Now a staple of trendy restaurants, natural wine has been described as funky and unusual tasting. Some say it has flavors similar to Cider. While not suitable for all palettes, natural wine has undeniably made its mark over the past decade. In fact, some consumers concerned about sustainability and health to say they are willing to pay more than conventional varieties.
What is natural wine?
The answer is complicated. Technically, the drink lack any legal definition, which leaves businesses free to do what they consider “natural”. (The French government recognized a certification scheme in 2020, although it is unclear whether any companies will pursue it.)
Still, the industry tends to agree on several factors in the natural winemaking process: Grapes should ideally be grown without pesticides or herbicides, and then fermented without additives, such as sulphites and flavors of faux oak. Advocates also call for the use of indigenous or wild yeasts that come from the grapes and around the vineyard and are adapted to local environments – unlike those high in the lab to speed up fermentation.
Despite its recent exposure in the United States, some advocates say natural winemaking dates back to the old days – before industrialization in the aftermath of World War II accelerated a once delicate process.
The French founders of the natural movement began abandon pesticides and chemical additives in the 1960s, in response to the rapidly expanding model of high productivity. However, it only really took off in the United States after Isabelle Legeron launched the RAW WINE fair in 2012. In five years, the trend has changed the world of sommellerie. Upside down.
Some critics have simply rejected natural wine and made no attempt to understand this changing style, says Ann Sperling, owner and winemaker at Sperling Vineyards in British Columbia, Canada.
She became interested in natural wine after seeing an explosion in the use of alternatives to oak, which are cheaper, more practical materials that can mimic the smoky, toasty taste that comes from storage in oak barrels. Sperling is concerned that manufacturers are using this technique as a crutch, and she prefers to focus on flavors derived from the grapes themselves.
Yet, says Sperling, natural wine techniques can be very demanding. For example, she observes how fungal diseases make it more difficult for wild yeast to ferment successfully. Overall, the process can bring significant financial constraints and does not work for all vineyards.
But what do consumers really get from natural wines?
Fans (and haters) of the drink often point out the unusual and unpredictable flavors that differ, for example, from a fruity Riesling or a peppery Cabernet Sauvignon. The unique flavors come from wild yeast which generates a variety of aromatic molecules, says Andrew L. Waterhouse, wine chemist at the University of California, Davis.
These distinctive tastes also result from the lack of fine and filtering processes. Generally, winegrowers use materials like gelatin or egg whites to kill certain proteins or microbes that would make it appear brown, cloudy and have a bitter taste.
In some cases, says Waterhouse, small traces of these sizing and filtering agents could remain in the final product – so people with certain allergies or dietary restrictions may unknowingly consume them, as U.S. companies don’t. need to add this information on the labels. But this problem can be avoided with natural wine, as many producers forgo fining and filtering processes as part of their minimal intervention philosophy.
These purists also oppose the application of insecticides and pesticides in the growth process.. This omission harvests obvious environmental benefits. As with conventional wines, the fermentation process removes most of these substances. It is therefore unlikely that drinkers exposed to pesticides that exceed safe concentrations. (Some pesticides could affect taste, although.)
Controversy over additives
Perhaps its most publicized feature: Many natural brands promote bottles without sulfites, which are sulfur compounds that prevent the growth of certain bacteria and yeasts that can turn wine into vinegar. These compounds appear naturally as a result of fermentation, but often additional amounts are added to complete the job. Even the Ancient romans applied sulphites to preserve their wines. They are also found in many foods and beverages, as well as some medications.
While it’s commonly believed that sulfites are to blame for alcohol side effects like hangovers, they’re probably not the culprit. Only about 1 percent of people are sensitive to sulfites, although this can increase by up to 5 percent in asthmatics. Yet companies are eager to capitalize on the fear of sulphites.
“They describe it as a deadly substance, which I think is not really the case,” Waterhouse said. “In general, people want their food to have fewer additives, so I think it fits that kind of global trend… but I don’t think so. [sulfites] are particularly toxic.
Perhaps less infamously, a chemical called histamine in wine (which also occurs in the body) could also be a factor in reactions like headaches, nausea, and even heart palpitations. Researchers have found that commercial yeasts tend to produce higher levels of histamine, which also appear in certain foods like tomatoes and spinach. In certain cases, native yeast can actually help reduce histamine formation.
Overall, if someone ate foods high in sulfites or histamine and topped it off with a glass of pinot grigio, it’s hard to tell which item on the daily menu caused physical symptoms – or if the sulfites and the histamines specifically had something to do with it. Thus, isolating the cause can be a real headache.
Either way, Waterhouse notes that winemakers must to assure that their additives are “generally recognized as safe” by FDA standards. In addition, sulphite levels above 10 parts per million should be disclosed on the labels. But he would like to see more transparency on the part of companies, natural adherents or not, clearly indicating which processing materials may or may not persist in the final product. A increasing movement agrees.
A few companies list additives and other ingredients, although this is far from the norm and difficult to verify. “There is no legal obligation to reveal the processing materials that were used to make the wine,” he says. “It is concerning.”
Marketing of natural wine also suggests that it can improve the health of drinkers, a claim now explored in epidemiological research on wine as a whole. In recent decades, scientists have considered winethe prospects of preventing a host diseases, including heart disease, depression and cancer.
Reviews to say it’s hard to say for sure if a few drinks a week will do the trick. After all, there are many confounding factors, such as lifestyle and genetics. It is also important to note that any type of alcohol can alter his health, especially in case of excessive consumption over long periods.
But experiments have identified micronutrients called polyphenols derived from grapes and the fermentation process as a source of potential benefits, such as lower levels of inflammation blood markers and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Plants produce these molecules in nature to manage environmental stressors like ultraviolet light and free radicals. This could explain why they offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, among others, within the human body.
Natural wine can offer more abundant polyphenols by suppressing the fining process, which is supposed to remove them. And orange wines (which are often considered natural, but not always) could contain even higher levels of polyphenols than reds – which are thought offer more protective effects than most types of alcohol.
Waterhouse Believes Polyphenols May Benefit The Gut Microbiome, Where They May Reduce Chances Of Development Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Interestingly, he says, research can also prove that the combination of wine and a nutritious meal can provide optimal health benefits. Maybe these fine wine pairing menus are the right idea.
Overall, researchers still can’t agree on whether most older adults are actually better off sipping a glass of red every now and then (or, some glou-glou) as opposed to no wine at all. But other evidence could point in this direction.