The trend towards healthy lifestyle choices, especially food, is increasing. Wine is no exception, with more and more vineyards embracing organic farming methods and minimising interference in the cellar.
What does this mean for consumers? Does it really matter if a wine is labelled organic or biological or biodynamic?
Wine production methods and regulations vary greatly, not only by country but even by province or region.
For example, in some winemaking locations, including Champagne, it’s acceptable to add sugar to boost alcohol levels (called chaptalizing or enrichment) but this is strictly forbidden in other places such as South Africa and Italy.
A more controversial example would be the use of wood chips to replicate barrel ageing. Good quality wooden barrels are expensive and the time required for ageing the wine means a longer wait for ROI.
Other common practices include the manipulation of acidity levels, important for creating a more balanced character and increasing a wine’s ageing ability. Some vitners use additives to stabilize the wine, such as Acetaldehyde for colour stabilization.
Alcohol is a natural preservative but it is quite common in some countries to add sulphur, especially when working with grapes that are naturally low in alcohol levels. However, most wine labels state “contains sulphites” because sulphur is naturally present in grapes.
NATURAL VS ADDITIVES
It is common to hear concern over sulphites but in fact only 1% of us suffer from a sulphite allergy. In most cases a heavier reliance on additives, those not naturally present in wine or an increase in natural levels, is the cause behind that frustrating wine headache.
The different rules in every wine zone will impact the choices for winemakers in the vineyard and the cellar.
More flexibility in terms of what is allowed means winemakers can respond to the condition of the grapes at harvest, improving elements that might be out of balance due to levels of rainfall or sunshine throughout the summer.
Some estates use additives to influence the final product, especially if they want to re-create the same wine style or character from a previous vintage, but there are many winemakers who see wine as a natural embodiment of the land and time that deserves to represent the local terroir and specific conditions of the vintage.
These creative vitners will allow the wine to 'speak for itself' with little or no interference from the winemaker.
ORANGE WINE = a reference to the colour of the wine, created by keeping the skins and seeds of the white grape during the fermentation process (the same way red wine develops its tannins and colour from contact with red grape skins).
Research into the health properties of wine is ongoing but many useful discoveries have been made regarding polyphenols.
A key benefit of red or orange wine comes from the polyphenol Procyanidin that is found in the skins and seeds of grapes. Our blood vessels suffer from cholesterol plaque but Procyanidin inhabits this plaque build-up (think of them like dental floss for your arteries, or ‘arterial floss’).
Look out for a Sagrantino or Nebbiolo wine, as these grapes contain much higher levels of Procyanidins compared to other more famous grapes. Sagrantino is an important grape for the central Italy region of Umbria and boasts polyphenol levels twice as high as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Studies show that the bitter taste in wine is a good guide to the levels of Procyanidin. Perhaps not surprisingly given their naturally bitter quality, tea and chocolate both contain Procyanidins.
CHOOSE HEALTHY WINE
The potential for next-day headaches from drinking wine seems inevitable but really that depends on the wine itself. A good quality wine, made with minimal chemicals, shouldn’t give you a headache and for those who suffer from allergies an organic or bio wine is often the answer to avoid frustrating side effects like rashes.
For a vineyard that chooses to take shortcuts it seems unlikely that they are focused on high quality production. It might mean a cheaper bottle of plonk, but is that worth the few dollars you save if you don’t enjoy the wine or suffer that ‘cheap wine headache’ later?
Healthy wines don’t have to be expensive but it’s unlikely they will be as cheap as some of the very mass-produced products out there. As with most things in life, quality trumps quantity when it comes to wine, so go for one or two bottles of healthy wine rather than spending the same amount to get an extra bottle.
Look out for the organic or bio certifications on wine labels, such as a green icon like a leaf of stars used on European bottles and stating ‘Vino Biologico’ or similar. If you spot the 'Organic Wine' label on a US wine then it guarantees no preservative have been allowed at all.
However, many boutique winemakers that prioritize organic methods do not yet have the official logo on their products. There are so many small-production wineries offering ‘healthy’ wine but how do you find them?
You should also be able to request these details from a good wine supplier.
For example, a little-known estate in Marche (central Italy, east of Tuscany and north of Abruzzo) is quietly crafting high quality wine in their organic vineyard and yet they don’t display their organic status on the labels. For the winemakers of Serra San Martino embracing local traditions that focus on natural production from farm to cellar is the only way to make wine. They even used dried grasses (harvested from elsewhere on their estate) as twine to secure the grapes to the wooden trellis – something usually achieved with plastic or metal clips – ensuring a completely biodegradable process and avoiding metal or plastic seeping into the soil that the grapes in turn soak up as they grow. This kind of long-term vision is common among family-run estates, where winemakers see themselves as guardians of the land.
As with any alcohol, it’s important to stay hydrated when drinking and, so keeping a glass of water alongside the vino is essential (especially in the heat of Singapore). Experts advise a glass of water for every glass of wine as the best way to avoid a wine headache, although choosing a high-quality, well made, organic wine is just as important!
Here at ONCE UPON A VINE we specialise in small-production wines from family-run estates that embrace organic farming and natural winemaking. Explore our growing collection, where the focus is on rare and unusual wines from endemic local grapes.