We spoke to three wine experts about the unlabeled additives in our wine—and why you might want to consider natural options.

Lauren Wicks
January 22, 2020
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Lately I've been interested in learning more about natural and organic wines. I care a lot about where my food comes from—so, why not look into how my wine is made too? But, after researching, I was overwhelmed by all of the information floating around (for example, what does the term "natural wine" mean? Should I even care? And what's the difference between natural wine, organic wine and biodynamic wine?).

I decided to get some expert advice, so I reached out to Deidre Heekin of La Garagista Farm + Winery in Vermont to learn more about the natural wine movement. Then, I headed over to my city's natural wine shop, Golden Age Wine, where I talked to owners Brandon Loper and Trent Stewart about what could be hiding in conventional wine—and why one might want to consider drinking wine made the natural way.

Why Are There Chemicals in My Wine?

If you thought all wine was made of just grapes and yeast, you're not alone. Heeken admits she too believed the same thing before she got involved in the natural wine movement.

"I got into natural wine organically, no pun intended!" Heeken says. She says she noticed that the wine list she curated for the restaurant she shared with her husband was populated by mostly natural wine growers.

Heeken says, "The producers on my list were farming organically, working with the indigenous yeast that lived on the grapes and vineyard and a minimum of sulfur (sulfites) at bottling, if they used any. They made no other additions to the wine."

Believe it or not, this isn't how all wine is made. Heeken says, "The reality is that because we have no labeling laws for wine, wine can be a very unnatural product." She adds that over 72 chemical additions are allowed into wine by the U.S. federal government. Yikes.

"Wineries are not obligated to share what they put in their wine, and in fact, if you try to be transparent in your labeling information and list any ingredients, it is technically not allowed," Heeken says.

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So, What Kinds of Chemicals and Other Additives Could Be in My Wine? And How Come They Aren't Listed on the Bottle?

I sat down with the folks at Golden Age Wine to help me understand why winemakers would add anything to their wines, and what just might be lurking in my favorite bottle of pinot.

Loper and Stewart explained that additives run the gamut—but not all of them should be a cause for concern. For example, one of the oddest wine additives (in my naive opinion) is called isinglass, and it's a form of collagen made from fish bladders. Stewart said isinglass has actually been an integral part of traditional French winemaking for centuries and isn't necessarily something to be concerned about—unless you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.

"Wines are manipulated for multiple reasons, and not all of them bad," Stewart says. "However, I do have a problem with herbicides and pesticides, like Roundup, found in some wines."

(It's important to note that while drinking Roundup-laced wine sounds absolutely terrifying, the verdict is still out on just how much glyphosate—the potentially carcinogenic ingredient in Roundup—could impact our health if it's in our glass of vino. On the one hand, French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to make France a glyphosate-free winemaking region, while others say you would have to drink dozens of bottles of wine a day to experience negative health benefits.)

Besides some chemicals, other additives can find their way into a bottle of wine for the manufacturer to keep a standard mouthfeel, color and flavor profile. Food coloring, commercial yeast, sugar and acidifiers are some of those extra ingredients that help give consumers exactly what they are expecting from a specific brand. Some of those names include gum arabic, activated carbon, ammonium phosphate, alumino-silicates, ascorbic acid, citric acid, copper sulfate, polyoxythylene 40, dimethyl dicarbonate, carbohydrase, oak chips, tannin and, my personal favorite name, mega purple. But why don't I see "mega purple" or "polyoxythylene 40" listed anywhere on my wine bottle?

Heeken explains that there are no rules for labeling wine. She says, "There is a group of producers lobbying the FDA for label requirements, but there is a more powerful group consisting of mass-market wine companies with more resources to lobby against these rules. Because if a grocery store wine had to include all the ingredients, they most likely would not fit on the whole label. Who would want to drink something with that many additives?"

To make things even more frustrating, Loper says that just because a bottle of wine touts being made with organic grapes, doesn't mean it's a natural or organically produced wine. The idyllic vineyards we take pictures in front of on a trip to Napa is just a small part of the wine production process, where many additives can be introduced to even organic grapes.

What Is Natural Wine, Anyways?

"For me the definition is pretty clear, and always has been," Heeken says. " I believe natural wines must be farmed regeneratively, rely on the indigenous yeast in the vineyard and winery and use no sulfur to minimal amounts only at bottling—with no additional additives. The old saying is 'nothing added, nothing taken away.' For me the definition goes further now, they also must have that inexplicable energy, they must have an equilibrium and emotion."

Loper explained to me that separating out natural from organic wine can be confusing, as natural wine often isn't labeled "organic," simply because they are actually going above and beyond to produce the most natural wine possible. This may not align with "organic" standards, but doesn't mean it's not a great option for those seeking wholesome, natural wines. Natural wines can be organic and biodynamic, but organic and biodynamic wines aren't always natural (more on that here).

"Every bottle is intentionally different—just as every growing year is different," Stewart says. "The beauty of wine is that is has potential to show its place—or terroir."

Terroir is quite the buzzword among the natural wine community. Basically this is just a pretty word for how a specific region's terrain affects the taste of its wine. This is why a bottle of the same brand and varietal of natural wine can vary each time you drink it—an important thing to understand if you decide to dabble in the natural wine world.

Natural wine began in France, but Heeken says that as it's expanded across the globe, there are different reasons for producing wine this way. While for some it's all about the expression of one's terroir, it could also be about social and cultural issues—like fighting climate change and promoting gender and racial equality.

"I think there is a misconception that there is a natural wine 'style,'" Heeken says." No natural winegrower or maker should be shooting for a type or a style. It's important to know that natural wine is a living thing and will evolve and change over time. You may open a bottle one day of a certain wine and have your life changed, and you can open that same bottle and vintage two weeks later and again have your life changed or conversely be underwhelmed. Like people, wines can have an off day!"

Just like how your favorite local bakery's loaf of sourdough could taste completely different than the sourdough you'll find on a trip to San Francisco, such is the same with natural wine. Since none of those additives are present in these wines, they can vary in color, mouthfeel and flavor.

"Natural wine is not manipulated within an inch of its life in order to be homogenous," Heeken says. "That is the beauty and excitement of wine, or should be. It should tell a story of the vintage, the place, the person who made it."

Where to Buy Natural Wines—and What to Try First

"You'd think it would be easy to find natural wine in 2020 at places where you shop for natural, organic foods," says Stewart. "You see these wine displays at 'healthy' grocers selling brands that make very manipulated wines. But most people don't know that. They assume that if they are shopping at Whole Foods, the wines they sell wouldn't have the chemicals that aren't allowed in the foods and other beverages they sell. More and more grocers are focused on organic food, but wine is still an afterthought."

Heeken, Loper and Stewart all advise seeking out your local natural wine shop for a much less overwhelming introduction to natural wine. These natural wine shop owners have already done all the work for you, filtering through the lower-quality and sneakily labeled wines to find producers that use wholly natural methods.

"Find the wine shop that allows you to create relationships, have those conversations and experiment with varieties to discover what you like," Loper says.

I asked them for a few suggestions and they suggested starting off your natural wine journey with a light, chillable red like a Gamay Beaujolais or a white wine from the Loire Valley or Sancerre. Pet-nat is a popular sparkling wine from the Loire Valley and could be a good introduction. Not all the wines in these regions are natural, but your shop owner will help guide you to ones that are.

And if you want to try out La Garagista wines, Heeken advises starting with one of their sparkling options.

"Our sparkling wines are a great way to enter into the world of La Garagista," Heeken says. "They are bright, lively and full of heart, just like the kinds of people with whom I like to spend an evening around the table."

The Bottom Line

"Yes, we are advocates for natural wine, but we don't want to talk down to anyone—some of the voices of the natural wine movement have made us look bad." Stewart says. "We just want to be transparent and help you understand what you are buying. It's all about having conversations. We know the growers personally and philosophically and understand the kind of quality they are providing to the consumer."

Just like you might do some research as to what's going into your food, it's worth taking a look into what's also going into your wine—and unfortunately it's not as easy as looking at the ingredients list on the back of the label.

Additionally, just like we seek balance in our diet, you should never experience "wine guilt" or make others feel bad for drinking (or not drinking) a certain vineyard's wine. It's worth educating yourself to see where to stand—and have fun experimenting with some new wines—but it's not worth obsessing over.

Your favorite $10 bottle of vino from Trader Joe's probably isn't natural, but that doesn't mean you should shun it for the rest of your life if you truly enjoy it. Wine is all about enjoyment, and you get to decide how much—or how little—natural wine should play a role in that.