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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!
I took a trip to Europe to visit natural wine producers at their vineyards (maybe my favorite research I’ve ever done!). The trip was a rapid education into the vast differences that set natural wine apart from other types. 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 winemaking 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 it is also so much more (or so much less, depending on how you look at it!). Not all organic and biodynamic wines are natural wines, so it’s important to understand the difference…
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 words, truly natural wine has:
- nothing sprayed in the vineyard (even water most of the time)
- nothing added to the wine.
Natural wine is an unregulated term, so practices can vary from winemaker to winemaker. 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 (from cane or beet sugar) or added at the time of bottling. High sugar is a sign that the grapes were overly watered or that supplemental sugar was added.
- Sulfites: All wine contains traces of sulfites that naturally occur in grape skins and during fermentation. Some winemakers 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 winemakers 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. Yep… sorry to tell you.
- Velcorin: The most dangerous additive on this list. Velcorin or dimethyl dicarbonate 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 balancing happen in a lab and in the fermentation vessels.
Natural wines, on the other hand, rely on the chemistry and microbiome in the vineyard. 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 — a clue that they 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 Terroir
I added two new words to my wine vocabulary in Europe and that I never heard in US vineyards: Humus and Terroir.
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 farmlands.
Humus adds a depth of flavor to wine and natural winemakers spend a lot of time working on the health of the soil… and letting the grapes do their own thing.
Natural winemakers also had an intense focus on the quality of the soil and what they called “Terroir,” (a French word that literally translated means “earth” or “soil”). Terroir is basically the idea that the place (the vineyard) is reflected in the taste of the wine. Since natural winemakers 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, winemakers 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 winemaker 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 is from 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. It essentially means that the dose makes the poison (an important concept in homeopathic medicine).
For those of us who choose to approach alcohol consumption with a moderate approach rather than avoid it altogether, low alcohol wines can be a great solution. If they are natural wines, they contain less of the toxic element (alcohol) and 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 throughout France and Italy and I was shocked how few of the wines met their (very) strict criteria. I also saw (and tasted) firsthand the big difference between true natural wine and just organic or biodynamic wines. To even be considered, the wines had to:
- 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, they sent it to a lab for testing to confirm the above criteria. There they tested it 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…
Don’t take this in the traditional sense… I haven’t made drinking wine into a hobby (even though I love mulled wine from time to time) and I don’t have enough experience to identify all of the notes, etc. (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 glass of 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 a natural winemaking process.
- Biodynamic wines made from organic grapes typically have fewer additives and shouldn’t have pesticide residue.
But none of those is 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 the lives of these small family-owned wine growers change when they are able to sell these wines and share them with the world. And now, when I taste a sip of these wines, I can almost see and smell the vineyard where they were grown.
Chances are you won’t find these organically and biodynamically grown wines at a wine shop near you (or know how to identify them if they are), so I’ve worked out a special offer from Dry Farm Wines for Wellness Mama readers:
Get an extra bottle of wine for just a penny with any order at this link.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Are you a wine drinker? Have you tried natural wine? What differences have you noticed?
Discussion (23 Comments)
I understand that this is a sales pitch for Dry Farm Wines & I think it works on that level. But…
Natural wine is not organic & biodynamic & more. We don’t know what it is because it isn’t certified. Some natural wine producers legitimately use organic practices all the time. Some use them most of the time unless they feel like they need to spray. Some just buy fruit from anywhere & the “natural” part is in the winemaking. Without certification you don’t know.
GMO yeasts have the potential to be a problem. There is one currently allowed called ML01. No winery has admitted to using this yeast so far. It’s something to watch, but it isn’t a problem yet.
Velcorin is dangerous when first added to wine. Within hours it breaks down into methanol in trace amounts & carbon dioxide. It is used in Gatorade, juices, iced teas, & flavored waters. I’m not advocating for its use, but I wouldn’t want anyone scared without cause.
Saying that US vineyards are clean & dead & European vineyards are alive is a vast overstatement. Driving through California wine country in the spring reveals mustard grass growing between rows. Many European vineyards do this as well, but many don’t. At one time the city of Paris sent trash (literal trash) to be dumped in the rows between vines in Champagne. One viticulturist said that the soils of Champagne were as lifeless as the moon. Hyperbolic perhaps, but there are issues with glyphosate in vineyards across the EU. A ban is planned, but it is not yet in place.
Watering grapes does not increase sugar. That is backwards. Low water & longer or hotter growing seasons create grapes with higher sugar/higher alcohol potential. When there is too much water, the grapes get fat & the flavors are less concentrated. Growers hate to pick right after rain because the grapes will have taken on too much water. Rainy cold years tend to have wines with lower alcohol & higher acidity. Hot dry years have wines with lower acidity & higher alcohol. There are plenty of wines out there with high alcohol & high sugar, but that tends to be because sugar was added post fermentation. If it were added prior to fermentation, it would just lead to higher alcohol since that’s the whole job of yeast in the process.
I’m sure that this article will help sell some Dry Farm subscriptions. That’s cool. They have some good wines. I just wish that you had stuck to the facts to promote them & if you were misled to believe that more water equals more sugar in your wine, I recommend reading The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode or Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW, Understanding Vineyard Soils by Robert White, or any of the hundreds of other books out there that will give you a better understanding of how this works. They might lead you to find out about many great wines produced around the world & how the process works.
It’s not a sales pitch, it’s just the facts backed up by the actual lab tests which they run on every wine they consider carrying…
I think you’re missing Phillip’s point, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. In the food sector there is this unregulated designation of “natural” that essentially has no meaning and is a straight up green-washing term used solely for the purpose of enticing consumers into buying a product that they think is better for them and/or the environment. In the context of Dry Farm Wines, yes, I agree that their use of the term “natural” is defined by the tests they run and kudos to them for being able to back it up, however, I take major issue with your claim in saying that “natural” wines go beyond organic and Biodynamic. There is currently a natural wine movement underway, but just like the food sector there is no clear definition of what that is, nor is there any adherence to standards monitored by a 3rd party (outside of Dry Farm Wine). To make a statement claiming that an unregulated category of wines that means something to different to different winemakers is superior to a 3rd party regulated category such as organic or Biodynamic, is doing a huge injustice to farmers making the commitment to get Organic certification and to your readers who care about finding the cleanest products possible. I want to reiterate – I am not talking about Dry Farm Wines – I agree that they are helping to set a standard by doing testing. However, you are making a broader statement when you say “natural” because it lumps in a lot of other producers who are not in line with what you’re promoting. Would you recommend that your readers go out and buy “natural” foods? Do you think a box of Cheerios is healthy and safe just because it says “natural” on the box? Personally, the only label I trust as a consumer wanting to avoid pesticides and other synthetics in my food and drinks is the USDA organic label. Unless, of course, someone like Dry Farm Wines can provide me with test results.
Well said Phillip,
The tone of this piece was to pit NA vs. EU natural wines against each other, but also doesn’t account for the representation of both by demographics (producer/consumer share in over all wine production & sales) nor do I understand why certain aspects of conventional winemaking are verboten to the naturalist. I understand a desire to avoid pesticides or animal ingredients, but there’s a reason the art of winemaking is cebturies old and still being perfected to date. All masters of their respective arts know just how to intervene in surprising and subtle ways to set their work apart; I don’t understand why we forego this knowledge to generate ‘natural’ wine which is a crapshoot. Some is exquisite- but with zero knowledge required and a will to just “let the terroir do its thing” it’s also unreproducible even when it does come out lovely. What’s wrong with informed & guided intervention that respects centuries of viticulture that also respects certain needs of consumers (filtration without animal products for vegans or organic grapes for classic winemaking practices for instance?)
Good luck if you live in the fine state of Pa where one is condemned to the State Store with limited selection. I can not even find a decent (organic) alcohol for vanilla extract. Suggestions?
Thank you so much for writing up this informative, yet easy to understand article on wine (as all of your articles are)! For so long I have been very careful about knowing where all my food and even most of my personal care and household products come from, but alcohol was always the big question mark. There is so little transparency in wine and beer and spirits. I’m definitely a fan of Dry Farm wines after seeing the posts you shared while you were visiting. I’ve also recently come across Scout & Cellar wines, have you ever heard of them? They source only “clean-crafted” wines from all over the world. Companies like Dry Farm Wines and Scout & Cellar are doing such great, and important, work!
It seems strange to frame natural wine as being better/going beyond Biodynamic & Organic wine. The vast majority of people drink conventional wine, pesticides and all – that’s a fact. Most of your points that are critical of “non-natural” wine are only true of conventional wine. It seems like you could educate people about natural wine without dragging Biodynamic & Organic producers, who largely have a similar goal as natural winemakers, within the broader scope of the wine world. They’re making wine with next to nothing added (especially Biodynamic), and putting a lot of time and resources into being certified so they can offer transparency to consumers. I also don’t see many direct examples of how natural wine “goes beyond” Biodynamic & Organic, apart from perhaps the part about organic wine being able to use non-native yeast (not true of Biodynamic).
Just my two cents – I think of natural wine, Biodynamic wines, and Organic wine as allies – a “when one is lifted, all are lifted” kind of idea, if our goal is ultimately to be better to our bodies and the planet. I thought the title of this article was misleading.
Katie - Wellness Mama
I agree, and from what I’ve seen, there is a HUGE difference between them. Both organic and biodynamic wines can have sugar added, which natural wines don’t, and as I’ve written about many times, sugar is one of the worst things we consume and is the most addictive product known to man…
Just wanted to make clear that the addition of sugar is NOT allowable in Biodynamic wines as stated in Demeter’s winemaking standards. The following was copied from their website:
12.4 Acid and sugar adjustment
Acid and sugar adjustment is not permitted. Sugar adjustment is not permitted except for sparkling wines requiring a secondary fermentation. Maximum increase in alcohol through secondary fermentation is 1.5%.
Do you have recommendations for natural wines in Europe? What were some of the farms you visited? I was wondering where I could source good quality wine here, I cannot drink commercial wine.
Katie - Wellness Mama
Two of my personal favorites were: https://www.casadibaal.it/ and http://www.valentinapassalacqua.it/.
If you do some digging and independent research, you can find natural wines in stores. We have an organic Coop near us and the gentleman that orders the wine has sought out some natural wines to put in the shelves. I can’t say that they’ve gone through the rigorous testing that Dry Fatm Wines do, but they are indeed considered natural. They are all imported. I have been happy with a few of them. They usually cost $15-$25 a bottle. I just wanted to share that so people don’t completely give up on it if they can’t order the dry farm wines.
Agreed! I’ve had luck finding clean wines at my local health food store labeled with the USDA organic or Demeter (Biodynamic) seal, or Made with Organic Grapes statement.
I agree with Noelle’s comment. Every time you address this topic, I hope that I will find references to other winemakers that would fit the “dry-farmed” protocol. It would be fabulous to support a local (I live in Washington state) winemaker and to only buy one bottle at a time or as needed. My understanding of Dry Farm Wines is that one doesn’t receive the same bottle twice or have access to a wine that one really likes. Perhaps that is not the case. I would be inclined to order if I knew that I could request a wine that I like in particular. I know that Dry Farm Wines are sponsors of your podcasts/blog, but if there are other wine resources that you (or anyone else) has stumbled upon, please share! I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of Wellness Mama. Thank you. Ann
Katie - Wellness Mama
Unfortunately there aren’t any wines in the US that meet these criteria, as when lab tested, even the dry farmed, biodynamic wines made in the US had trace amounts of roundup because of how polluted our soil is. It’s incredibly sad and unfortunate, as I would love to support local winemakers, but because our entire agriculture system has been so poisoned by the over-spraying of pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty chemicals, it’s not possible at this time (at least from my research).
If you find a bottle or two that you really enjoy from Dry Farm Wines, you can email them and ask about purchasing more of that specific variety. In my experience, they try to be as accommodating as possible…
I have never ever seen a gmo yeast available for use in winemaking. Most all commercial yeast were found in wine fermentations. They’re 100% natural.
I am a dry farm wine believer! I have on,y tried the reds, but I thoroughly enjoy each bottle for its uniqueness. I am very sensitive to additives in other wines and do get nasty headaches. I have tried about 8 bottles of dry farm wines and have not had one headache yet!?
While I appreciated the information and it all sounds so great, I was really bummed to find the only way to buy it was to enroll in a very expensive subscription. And that the only choice was to buy at least 6 bottles! I was hoping you would list some brand names to look for or something or at least be able to buy one bottle when I can, but I can’t commit to buying 6 bottles every month or even every other month! Big disappointment there
Katie - Wellness Mama
Dry Farm Wines lab tests every wine and vintage before importing them, and the majority of the wines they import can only be purchased through them, as they are the largest natural wine importer in the world now. So even if you were able to find the same brands from another source, you wouldn’t be able to verify that it was of the same vintage and had been tested to meet all their criteria.
You can cancel a subscription at any time and restart it later if you’d like. Or, find a friend who wants to split a box with you 🙂
Thank you for explaining, still I feel that 6 bottles every month or even every other month is not affordable for most people. I would love to buy some of their wine at times when I cannot afford it. Have it for sale for people to buy and make the subscription a special incentive for those who can afford it rather than leaving the rest of us to not be able to buy any at all 🙁
Noelle, I couldn’t agree more with you. I too looked into Dry Farm Wines last year and was price shocked. We do not drink a lot of wine and when I drink some I’d like it to be good, but seriously, even if I’d go back to work we could not afford this on a regular basis. Good stuff ain’t cheap and cheap stuff for the most part is not good (for us) but I guess I keep drinking not so good wine the few times a year I drink it (there are a few that do not give me a headache and don’t drink enough to get a hangover) and don’t break the bank.
Same here. I was hoping for a list of wines and I can for sure not afford a subscription to a wine club…..