Why Natural Wine Isn't Always the Healthiest (or Tastiest) Option

Turns out, many of the health claims are bogus.

At first, it was a novelty host gift. Natural wine? I asked my friend at a party a few years ago. Isn't all wine natural? She shook her head with pity. A couple months later, I noticed a natural wine endcap at my local wine shop. Next, an onslaught of orange wine populated my Instagram feed until, finally, it seemed natural wine was all anyone in my online or offline social circles wanted to drink.

It doesn't have as much sugar, someone said recently at a socially distant happy hour. The group of 30-somethings nodded as if this were beverage gospel. Someone else swore natural wine didn't give them as bad of a hangover. There were more murmurs of agreement. I took a sip of the cloudy elixir, a fizzy Pet Nat (that's Pétillant-Naturel, or natural sparkling) more akin to kombucha than the crisp chablis I normally drank on warm spring nights.

The wine was not terrible. Also, it was not great. But I kept my opinions to myself.

Even where I live in Sonoma, with its legacy of oaky chardonnays and big, bold cabs made with traditional winemaking techniques, natural wines can be found on more and more wine lists. The category is generally thought of as "nothing added, nothing removed," which sounds like a good thing. The wine is bottled before primary fermentation is finished and without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars, which also sounds like a good thing.

But does too much of a good thing make a bottle taste...bad? And do the health claims associated with natural wine actually hold up?

A Confused Consumer

It's difficult to pinpoint what qualifies as a natural wine because the rules, well, don't exist. "Because natural wine lacks an actual definition, there's been a confusing narrative about what it is and why consumers should drink it," says sommelier Amanda McCrossin. "The industry is trying to popularize natural wine as one-size-fits-all when it simply is not."

But, she says, the natural wine movement was born with good intentions. The idea wasn't necessarily to be trendy but to "make wines that spoke more truthfully to their place." This meant a minimalist approach that evoked the purest expression of the grape, the land/terroir, and the vintage. In this way, natural wine is more of a winemaking ethos than a specific product, resisting the temptation to use additives, chemicals, and, in some cases, even elementary winemaking techniques like temperature control.

Lou Amdur of Lou's Wine Shop in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood has specialized in natural wines for nearly two decades. During this time, he says he's seen a dramatic increase in consumer interest. "Fifteen years ago, our customers drank natural wines without asking or even being aware they were drinking them. Social media and capitalism are good at exploiting innovation, but the preferences of wine drinkers will evolve and the wines themselves will change, too."

Why Consistency Isn't Key

To be clear, I've had some really nice glasses of natural wine. Philippe Bornard Arbois Pupillin "Le Ginglet" and some Las Jaras bottles come to mind. But I've also had some dicey versions that taste like expired yogurt or smell like the unwashed yoga mat curled in the trunk of my car.

Because many natural wines lack shelf stability, the wine can spoil more quickly, especially if the bottles have been shipped, shifted in temperature, or improperly stored. And because every bottle of natural wine is unique, even one you've had before could taste different the next time you drink it. Consistency is not a hallmark of the category.

"As wine professionals, we acknowledge that no two bottles of wine are the same," says McCrossin. "But the delta between two bottles of the same natural wine has a greater potential to be large. There's too much variability between definitions, producers, and bottles to say anything conclusive. There's always going to be a predictable unpredictability."

Conflating minimal intervention with lazy winemaking is unfair and inaccurate. There are plenty of things that can go wrong even when making wine the conventional way, but that's exactly why conventional winemakers use techniques and certain additives to eliminate variability.

"Natural wine's lack of consistency is often viewed as problematic rather than embraced as a part of what natural wine is," McCrossin says. "We don't go to the farmers' market and expect to see hundreds of apples that all look or taste exactly the same. If natural wine is to be an unfiltered snapshot of the vineyard and terroir, then the consumer drinking natural wine should expect inconsistencies. The problem isn't the wine, it's the narrative surrounding it."

So are natural wines only for the daring? Should I, someone who visits Las Vegas without once sitting down to a blackjack table, stick to conventional wines because they're more dependable?

"Natural wine lights up our brains and souls in ways that conventional wine does not," says Amdur. "But natural wine is not a monolithic entity. If someone thinks they don't like natural wine, I believe it's because they've only tasted ones they do not care for."

Is Natural Wine Healthier?

"Natural wine is wine made without the use of pesticides or herbicides and with little to no additives," says Sarah Marjoram, RD. "Because these additives are often blamed for causing a hangover, natural wine enthusiasts suggest they are less likely to result in one. However, the current science doesn't support such claims."

One additive used in conventional winemaking that gets a bad rap is sulfites, a category of preservative that helps maintain a wine's flavor and freshness. But the FDA estimates that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is actually allergic to sulfites. So even if the natural wine you're drinking is sulfite-free, that's probably not the reason you think your hangovers aren't as bad the next day.

"There are a number of chemicals, or congeners, in alcohol that lead to a hangover," says Liz Weinandy, MPH, RDN, LD, lead dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "But congeners occur in any wine, natural or not, because they are a byproduct of alcohol production." Because alcohol is a diuretic and poisonous to our bodies, it's that poison that produces the hangover (not sugar, sulfites, or any other single additive).

"I am a professional drinker and am going to call bullshit on the assertion that natural wine doesn't give you a hangover," says Amdur. "I have experienced mind-bending hangovers from drinking an excess of wines as pure as the driven snow. The central cause of wine hangovers is good old ethanol, which is a poison. When we drink enough of it, we feel poisoned."

For those of us trying to mitigate the effects of alcohol, is there anything we can drink that feels even a little bit healthier? Rather than focus on natural wine, perhaps we should instead pay more attention to organic and biodynamic varieties. Just like the produce we buy at the grocery store, buying organic wine is actually something that can benefit our health. But it's important to remember that not all natural wines are organic.

"In general, natural winemakers use organically grown grapes that forgo the use of pesticides and herbicides," says Marjoram. "But because the term is not legally regulated, wine producers using it can often be vague in their definition. There's really no way to insure standardized practices."

Weinandy points out that the Environmental Working Group lists grapes sixth on their list of the "Dirty Dozen" produce containing high levels of pesticides. She also mentions that low levels of the herbicide glyphosate, which has been linked to increased rates of cancer, have been found in some conventional wines. But more research is needed to confirm which levels are safe for consumption.

At the end of the day, it seems we should just drink the wine that we like. Thinking of wine as an accessible luxury, a delicious component to a meal, or a way to bring friends together is always going to be better (and more fun) than assigning it a health "do" or "don't" label. If you find a "natural" wine you like, then drink it! But if you're choking down a glass just because you think it's healthier, maybe...don't.

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