Like other food products labeled as “all natural,” so-called natural wines can’t back up their eco-friendly claims with federal laws or certification programs.
But winemakers who subscribe to the natural wine movement, which started in France in the 1970s, say that their grapes are grown organically, often using many of the same farming techniques practiced by biodynamic vineyards. The high cost of achieving organic and biodynamic certification, however, may prevent many of these small winegrowers from verifying their farming practices under these programs.
Natural winemaking isn’t just about sustainability in the vineyard; it’s also about authenticity of the wine. Natural winemakers process their wine with as little intervention as possible, avoiding additives like sugar, sulfites and acidifiers and technological manipulations such as spinning cones to remove alcohol and micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging.
Because there is no national standard for natural winemaking, many wine critics disapprove of branding wines as “natural” and point out that there is nothing stopping industrial wine producers from taking up the vague term if they feel it will aid their marketing efforts.
Does that mean you should avoid wine labeled as “natural” altogether? Not necessarily.
While it may be difficult to discover the reasons why a winemaker calls its wine “natural” when you’re shopping at the grocery store, you can ask the company directly if you’re buying wine from its tasting room or website. To help make your purchasing decision, determine which aspect of natural winemaking you think is most important that a vineyard follow; fewer chemicals, sustainable farming practices or no artificial additives.
You may be surprised to learn that not all wine is vegan or even vegetarian.
To filter the wine prior to bottling, most winemakers use ingredients derived from animals such as egg whites, milk proteins (caseins) or gelatin from fish bladders or cow and pig hooves. These animal products help remove solid impurities like grape skins or yeast from the fermentation process and can adjust the wine’s tannin levels, resulting in a clearer, brighter and better-tasting wine.
While vegans will want to avoid wines processed with any of these animal products, vegetarians who still drink milk and eat eggs will need to steer clear of wines filtered with gelatin.
Fortunately for vegans and vegetarians, it is possible for winemakers to process their wine manually or using minerals like bentonite or kaolin. But how can you be sure you’re sipping on a vegetarian or vegan wine?
While there are no government labeling requirements for the use of animal products in wines, you may find that some wines are marked as vegetarian- or vegan-friendly. Check out EcoVine Wine and other specialty wine clubs and stores that offer a selection of pre-approved vegan wines, or visit Barnivore, a database of vegan wines submitted by the website’s users.
When all else fails, you may have to call the wine company directly to inquire about their use of animal ingredients.