Have you ever talked yourself into pouring another glass of wine because it’s “heart healthy” and “packed with antioxidants?” While it’s true that antioxidants in wine have been tied to findings that suggest it’s helpful in improving heart health and fighting against aging and dementia, that’s not the whole story. Of course quantity is a major factor in dictating wine’s, and all alcohol’s , role in health, but quality is a key component that most people overlook.
Conventional wines actually have significantly lower levels of the powerful antioxidant resveratrol than natural and organic wines and are often diluted with additives like sugar, yeast, and chemicals. At Parsley Health, we advise all of our members that choose to drink wine to opt for natural, biodynamic, or organic varieties when possible.
In this article, we’ll deep dive into what you need to know about selecting the highest quality wine so that while you’re sipping on your next glass of vino, you’re actually reaping the health benefits of wine.
Understanding the current state of the commercial wine industry is similar to thinking about the current state of the American food supply. In many ways, commercial, non-organic wine can look a lot like processed food. More than half of the wine in the United States are manufactured by the same three corporations. As a result, most of the wines on the shelves in your standard liquor store are mass-produced and processed in factories with little regulation around their cultivation practices. Even small wineries and vineyards that do not subscribe to define organic or natural practices are likely to use some sort of pesticides or additives in their winemaking. Furthermore, with the lack of content labels on alcohol, what’s been added to the product is a bit of a mystery. Legally, companies can add up to 76 different FDA-approved additives to wines including metals, toxic chemicals, added sugars, fish bladders, and more.
When we talk about the quality of wine, we’re referring to the conditions in which the grapes were cultivated, fermented, and processed. For starters, commercial vineyards use irrigation systems that drip water from tubes tied to the plant to encourage faster growth. As a result, the vines do not have to dig deep into the earth to fight for water. That means they absorb fewer nutrients from the soil, which lessens the nutritional quality of the grapes.
Conventionally grown wine grapes are also one of the most extensively pesticide-treated crops . In fact, Monsanto’s Roundup, which active ingredient is glyphosate, is the most widely used herbicide in U.S. vineyards today. While the use of glyphosate has been controversial , there is evidence to suggest this herbicide is carcinogenic and overexposure can be harmful to human health. Grapes themselves fall sixth on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list – a yearly list which analyzes Department of Agriculture test data to identify which types of produce are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues. The EWG cites that a single conventional grape may contain up to 15 different types of pesticides . In wine, pesticides are further concentrated during the fermentation process, therefore, making your average commercial wine a little bit of antioxidants with a whopping side of chemicals. This is why opting for organic wines that are created with quality in mind can be one of the most important aspects of selecting the healthiest wine.
The three most popular movements for wine quality are organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. These certifications can often overlap and indicate that cultivation of the grapes and processing of the wine diverge from conventional and mass-market practices to create something of higher quality and nutritional value.
Organic wines are grown using the principles of organic farming, so no artificial or chemical fertilizers are used to grow the grapes and no sulfites are added to the final product. Similar to food products, organic wine is widely regulated in both the United States and Europe .
While biodynamic wines also follow organic farming principles, this type of agriculture refers to farming practices that are in sync with nature and take special care in naturally enriching the soil, rotating the grapes, and promoting sustainability of the land. As a result, the wine produced from these vineyards not only lacks pesticides but often contains more nutrients and offers a higher quality taste profile than other wines, making it one of the healthier wine varieties.
In the purest sense, natural wines are an indication of a wine that’s been unmanipulated and whose naturally occurring nuances in flavor are celebrated. This often means the grapes are hand picked and destemmed without being subjected to any machine pumping or mechanical separation and without the addition of added enzymes, sulfites, or yeasts which might affect the natural fermentation process. Natural wines tend to be cloudier because they’re unfiltered. Often times, natural wines can also be from organic or biodynamic vineyards, but there is no legally regulated standard to define the process.
When wine is cultivated with these principles in mind, the final product is a living product which contains specialized bacteria and a greater concentration of bioactive compounds that can have a positive influence on our microbiome . Unlike conventional wines, natural wines may contain probiotic bacteria that provide similar benefits of fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yogurt. These probiotic bacteria can help to boost immunity , decrease inflammation and improve bacterial diversity in the gut.
At Parsley Health, one of our top recommendations for high-quality wine is a company called Dry Farm Wines . This special wine subscription service sources wines exclusively from vineyards that create natural wines, many of which follow biodynamic agricultural practices and all of which do not use irrigation systems or additives in their winemaking processes.
You can also talk with your local wine store about the biodynamic, natural, or organic wine varieties they carry. In the end, higher quality wines not only allow for greater nutritional benefits from antioxidants and probiotics but they also support sustainable agriculture and smaller, biodynamic farms whose practices return nutrients and bacteria to the earth. If that wasn’t enough, anecdotally, wine lovers say natural wines are less likely to cause hangovers. So if you’re going to indulge, might as well indulge wisely!
Kelly Johnston is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist with six years of experience in the health and wellness field, four of which have been spent right here at Parsley Health supporting members with everything from gut issues and autoimmune disease to cardiometabolic health concerns and fertility. She holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition from one of the leading science-based natural medicine schools in the country, Bastyr University, and completed her dietetic internship at Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, WA.