Drink to your health: The concept of “healthy wine”
· 2 August 2022
Sweep aside the marketing and consider these important factors before having “healthy wine”
The entire concept of “healthy wine” is equivalent to low fat wagyu beef or environmentally friendly air-con. For many decades, all wine was viewed as intrinsically healthy – thanks in part to the theory that, as part of a Mediterranean lifestyle, wine promoted longer life. Today, however, the emerging category of so-called “healthy” or “clean” wines implies that other wines are bad for you – and indeed, many of these new brands market themselves on that premise.
There is a significant market of drinkers for whom health plays a major role in decision making. Anyone prioritising their health deserves to be taken seriously, but many of the claims made by healthy wines are somewhat flexible with the truth.
For a balanced view, let’s consider the principal factors in the debate around wine and health: organics, additives and alcohol.
Organically grown grapes are cultivated without any herbicides or fungicides, which is primarily intended to improve environmental sustainability. However, it’s not always that simple, because the increased weeding required for organic viticulture can dramatically increase soil compaction and carbon footprint, assuming tractors are being used. Also, organic farming still permits the usage of copper sprays, which can be harmful if they accumulate in vineyard soils over long periods.
Furthermore, organically grown grapes and organic wine are not actually the same thing. Regulations differ around the world, but in Europe, organic wine must adhere to certain winemaking restrictions which include restrictions of permitted additives – especially the level of sulphur dioxide added (about which, see more below).
Either way, there is no evidence that organic wine is healthier – or tastier, for that matter – although it is certainly driven by honourable intentions.
All wines have additives, even if they are just the yeasts required to create fermentation. While the concept of “minimal intervention” sounds justified, it can sometimes result in wines which are unstable or faulty. The most significant additive in this debate is sulphur dioxide, which is often attributed to health considerations in wine.
Sulphur dioxide is an age-old preservative used in many different foodstuffs. Levels are closely regulated to ensure that they are not harmful, yet wine has recently come under fire for its usage of sulphites as a preservative, especially regarding its impact on health.
Most of these arguments are based more on rumour than science. The most perfidious is that sulphur in wine causes headaches the morning after. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support this – and several credible studies that dispute it – yet this belief endures.
While it is true that sulphur in excessive volume would not be good for your health, such levels do not exist in wine, and the concept of zero-sulphur wines being better for you is entirely false. Besides, there is one ingredient lurking within all wines that is unquestionably far more dangerous…
If you want a healthy drink, then the safest option is one without any alcohol. It is this compound – an essential component of all wines, from humble to grand – that has the biggest potential impact on the health of the person consuming it, including the hangover.
Today, everyone is aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse – yet “healthy wines” tend to conveniently ignore that issue. Defining a universally safe level of wine consumption is impossible, since it depends on the wine itself (whose alcohol level can vary from 5% to 20%) as well as the personal physiology of the drinker and other factors such as food consumption.
In fact, there is plenty of literature suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption is good for your health – especially red wine, which contains anthocyanins that are associated with anti-ageing properties. Yet alcohol is undoubtedly the most potentially harmful component of wine – and keeping it harmless is the responsibility of the drinker, not the producer.
THE POINT OF WINE
Humans have been drinking wine for millennia. It is unique in its ability to reflect the climate, soil and variety from which it is made, creating an infinite variation of bottles to discover. We pour wine to mark all the milestones of life, from birth to burial. Drinking wine for health reasons is not wrong in itself, but like low-fat wagyu, it rather misses the point.
HEALTHY WINE BRANDS?
The last few years has seen many wine brands marketing themselves as healthy or clean – several backed by celebrity endorsement. These brands are cleverly marketed, but their claims require scrutiny.
- Nanakatva is an offshoot of Goop, founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, which claims to be good for the soul, with Paltrow commenting that she feels her “chakras opening after a glass or two.”
- Co-founded by Cameron Diaz, Avaline describes itself as “clean” wine with implied health benefits.
- Pure The Winery promotes itself as a healthy alternative with sugar- and carb-free claims.
- Similarly, Dry Farm Wines markets itself as “ pure natural” wine through comparisons to other wines.
This article by Master of Wine Richard Hemming first appeared in the print issue of epicure Feb/Mar 2022.