Does Natural Wine mean no hangovers?
Consumer attitudes towards natural wine can range from the most ardent supporters who only drink natural wine, to fervent opponents who turn it down because ‘that wine smells too organic’ or some such. And like any wine from any country, there is good natural wine and bad natural wine. But regardless of your knowledge or position, one of the most enduring aspects of natural wines is that they often contain fewer sulphites than conventionally-produced wine. Attached to this is the belief that sulphites are responsible for hangovers, which goes as follows: sulphites give you a hangover; if there are fewer sulphites in the wine, you should get less/no hangover. And then you chug two bottles, wake up the next day with a splitting headache, the hangxiety kicks in and you wonder where it all went wrong. So lets investigate further.
Whether you’re a natural wine aficionado or a neophyte, it helps to define what natural wine is. First things first, there is no protected, legal definition of ‘natural wine’ and the specific principles can often be disputed from faction to faction, producer to producer. The unifying principles broadly consider natural wines to be those 1) produced from organic or biodynamically farmed grapes 2) produced without recourse to synthetic chemicals in the vineyard or winery 3) are fermented with nothing added, nothing taken away and 4) use either no or a minimal amount of sulphites.
Sulphur dioxide has been used in wine making since Ancient Rome, where sulphur candles were burned inside empty vessels to keep them from turning vinegary. It is the most effective preservative for wine, acting as an anti-microbial and anti-oxidant. Essentially, it protects the wine from bacteria and oxygen, meaning it is an effective method guaranteeing the wine you have spent all year working towards, won’t spoil before it gets to the consumer.
All bottles will mention the presence of sulphites, e.g. ‘Contains Sulphites’. No bottle will ever be truly free of sulphites as sulphites are produced during fermentation. These will be present in tiny concentrations. So why are sulphites mentioned on every single bottle, when in conventional wine it may only be one of many additives? Approximately 1% of the population is sensitive to sulphites, with potential symptoms of breathing difficulties. If this is you, terms to look for include: ‘No Added Sulphites’ (obviously J ), ‘Sans Sulfite Ajoute’ (French wines) and ‘Senza Solfiti’ (Italian). Also consider white wines will typically have higher sulphite levels than red wines, which benefit from the anti-oxidative properties of tannins. All that said, the key point is that no scientific evidence exists linking sulphites and hangovers. Natural wines may have fewer sulphites, but they still have alcohol which is the key component. Anecdotally, it may be suggested that people may feel a little less woozy the next day after drinking natural wines, but this could equally be the slightly lower ABV that natural wines may often (though not always) have.
Whether made conventionally or naturally, alcohol is in both.
Another hangover myth concerns tannins. No research demonstrates that tannins contribute to hangovers. The most it suggests is that they can cause the relaxation of bloody vessels, a phenomenon that can be a precursor to a headache (one of the symptoms of a hangover). And yet, some people report headaches almost immediately when drinking red wines. So if tannins are at best tangentially related, what is happening? Firstly, red wines (broadly speaking, but there are many exceptions) will have a higher level of alcohol. Secondly, red wine contains congeners, a class of chemicals that is produced as a byproduct in fermentation. These chemicals are at higher concentrations in dark alcoholic drinks like brandy, rum and Port. If you’ve had a night on the Dark n Stormy’s and felt clsoe to death the day after, the congeners likely had a big part to play.
The presence of congeners is related to oxygen exposure and oak ageing. Think of whiskey or dark rum with 30 years in cask, red wines with a couple of years in barrel or Port with often many years in barrel. They have been shown to contribute to bigger headaches than clear spirits or white wines. That said, the impact of congeners will always be secondary to the alcohol level. So if you love red wine but struggle with headaches, look for low-abv reds from natural wine producers. Beaujolais is a hotspot for such a style, but other cool-climates might also be able to deliver!
So if you choose to drink natural wines, don’t do it to avoid the hangovers but to celebrate these maverick winemakers and farmers, taking risks in the vineyard and the winery, who worldwide have brought a renewed focus to the health and quality of their grapes, of respecting the bounty of nature and a reminder that wine doesn’t have to be industrialised fruit farming, but a celebration of time and place.