Wine at Its Best & Wine as It Should Be
To Begin, What Is Natural Wine?
Natural wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.
Organic & Biodynamic Wines, Are Not Always “Natural” Wines
While no legal definitions of natural wine currently exist, various official-ish ones do, set by groups of growers in various countries, including France, Italy, and Spain. These self-regulated charters of quality are far stricter than regulations imposed by official organic or biodynamic certification bodies. 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 (which most tolerate) and sulfites, which varies according to association. The French S.A.I.N.S., for example, is the strictest of all, not allowing additives whatsoever but tolerating gross filtration.1
Not All Wines Have Health Benefits
Most of the health benefits that are portrayed in countless headlines today come from these natural wines that have been brewed traditionally. Although, there still the question whether the benefits of consumption outweigh the risks. So, let’s explore the health benefits and the beneficial compounds found in wine, then we’ll look at the health risks of wine consumption, especially over-consumption.
Almost every positive health benefit from consuming wine is attributed to polyphenols, a class of more than 8,000 compounds produced by plants. During winemaking, fermentation, oxygen exposure, and oak barrel aging change the phenolic content of grapes, resulting in a more complex product.2 Polyphenols are good for our health for several reasons. First, as antioxidants, they reduce the burden of oxidative stress, which is at the root of many diseases.3 Second, they neutralize free radicals, which are very unstable and damage body tissues through volatile chain reactions.4 Furthermore, polyphenols help our guts by increasing beneficial bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Red wine contains more polyphenols than white wine (200 mg per glass vs. 30 mg per glass), as red winemaking also includes the skin of grapes.
Red wine was hypothesized as one reason for the “French Paradox,”5 the supposed “contradiction” of lower cardiovascular disease in France despite higher saturated fat intake. But it seems that drinking red wine does have heart benefits. Red wine has been shown to both raise HDL “good” cholesterol6 and reduce oxidized LDL “bad” cholesterol.7 In a large prospective study, red wine drinkers had significantly lower mortality from coronary heart disease than non-wine drinkers.8
Several studies have shown that moderate wine consumption, with its antioxidant properties, can have positive effects on brain health. In a seven-year follow-up study, moderate wine drinkers performed better than people who consumed other types of alcohol on cognitive tests.9 In women, alcohol abstainers actually scored lower on the tests than wine consumers! Brain function declined more quickly in nondrinkers than in moderate drinkers, from a review of studies spanning 19 countries.10
Two glasses of red wine per day increased levels of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus, compared to gin consumption, which showed no benefits.11 Bacteroides, another beneficial gut bacteria, were positively associated with red wine consumption.12 Natural wines that aren’t aggressively filtered or fermented with commercial yeast strains contain their own probiotics similar to what you find in fermented vegetables and dairy products.
Now for the bad news. Red wine isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Ethanol is a poison and poses some serious health risks. Take Glutathione, our bodies’ most powerful antioxidant, for example. Glutathione is crucial for the detoxification of many harmful substances. Because it is required for detoxing ethanol, alcohol consumption can deplete glutathione, making our bodies more susceptible to toxic substances and disease.13
When the liver detoxes ethanol, it is first broken down into acetaldehyde, an even more harmful poison that can stick around if your detox capacity is impaired. If you drink too much, your liver (and other body organs) will suffer. Fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and, after long-term heavy drinking, cirrhosis are all downstream effects of chronic alcohol use.14
Not everyone who drinks will develop a bad habit, but alcohol can be very addictive. Although less addicting that nicotine and crystal meth, alcohol is more addicting than heroin, amphetamine, cocaine, and caffeine. Moderate drinking is linked to lower incidence of depression, but heavy drinking increases the risk.15 Substance abuse in general is correlated with mental health problems.16
More Health Risks
A myriad of other health risks are attributed to or related to alcohol consumption. For example, although drinking alcohol can increase HDL, the so-called “good cholesterol,” it simultaneously increases triglyceride levels, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.17
Those Who May Want to Avoid Wine (Alcohol) Consumption
Is Wine healthy, Or a Health Hazard?
The answer, I believe, is highly individual and depends on a variety of factors. Alcohol in general, including red wine, may not be a good choice for some people.
Can play a huge role. Alcoholism is a serious illness with a strong genetic component.18 If there is a history of alcohol abuse in your family, avoiding alcohol altogether is probably the most prudent choice. Those with certain genetic polymorphisms in alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases, common in people with East Asian ancestry, may also want to avoid alcohol.
Who are estimated to include 1 percent of the population,19 shouldn’t drink wine due to the sulfites contained either naturally or added. One thing to keep in mind is that dried fruits often have much higher levels of sulfites than wine. So, if you tolerate dried fruit well but have trouble after drinking wine, it might not be due to the sulfites.
Those who take any medications (prescription or not)
Should be cautious about any potential interactions with alcohol. Some medications can enhance the effects of alcohol, some can cause extreme drowsiness when combined with alcohol, and others can interfere with or change a medication’s effectiveness.
Mothers to Be (Pregnant women)
This might be a no-brainer, but alcohol should be avoided when trying to conceive or while pregnant. But there is also some evidence showing that alcohol can negatively impact fertility, especially for males.20 The CDC states that no safe level of alcohol exists for pregnant women. Although traditionally, French women still drink lightly during pregnancy, and some research has suggested that light drinking may not be problematic for the fetus,21 I would play it safe here. A baby’s body metabolizes alcohol much more slowly than does an adult’s.