So, can I have a glass of wine?

Photo credit: Celina Albertz

So, is it ok to drink wine? Is it good for you? I’m asked this a lot. The answer? It depends. On the person, and the wine.

Wine and I, to be honest, have been in a love affair since the age of consent.  It started with a naive, youthful infatuation with Provence rosé, Ribero Del Duero and the Montrachet in the dusty family cellar, then became a little wider reaching and (I thought ;)) ‘even’ more sophisticated. I’ve broken up with it a few times too. But these days my choice of wine is somewhat more maverick, a coming of age, of raw and real wines, some effervescent and pop-like, others deeply layered and smoother, but all full of vitality and good provenance. Natural wine. Real wine. Raw wine. Low-intervention wine. Biodynamic wine. The labels are many and somewhat confusing. More simply – how wine used to be made. You can tell I like wine 🙂

So how does this sit with my job? And my beliefs around health and well-being? The presumption is that I won’t drink. And of course, if we only think of the physical self, it’s better not to drink alcohol for optimal health. However, some things are good for the soul, and a bit of balance is not a bad thing, most of the time.

My conversations with clients often include discussions about cutting down on alcohol, or eliminating it all together. Consumed in excess, or even in small amounts, by someone with a compromised detoxification system, it can play havoc with the delicate balance of hormones in the body. For those with autoimmune conditions, or one of many chronic health conditions, alcohol is a burden on the body that is best avoided. But whilst this holds true for more serious conditions, acute or chronic (and some are genetically more sensitive than others), it is otherwise the quality, and quantity, of your tipple that will make the biggest difference.

Drinking every day, and in excess, is still not advisable, no matter how great the quality of the wine is! But that isn’t how wine would traditionally be drunk – it would be savoured, in small glasses, with good food and good company. My clinical recommendation for anyone of good health is to drink no more than two small glasses of wine (or 2-3 units of alcohol), no more than two nights consecutively, and no more than 3 nights a week in total. But, the best measure of your capacity for alcohol is your own experience, and we are all unique. And the most important caveat? To drink only natural, and for me preferably biodynamic, wine if possible.

Wine is traditionally a fermented fruit drink, made with natural farming processes, and has some studied health benefits. High in polyphenols, lower in alcohol than a spirit say, and low in sugar, when properly fermented. In its natural form, it’s a good choice if you fancy an alcoholic drink.

So, what are polyphenols? Polyphenols affect the appearance, taste, mouth feel, and aroma of wine. Found in fruits, vegetables, coffee, and tea, polyphenols are most likely responsible for the positive health outcomes associated with moderate wine consumption, mainly related to their high antioxidant content. They are present in the seeds, skin, and flesh of grapes but are also increased through fermentation and ageing. Of course you can get all of these polyphenols by eating a diet rich in vegetables, herbs, spices and fruits, which I recommend you get 10 a day of, but that’s maybe missing the point. The benefits of ‘relaxing’ into a good glass of wine with friends and good food, cannot be underestimated – if that’s your thing. We don’t ‘need’ alcohol to relax, and I’d always recommend abstaining from alcohol if you’re using it is as emotional support or release in any way, but to appreciate the beauty of a true artisan product with a little glow in your cheeks and a glint in your eye has got to be good in my opinion!

However, for all these benefits, wine is often not the beast it was, now that commercialisation has changed its nature, which is why I recommend natural, biodynamic, low intervention wine.

Many of us feel the effects of drinking a glass or two, especially as we age and our detoxification system may not be working so well. Women notice this especially around peri-menopause. I know I have, and this has led me to only buy natural wine. Drinking conventional wine to be polite, and not seem like a fanatic, isn’t worth it. I really notice the difference now.

Commercially produced wines, even fine wines, will be produced with some or all of the modern production techniques, like preservatives and other chemicals (used for colour, aroma, texture, shelf stability, repeatable outcomes, and to keep costs low), added sugar and commercial yeast. Of course they also come with a big helping of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and some of these are linked to cancer, can disrupt hormone function, affect neurological health, and have a negative environmental effect. What I have found for myself and many of my clients, is that drinking natural wine eliminates or reduces any negative outcomes (read hangover ;)). And these negative outcomes are further reaching than a hangover.

I believe around 70 additives are approved in standard winemaking. These additives will increase symptoms such as headaches, diarrhoea and atopic conditions such as asthma and eczema, and mental health issues. Alcohol is known to increase gut permeability (aka ‘leaky gut’), a precursor to many chronic health conditions. The added chemicals and other interventions are a large part of this process. And these ingredients are not required by law to be declared on the label – so you may well be drinking ‘Mega Purple’, for example, without realising (although you’ll see it on your teeth and lips ;)), which is a mixture of Rubired grapes, lots of extra sugar, and added ‘colour’. Sulphites are added, and histamines are higher due to non-organic farming practices (the fertilisers increase the natural histamine content of the grapes). Both of these will increase respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal complaints. Sulphites do occur in natural wines sometimes too, as part of the fermentation process, but they are never added. Wine made organically, but not also naturally, can still have negative outcomes too. It’s the natural process, lower or absent sulphites, and the lack of pesticides that makes the difference.

So, with my love of wine, and the passion that I have for well being and nutrition which led me to retrain as a nutritional therapist 14 years ago, it was logical for my real and hypothetical travels to lead me to ‘natural wine’. It really was an epiphany, leading to a love of not only natural wine, but the producers too; all advocates of sustainable farming methods and respect of the ‘terroir‘. The whole movement, this rediscovery of original farming methods (although plenty of small producers have maintained this natural, low intervention production always, many vineyards have been restored to traditional methods by the next generations – the granddaughters and grandsons of those who had been swept up in the lure and promises of commercial production), is slowly changing the wine and restaurant industries, more of whom are waking up to it’s qualities.

RAW WINE’, a totally independent wine fair created and organised by Isabelle Legeron MW describes true (and not all natural wines are made equal, it’s a continuum) natural wine as “farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellarNo 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.”

(EDIT: (from Roland Szimeiszter at http://www.rolandwines.co.uk) A few months ago natural wine was finally registered with the authorities (INAO) in France, and called Vin Method Nature. True natural wine must show the correct label which is really helpful for the consumer.)

Nutrition wise, drinking a commercial wine, made with interventions, is often like consuming a processed, ready meal, also full of preservatives and cost saving practices. However, a home cooked meal, made with real, whole, organic produce is much like a real, raw, natural wine. The golden amber hue, wild aromas and hit of stone fruit and effervescence from opening a biodynamic, skin contact, unfiltered wine say, does the same thing for me as soaking up the flavour and aroma of each leaf, fruit and root at the farmers market, crisp and vibrant and bursting with goodness.

Like a hundred year old sourdough starter, an organic, raw milk cheese, and other ‘farm to table’ produce, natural wine is a living food full of vitality and goodness. Yes, it contains alcohol, and yes, this isn’t part of our essential daily diet, but drunk in moderation I believe it definitely has a place at the table for those that wish to partake in one or two.

And women are leading the natural wine movement right now – that’s got to be a good thing 😉

My current favourite suppliers in the UK? Roland Wines www.rolandwines.co.uk and Les Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk.

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