In the food world, the label “natural” is unregulated and can appear on products that contain traces of pesticides, antibiotics or other additives. For a long time, I assumed the same was the case with wine and that for the most part, all wine was “natural.” Right?
Turns out I was more than just a little bit off!
A recent trip to Europe to visit natural wine producers at their vineyards was a rapid education into the vast differences that set natural wine apart from other types of wine. I thought I already knew quite a bit about wine, but I was completely blown away by what I didn’t know!
I wish I could take you to all the places I visited and show you the amazing attention to detail and work that goes into natural wines. That I could let you smell the humus in the soil and taste the fresh grapes. Show you the three generations of families all working together for months to make a wine they are so proud of. Since I can’t, I’ll do my best to do it justice in words and show you in pictures.
Here’s what I learned:
What is Natural Wine?
In short, natural wine is organic and biodynamic, but also so much more (or so much less, depending on how you look at it). Not all organic and biodynamic wines are natural wines though!
The natural wine movement is a small (and loosely organized) group of people who believe that the best wines are the ones that are manipulated the least. In other worlds, nothing is sprayed in the vineyard (even water most of the time), and nothing is added to the wine.
Natural wine is an unregulated term, so practices can vary from wine maker to wine maker. Just seeing the term “natural” used in wine marketing doesn’t guarantee these standards, especially in US grown wines. I personally only buy wines that use stringent lab tests to ensure that all wines meet the “natural wine” criteria.
Natural Wine vs. Conventional Wines
Not all wines are natural… not even all organic wines. As I said, the term “natural” in wine-making denotes that nothing is added at any point in the process. So what might be used in other wines that don’t meet this standard?
Glad you asked (though you may not be after you read this list!):
- Commercial yeasts– Often the natural yeasts present on the grapes are killed off and a commercial yeast is used instead. Even organic wines can use commercial yeasts, and some commercial yeasts can contain GMO ingredients.
- Dyes– Ever think there might be dye in your wine? Dyes like Mega Purple are often added to wine to give it a bolder color. If your wine dyes your teeth red or purple, it likely has an added dye. Mega Purple is made by concentrating Rubired grapes into a thick and very color rich liquid with 68% sugar!
- Sugar– More on this below, but I saw tests from some wines that contain more sugar than soda. This sugar can be natural or added (from cane or beet sugar) but is a sign that the grapes were overly watered or suplimental sugar was added.
- Sulfites– All wine contains traces of sulfites that naturally occur in grape skins and during fermentation. Some wine makers also add sulfur as a preservative and to kill certain unwanted bacteria in the wine. Wines labeled “low-sulfite” or “no-sulfites,” have only naturally occurring sulfites.
- Pesticides– Non-organic wines often contain pesticide residue. Think about this… if you buy conventional produce, you at least wash or peel it before eating. Grapes go straight into a fermentation vessel, pesticides and all.
- Mold and Mycotoxins– These are more common in red wines, especially from humid areas. If you’re Ok with white wine but red wine gives you a headache, it might be the mold/mycotoxins and not the sulfites. European wine makers must test for mold and mycotoxins but US wine makers are not required to.
- Filtering agents– You wouldn’t think you’d find animal ingredients in wine, but some wines use filtering agents like fish bladders and egg whites to filter the wine.
- Velcorin– The most dangerous additive on this list. Velcorin or dimethyldicarbonate is a bacterial control agent added to many wines. It has to be added by specially licensed teams using hazmat suits under very strict procedures. No one is allowed to touch the wine for 24 hours after application and if you drank the wine during that time, you would die. Bad news!
The Microbiome of Natural Wine
I’ve visited many vineyards in the United States and now many in Europe as well. One difference was striking. In the US, the chemistry and yeast/bacterial balance happen in a lab and in the fermentation vessels. Natural wines rely on the chemistry and microbiome in the vineyard and nothing is done to the wine once it’s in the fermentation vessel.
In short, living vineyards + native yeasts = living natural wine that is in a class of its own.
Here’s what I mean…
Microbiome of the Vineyard
US Vineyards are clean and manicured… and dead. There are typically no unwanted plants growing under the vines and often the vines themselves are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals to keep away unwanted pests and plants.
In Europe, by contrast, many of the natural vineyards were teeming with other plants like herbs and flowers, beneficial insects and snails. All of these things contribute to the bacterial balance in the vineyard and serve an important purpose.
Humus and Terrior
I added two new words to my wine vocabulary in Europe and that I never heard in US vineyards: Humus and Terrior.
Ever seen that gorgeous dark soil right under the top layer of leaves and twigs in a forest? Or smelled the fresh dirt when you’ve dug something up? You likely smelled humus, the dark organic material that forms when plants and animals decay and where the earthworms live. This important soil level also contains important nutrients for plants and nitrogen. Scientists think that this layer may help prevent disease in the soil and make it more fertile. It is also largely missing from many commercial farm lands.
Humus adds a depth of flavor to wine and natural wine makers spend a lot of time working on the health of the soil… and letting the grapes do their own thing.
Natural wine makers also had an intense focus on the quality of the soil and what they called “Terrior,” (a french word that literally translated means “earth” or “soil”) Terrior is basically the idea that the place (the vineyard) is reflected in the taste of the wine. Since natural wine makers don’t add anything to the wine to correct the bacterial balance or taste, they instead culture the soil to create minerality and taste.
In some of the wines we tasted, we could literally taste the vineyard we’d just visited in the flavor of the wine.
Native Yeasts and Living Wines
I was fascinated to learn that while all wines used to be made with their own native and natural yeasts, wine makers now kill off the native yeast and use a standardized commercial yeast for easier fermentation and a more standard taste.
The downside is that unwanted (and possibly beneficial) species of yeast and bacteria are killed off and only the commercial yeast remains. Think of it as the difference between a single strain probiotic and all of the trillions of bacteria present in the soil.
Natural wines are more complicated because they depend on the yeast that is naturally present on the skin of the grapes for fermentation. For this reason, natural wines can be less predictable and taste more complex.
One wine-maker had identified literally thousands of bacteria present in wines. For this reason, natural wines are living wines and can be as different from some commercial wines as kombucha isfrom beer or soda.
Dry Farmed and Low Sugar Wines
The sugar content and irrigation practices also put natural wine in a class of its own. Many organic and biodynamic wines can still be very high in sugar and even high in alcohol. If you’ve heard the increasingly popular term “dry farmed” in reference to wine, this affects both the sugar and alcohol content.
Watering grapes results in a higher yield and sweeter wine, which is the reason artificial irrigation became a common practice. Unfortunately, irrigation also teaches the grapes that their roots don’t have to grow as deep since the water is available near the surface of the soil. Dry farmed (non irrigated) vines send roots down to 30 feet or farther underground where they find more water, more minerals, and more micronutrients. This creates a lower sugar, lower-alcohol, and more complex wine.
Low Alcohol in Natural Wines
Depending on why you like drinking wine (if you do), you may be wondering: “Why on earth would I want low-alcohol wine?”
I personally drink wine in moderation somewhat regularly because I enjoy it and I believe that in moderate amounts it can be very health promoting. In fact, a 2007 study from Finland found that wine drinkers have a 34% lower mortality rate than beer or spirit drinkers. And people in every major blue zone (where people live to be 100+) consume wine regularly.
Alcohol is toxic. In fact, Dry Farm Wines founder Todd White was emphatic about this when I interviewed him for the podcast.
However, we know that some things that are toxic in large doses can be beneficial in small doses. This concept is known as hormesis and essentially it means that the dose makes the poison.
For those of us who choose to approach alcohol consumption with a moderate approach rather than avoid it all together, low alcohol wines can be a great solution. They contain less of the toxic element (alcohol) but if they are natural wines, they contain more of the beneficial yeasts and bacteria, antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals that likely account for the plethora of research about the benefits of wine.
How to Find High Quality Natural Wine
I was surprised how few wines met the stringent criteria for true natural wine. I was traveling with some of the most knowledgeable people in the world about natural wines (and who run the largest natural wine distribution company in the world!).
We visited several wine fairs and I was shocked how few of the wines met their (very) strict criteria. I also saw (and tasted) first hand the big difference between true natural wine and just organic or biodynamic wines. To even be considered, the wines had to:
- Be dry farmed (not irrigated)
- Use native yeast from the vineyard with no commercial yeast added
- Have low alcohol content (12.5% or less)
- Be sugar free (less than 1g/L)
- Use natural or biodynamic farming practices
- Come from grapes grown on old vines (35-100 years old)
If a wine met all of those criteria, then it got to the taste test. These guys are strict! They passed on a lot of wines that tasted perfectly wonderful to me!
If a wine passed their stringent taste test, it was then sent to a lab for testing to confirm the above criteria. It was also tested for mold and mycotoxins, pesticide residue, and a lot of other stuff.
In other words, their wines get more lab testing than most humans do in a year.
And Now I’m a Wine Snob…
Though maybe not in the traditional sense. I don’t have enough experience to identify all of the notes in wine. (Although I’m pretty sure I was entertaining to watch as I tried in Europe!)
I am, however, picky when it comes to the sourcing of wine. Now that I understand just how important all of these factors are, I only choose natural wine to drink. If I have a choice between a regular organic wine that doesn’t meet the criteria and not drinking… I don’t drink.
The problem is that you can’t just walk into a normal wine store or restaurant and ask for a natural wine. I’ve tried. Many people don’t understand the differences and believe, as I used to, that all wine is natural. There are some general guidelines that help somewhat, such as:
- European wines are more likely to meet the natural wine criteria.
- Low alcohol wines are more likely to be made with natural practices.
- Organic and biodynamic wines typically have fewer additives and shouldn’t have pesticide residue.
But none of those are a surefire way to know a wine is natural. And I saw just how much work goes into identifying these wines.
Where I Buy (Natural) Wine
Now, I only buy lab tested wines from Dry Farm Wines for so many reasons. I know the quality is there because of the stringent criteria and lab tests. But more than that, I know just how much heart and soul goes into these wines.
I know what it looks like to see three generations working together to create something amazing. And I’ve seen how these small family-owned wine growers lives change when they are able to sell these wines and share them with us. And now, when I taste a sip of these wines, I can almost see and smell the vineyard where they were grown.