I've been harboring a dilemma for a while now. Here it goes:
I love a good drop.
But I hate a hangover.
Obviously not drinking in excess is one key factor that leaves no room for debate. But what about the comforting embrace of a glass of merlot on a Friday evening, the first sip instantly melting the tedium of the (office) work week through its magical spell of round, robust fruity goodness. Or an evening shared with friends, sipping cabernet and swapping life stories over a meal made with love. Or a lazy warm afternoon, passing the hours between beach frolicking and a late summer supper with a glass of mineraly riesling and a plate of juicy summer tomatoes. As a gastronome, these are intense pleasures for me.
On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about health on every level - my body's health, my mental health, and the health of the environment in which I live (which are all, ultimately, the same thing). Over the past few years as I've journied down the path of nutritious eating, I've become increasingly convinced that everything that I put into my body has a profound impact on the way I feel. And I want to feel great, all the time! If I'm going to enjoy a drink or two tonight, I still want to wake up feeling great and energetic tomorrow morning. So therein lies the great question: is it possible to enjoy alcohol (responsibly) without detriment to my overall well-being?
I've spent a bit of time researching this question, and the best solution I have so far is to keep my wine, like my food, as natural and local as possible. It seems kind of obvious: I wouldn't buy Woolworth's apples, tainted with unknown pesticides and preservatives and possibly sitting in cold storage for a year, no matter how cheap they were. So why would I buy an $8 bottle of Jacob's Creek made from high-yield, heavily sprayed, machine harvested, lesser quality grapes that have been pumped full or preservatives? But it's not obvious, because many people who eat really healthy food don't apply the same principles to their plonk. They think, "It's just alcohol, it's not good for me anyway, so I might as well buy the cheaper stuff, right?"
The truth is, a good organic/biodynamic/natural (and I'll get into the distinction soon) wine is good for you. First of all, it's raw, which is something that few other alcohols can claim. Beer is usually made from roasted malt, and spirits require heat for distillation. But wine, in its pure form, is a really natural product. Grapes, left to their own devices, will ferment into wine, provided some yeast is present (and it will be in a vineyard that isn't sprayed with chemicals that kill the majority of living things that cross its path). Which means that the resulting beverage is not only potentially tasty and pleasantly inebriating, but also full of beneficial bacteria, as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from the grapes themselves. Look, I'm not arguing that you should drink wine to get your vitamins. I'm just pointing out that like any food product, wine can be as good for you as the ingredients from which it is made - even more so than many products because heat hasn't been introduced to degrade the nutrients.
Which is why if you're like me and get massive enjoyment out of a bottle, I seriously recommend you spend a bit more and go for the good stuff. There are a few options here, all of which I have been, um, researching with amazing results. First off, there's organic. In Australia, as in most countries today, "organic" means certified, which basically means no chemicals. Of course the fact that a wine is certified organic doesn't mean it's going to be any good (in fact, until a few years ago, it almost guaranteed that it wouldn't be, but that's changing). But it does mean that no chemicals have been used in the vineyard, though it doesn't guarantee a lack of preservatives or non-vegan fining agents (such as egg whites or isinglass). Most organic wines tend to use a far smaller quantity of preservatives, because they are using a higher quality fruit harvested and fermented with more care, so less spoilage is likely to occur. So going organic with you wine is a really good bet.
Then there's biodynamic, which again in Australia is a certificiation issue. This simply means that the grapes have been grown according to the principles of biodynamics, which encompasses organics but also includes a close attention paid to the rhythms of the planet, the seasons and the cosmos. In terms of the winemaking, there's not a huge distinction here from organic. But through conversations with both organic and biodynamic certified winemakers, I've found that most people who have taken the time to grow their grapes with these labor-intensive methods are also making the effort to mirror such natural practices in the winery in order to produce the most authentic wine possible.
Finally there's natural wine. This has nothing to do with certification and everything to do with integrity. And if you're read any of my previous posts, you'll know that I'm all about integrity when it comes to what I eat and drink. Drinking natural wine is sort of like buying your produce from the farmer's market. They may not be certified, but you've gotten to know them and you know that they are growing good quality food without chemicals and with the utmost respect for the land. Like organic and biodynamic, these grapes tend to be grown in a chemical-free environment and are always hand-harvested. Where natural wine most differs is in the winery. Strict adherents to the concept of natural wine shun preservatives, fining agents and pretty much any other intervention while the grapes are doing their fermentation thing. In terms of flavor, this is it - rustic, alive. Not all natural wines are great, but the great natural wines are the best wines. They are deep expressions of terroir, with nothing but the flavor of excellent fruit grown in healthy soil coming through - or so I'm told. I have yet to find an Australian natural wine, but I'm on the lookout, and when I do I promise to deliver a full report. (For a more in-depth exploration of natural wines, check out Pameladevi Govinda's fantastic article in Imbibe.)
There are lots of really, really good organic, biodynamic and natural wines out there these days. Unlike the early days of the recent re-birth of organic winemaking, many of the people making these drops today know a thing or two about winemaking. They are passionate about the land and organics, sure, but they are also trained winemakers who know how to gently coax the grape on its journey from fruit to wine like a concerned, responsible and loving parent. Its an idea a bit late in coming to Australia, but in France the most revered wines have been the biodynamics for years now, and natural wines are now considered by many to be where it's at.
It's also worth mentioning that many organic and biodynamic winemakers are following the natural wine ethos. But it's not a certification, not something you're going to find stamped on the bottle, at least not in Australia. If you want to find the best wines out there, both in terms of flavor and natural methods, you're going to have to get out there and talk to winemakers - which is exactly what I intend to do here in this space. If you're lucky enough to have a boutique wine shop near you, start by talking to the staff, and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
For my Aussie readers out there who enjoy a good, natural drop, I'm starting a new segment on this blog called "Weekly Wine." Each week I'll introduce you to a different organic, biodynamic or natural wine, and tell you a bit about its story as well as how it tastes and what sort of raw dishes would complement it. Look out for the first post in the next few days. Please feel free to leave suggestions for wines you'd like to hear more about in the comments.
Cheers! To your health.