Photo by Leslie Santarina, Spotted SF
Do Natural Wines Deliver Less of a Hangover?
While it’s been slower to happen than with food, “natural” and “organic” are becoming major buzz words in the wine world these days, and we wanted to learn more about what they actually mean. Thea, our food editor, happens to be married to Oscar Mason, who has worked in the wine industry since 2007 and specializes in natural wines, and so we asked him to clarify exactly what it means—and whether it really matters. We learned not only that natural wines deliver less of a hangover, but that most readily available wines (even the really expensive ones) are often full of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Alcohol doesn’t, in fact, kill everything: It’s a bummer to think that while making a conscious effort to buy all organic meats and vegetables, we’ve likely been drinking harmful toxins for years. Below, Oscar explains how to avoid pesticide-packed wines and where to look for the good stuff.
(Meanwhile, the Coravin is a brilliant tool for anyone who wants to stretch a great bottle of wine out over months: You can essentially tap into it without removing the cork and letting any air in. Genius.)
A Q&A with Oscar Mason
Is there a formal labeling process for wine, or can producers use whatever they want on grapes without disclosing?
Wine producers have no obligation to disclose the ingredients and processes they use in production. Beyond the pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers they are permitted to use in the vineyard—and consider that, while you can at least wash an apple or carrot, wine grapes go straight into fermentation tanks with whatever chemicals are on their skins—wineries have a host of biological and chemical additives at their disposal to affect the flavor, color, and stability of the finished product. These aren’t necessarily harmful ingredients in the quantities allowed, but it’s a bit like comparing Fruit Loops to a bowl of porridge; if there were 30 ingredients listed on the label you might think twice before buying it. Until ingredient labeling is required, the only absolutely certain way to avoid most of these additives is to buy wines labeled as “organic” or “biodynamic.”
What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic?
Many wineries don’t feel that simply farming organically goes far enough: Biodynamics is a more rigorous and holistic approach to farming that incorporates elements of homeopathy and even a little astrology. It’s a little kooky, and very controversial, but it’s growing more and more popular among ambitious producers. Producers must be certified by an organization called Demeter in order to label their wines Biodynamic. Organic certification varies slightly in different countries, but wines labeled “Made with Organic Grapes” are free from toxic chemicals in the vineyard. Wines labeled as “Made with Biodynamic Grapes” are even stricter in what they allow. Wines labeled simply as “Organic” or “Biodynamic” are actually quite rare because they require everything used in the winery, after grapes are picked, to be certified organic, and have strong limits on how much sulphur can be used, which even a lot of great producers find to be too onerous to follow every vintage.
Is natural wine the same as biodynamic?
Natural wine is a loosely organized movement of people who believe that wine should be made without any chemicals in the vineyard or additions in the winery. The idea is that all the ingredients for wine are already present in the grape itself, so the most authentic wine is the one that is manipulated the least. There is no certification or organizing body and there can be a lot of infighting over purity of principles but, since it’s so difficult to know for sure how a wine was made, it offers a kind of guarantee of credibility. The wines vary enormously in quality—many of the best wines in the world are ‘natural,’ but there are some awful ones, too—and you usually have to look for them in specialist shops and restaurants, though they are becoming more and more common.
Is there any one unifying certification to look for?
Winemakers tend to be fractious and individualistic by nature and many of the best ones refuse to go through the process of organic and biodynamic certification, even though they farm that way, because they don’t feel it’s worth the time or money. Whether you want hardcore natural wines or just something a little less processed than what you might currently be drinking, your best bet is to find an independently owned wine shop and build a relationship with the people who work there. The idea that good wine has to be expensive is a myth. You can drink great, honestly-made wine for $10 and up, but you have to make a little effort to find it. Smaller shops, owned by people who care about, and have tasted everything they sell, naturally seek out the most passionate producers and they’ll also be more likely to bring in natural wines if you show interest.
Can you recommend a few stores?
In Los Angeles, Lou Wine & Provisions, Domaine LA and Bar & Garden; in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ordinaire, Arlequin Wine Merchant, and Ruby Wine Merchant; and in New York, Chambers Street Wines, Crush, Astor Wine and Spirits, and The Natural Wine Company.
And finally, the question to end all questions: Will natural/organic/biodynamic wine make us less hungover?
Haha. Natural wine tends to be lighter in style than industrial wine so, generally speaking, it has less alcohol, which means you can drink more without getting a hangover. The science is still out on whether other additives in industrial wine make hangovers worse but, if you ask people who have converted to drinking natural wine, they’ll tell you that they feel much better in the morning than they used to!
2014 Domaine de la Pépière Classique Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie France, $12.99
2014 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina Spain, $19.99
2013 Nikolaihof Gruner Veltliner Hefeabzug Wachau Austria, $27.99
2013 Varner Amphitheater Block Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains California, $47.99
2014 Arnot-Roberts Luchsinger Vineyard Rosé Clear Lake California, $28
2013 Clos Cibonne Cuvée Tradition Rosé Côtes de Provence France, $29.99
2014 Olga Riffault Chinon Rosé Loire Valley France, $16.99
2014 Cirelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Italy, $14.99
2013 Julien Sunier Fleurie Beaujolais France, 22 pounds
2011 Ambyth Estate ‘Playground’ Paso Robles California, $44
2009 Paolo Bea San Valentino Rosso Umbria Italy, $34
2013 Bermejos Listan Negro Maceracion Carbonica Lanzarote Spain, $23.99
Oscar Mason began his career at the Institute of Masters of Wine, in London, before moving to the Bay Area to work as a sommelier and get a closer look at wine production. He now sells natural wine wholesale and consults for restaurants and wine shops in Los Angeles.