
- Severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to sulfites are rare, however many people who don’t have a confirmed sulfite allergy still claim that sulfites causes them to feel unwell (much like having a gluten intolerance vs. a true gluten allergy/Celiac disease).
3. Not Made With Local, Wild/Natural Yeast
Non-organic wines, and even many organic wines, are made with added yeasts that are used to improve fermentation. Yeast creates wine by converting sugars naturally found in the grapes into alcohol. When a wine isn’t organic, the yeast that is used may contain GMO ingredients. More than 99 percent of wines on the market are made with commercial yeast, even many organic wines. Only very limited, natural wines are made with wild yeast that is indigenous to where the grapes are grown.
4. May Contain Added Sugar
Grapes of course contain some natural sugars, but some winemakers choose to add additional sugar to improve the wine’s taste. This adds additional calories and can contribute to other problems can consumed in higher amounts, such as increasing inflammation.
5. Typically Higher In Alcohol
Even though winemakers are not forced into listing their ingredients on wine labels, the U.S. government does require wine labels to list the alcoholcontent. However, the content that is listed isn’t always very accurate; the real content of the wine can be up to 1.5 percent greater than the amount stated on the label.
Most conventional wines are are between 14 percent to 17 percent alcohol by volume. Depending on the specific production methods, some natural/dry wines will be substantially lower in alcohol, about 9.5–11 percent. This might not seem like much of a difference, but it can definitely feel like one. Drinking wine that has a lower alcohol content can lead to less hangover symptoms, which means that you might choose to occasionally enjoy an extra glass without experiencing the same side effects associated with higher-alcohol wines.
6. Not Biodynamically Produced
Biodynamic farming is a “prescriptive form of advanced, organic farming.” It is farming “done by prescription” because it follows a very specific method. Biodynamic farming was developed in 1925 by a German-Austrian scientist who created a system that involves spraying the vines with a quartz mixture or a certain type of cow manure that promotes healthier crops. The grapes are harvested according to lunar cycles of the moon.
Overall, biodnyamic farming is a better alternative than industrial farming, but for reasons you’ll learn more about below, this method doesn’t mean the wine is necessarily very “clean.”
Many conventional wine makers are focused on large-scale production for one primary reason: it leads to more profits. When wine is not produced in a traditional way, there is a higher chance that the soil will become depleted, nutritional content of the grapes will decrease, lots of irrigation will be needed that wastes resources and water, and the grapes may be harvested when the vines are too young.
Machine-harvested wines are often lower quality than hand-harvested wines. When a machine harvests grapes, the skins can be damaged, bruised and broken. This causes early oxidation that affects the taste and quality. Because machine-harvesting might lead to poorer tasting wine, more additives may be added to help improve the wine. Machine-harvested wine is also industrially, commercially produced wine that is made with additives.
8. May Contain Additives, Including Food Dyes and Mouth-Feel Agents
Ever notice that some red wines cause your teeth and gums to turn purple? This is because some wines contain added dyes. Many people associate darker colored wines with having more health benefits, but this is not necessarily true. Natural/organic wines rarely contain any dyes or other synthetic additives to improve color and “mouth feel” (such as the sensation of creaminess or how long the taste lingers).
Conventional wines may also contain other additives that are used to clarify or filter wine, enhance the aroma, boost sweetness, reduce acidity and further aid in fermentation.
9. May Contain Mycotoxins and Mold
Mycotoxins, which are toxic compounds produced by fungi and molds such as mushrooms and yeast, are found in certain foods including coffee beans, some cereal grains, peanuts and yes, wine. Mold can sometimes grow on grape vines and make its way into wine. Mycotoxins and other molds are more prevalent in products made in humid areas found more commonly in red wines. Consuming products containing mycotoxins can lead to reactions associated with allergies or respiratory inflammation.
In Europe, wine producers must check for mycotoxins and mold, but this is not enforced in other countries, including in the U.S. According to Washington State University, as of May of 2006, the European Union (EU) Committee set a new maximum level of one type of mycotoxin called Ochratoxin A (OTA), and now all wine either produced in or imported to the EU must be below the threshold to be sold legally. However, in the U.S., only winemakers who follow very strict guidelines will test wine for the presence of molds and discard wine that is contaminated.
10. May Contain Animal-Byproducts (Non-Vegan Wines)
Get ready for this one: some wines contain several animal-derived materials, including fish bladders, egg whites, bentonite clay, mammal proteins and plastics. These can be used to “fine” and filter wine, or to help improve the texture, clarity and mouth-feel. Commercial wines are almost always fined and filtered to remove elements that can interfere with texture. Purchasing wine that is labeled as vegan ensures these byproducts are not included. Natural wines are not fined or filtered, so they have a different texture, taste and quality, plus no animal byproducts.
11. Often Made Using the Chemical Velcorin
Velcorin (the trade name for dimethyldicarbonate, or DMDC) is a highly toxic chemical that works as a bacterial control agent. In winemaking, this chemical is added during the fermentation process to treat the most common type of bacterial contaminant that is found in large-scale wine cellars. When wine is contaminated, it doesn’t taste or smell right, so winemakers try hard to remove the bacteria.
In commercial wine production, velcorin is almost always used, sometimes even when the wine is organically made since it is a legally used chemical (although guidelines for using it are very strict, and it must be applied while wearing a hazmat suit!). Velcorin not used in natural winemaking, in which the wine remains additive-free through the fermentation process. When humans are exposed to high amounts of velcorin, it has been found to cause symptoms including trouble breathing, coughing, burning, ulceration, skin rashes, permanent eye damage and many others.
Benefits of Organic Wine
So what is different about organic wine? And do these differences mean that organic wine is “good” for you?
Compared to commercial wines, below are some of the benefits associated with organic wine:
1. Free of Synthetic Additives
Organic wine that receives the US Department of Agriculture organic certification cannot contain synthetic additives, meaning synthetic pesticides and herbicides will not be found in organic wines.
2. Free from GMOs
Organic wine is also free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are not allowed to be used on organic farms. GMO yeasts are also banned from being used in organic wine production.
3. No Added Sulfites
Do organic wines contain sulfites? Organic wine is made with organically grown grapes, but it can still contain sulfites. As mentioned above, sulfites are naturally present in the skin of grapes, so all wine will contain at least some. However, organic winemakers claim to use only “small amounts of additives including sulfites” or no added sulfites at all. Still, this means that organic wine is not technically sulfite-free. The total sulfite level of organic wines must be less than 20 ppm (parts per million).
4. Higher Chance of Containing Native Yeasts
Wild, natural yeasts are different than added yeasts because they are derived from the skins of grapes. Conventionally grown grapes (non-organic) don’t have much natural yeast present at all because pesticides usually destroy them. When the grapes are crushed, the yeast is released, which begins the process of converting sugar to alcohol.
Organic winemakers are encouraged to use native yeasts, but this is not mandatory. Not every organic wine will be made with only wild yeast, so you will need to do some investigating to find out which types of wine are.
5. Must Pass Certification Program Every Year
In order to maintain their organic status, every year organic grape growers must be inspected by the USDA and meet all qualifications. This ensures that the winemakers continue to use only organic grapes and no synthetic additives.
6. Uses Sustainable Organic Farming and Production Methods
Organic farming practices can include the use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures, animal grazing, water conservation, use of renewable resources and crop rotations. These practices have many benefits including helping to fertilize the soil, maintaining better quality topsoil long-term, naturally managing weeds and insects, reducing presence of harmful bacteria or molds, and promoting biodiversity. (Recently, I discussed how important all of the above is for both humans and our planet in my article on regenerative agriculture.)
7. Associated with Health Benefits
Moderate wine consumption has been linked with some of the following health benefits: higher intake of the antioxidant called resveratrol that helps fight free radical damage, improved heart health, protection against arteriosclerosis (occurs when there’s buildup of fats, cholesterol and plaque in the artery walls), decreases in triglyceride and cholesterol accumulation, protection against stroke, and reduced risk for obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Organic Wines vs. Natural, Dry Wines
There are several categories that organic wines fall into:
- 100 percent Certified Organic
- Made With Organic Grapes/ Ingredients
- Made With Some Organic Ingredients
Besides wine that is labeled as all or partially organic, you can also find other labels such as “biodynamic” or “natural.” What do these labels mean about the way that the grapes are grown and how the wine is made?
- Made With Organic Grapes — Grapes used are grown organically but the winemaker is not certified as a USDA organic producer. No chemical pesticides, herbicides or GMOs can be used. Sulfite levels must be 100 parts per million (ppm) or under. Native yeasts can be used but are not mandatory.
- Biodynamically Grown & Produced — Produced with farming techniques that respect the land and environment, such as crop rotation and dry farming. Synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, growth stimulants or GMOs cannot be used. Sulfites cannot exceed 100 ppm. Only native yeasts are used.
- Sustainably Produced — Use environment-friendly growing and production methods such as use of solar power, water reclamation systems, crop rotation and recycling. Limited use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Sulfites are not tightly regulated but are typically kept under the legal limit of 300 ppm.
- Sulfite-Free — To be called sulfite-free, a sulfite test must not be able to detect the presence of sulfites in the wine because they are at such low levels (less than 10 ppm). “No Added Sulfites” means that the winery did not add sulfites to the wine, but there can still be naturally occurring sulfites included.
Naturally Produced, Dry Wines
There’s another type of wine that you have probably never heard of, but definitely should know about: dry, natural wine.
“Dry wine” gets its name because it is produced without irrigating (heavily watering) the land, which is hugely important not only for water and resource conservation, but also for the quality of the vines and grapes. When a farm is 100 dry, only natural rainfall is used to water the plants. Vines produced in this manner tend to be much older and are not picked when they are young. “Old growth vines” are generally 35–100 years old!
The company Dry Farm Wines only sells wine that is non-irrigated, all-natural, additive-free, organically produced, below a certain level of alcohol, and guaranteed to be pure because it is always lab-tested. The company does not operate its own vineyard, but rather imports organic, natural wines from small family farmers located across the world (mainly in Europe where wine has been traditionally made in this manner for thousands of years).
Dry Farm Wines states on their website that “Our wines all share natural farming and traditional winemaking practices.” Todd White, Founder of Dry Farm Wines, explains that natural wines are different than organically farmed wine in several key ways. As he puts it, “All natural wines are organic, but not all organic wines are natural. Grapes might be organically grown, but this doesn’t mean they will be used to make clean wine. The real problem with commercial wine is all the poisons that are added after the grapes are already picked.”
What to Look For in a Quality Organic Wine?
The following is what makes organic, natural wines unique and a better choice than standard/conventionally wines, or even organic wines that are not as “natural”.
Try to always do your research and look for these attributes when shopping for wine, either online or in stores:
1. Grapes are not irrigated — Dry farming in the U.S is very rare, with less than 1 percent of all wines being produced this way. Irrigated grapes are higher in water, which changes the time that the fruit must be picked. More sugar in the grapes equates to more fermentation and therefore more alcohol. The taste of the grapes is also impacted due to irrigation because too much watering changes the roots of the vines. The vines essentially become “lazy,” weak and produce lower quality fruit.
2. Lower alcohol content — Ideally the alcohol content should be less than 12.5 percent (and usually between 9.5 percent to 12.5 percent). Commercial wine is higher in alcohol because the grapes need to be picked at a time later when the sugar levels are higher, due to being watered down due to irrigation.
3. Biodynamically produced — These methods respect the land and environment due to using natural, organic or bio-dynamic viticulture/farming practices. Dry farming does not use irrigation, which saves a significant amount of water. Old-growth vines can lead to better quality and higher nutritional content since they have more time to absorb minerals from better quality soil.
4. Grapes are hand-harvested, as opposed to machine-harvested — This produces lower yields but is more traditional and respectful of the land. Natural/dry wines don’t use machinery and are not produced on an industrial, retail scale which means less emphasis is places on profit, and more is placed on ensuring quality wine.
5. No extra sulfites are added — Some sulfites are naturally occurring, but extra is not added. Sulfite levels remain low, less than 75 ppm (and in some cases much less).
6. No sugar is added — All sugar is naturally occurring. The wine should have very low sugar levels, less than 1g/L. When wine is able to fully ferment, the natural yeasts will consume all the sugar in the grape juice and lead to lower levels. Healthy vines can also be harvested because sugar content gets very high. Less alcohol in your wine may mean fewer side effects overall from drinking it.
7. Only wild, natural yeasts are used — Ideally no commercial yeast will be used to enhance flavor or alter the wine in any other way. Dry Farm Wines only sells wine that is fermented using the wild, naturally occurring, local yeasts that are found on the grapes. Wild yeasts are native to the region where the grapes are grown, giving you the added benefit of consuming some local organisms from the soil. Yeast strains also vary depending on the vineyard’s exact location, which contributes to the unique taste and complexity of the wine.
8. No other additives are used — No chemical additives should be used to improve the wine’s aroma, color, flavor or texture. Again, good quality grapes and natural fermentation should not require additives.
9. Free of molds and mycotoxins — Wines are tested to ensure that they are free of mycotoxins and mold.
10. NO use of velcerin in cellars.
11. Very minimal filtering/fining of the wine — Overall, there should be minimal intervention during the vinification and aging process.
12. Very minimal use of new oak — When wine is made in newer oak containers, it produces methanol, which can be toxic. Natural wines are fermented in clay, glass, stainless steel, concrete or neutral oak. This is the way that wine has been traditionally made for centuries and helps keep the wine clean.