Most health-conscious people and wine lovers have dabbled in organic, biodynamic, or “natural wines.”
Although reasons for choosing natural wine vary, many gravitate to them because of concerns about pesticides, herbicides, sulfites, taste, or the climate impacts of mass-produced wine.
However, most wine consumers still choose mass-produced wines—most of which are made using various additives, preservatives, color, and flavor enhancers that are not disclosed on labels.
This includes organic and conventional brands.
The problem with this, aside from the transparency issues that create a lack of informed consent, is the ingredients may have negative health consequences.
The health benefits of drinking alcohol may be debatable, but consumers have the right to know what is in their wine.
In this article, we’ll do a deep, yet digestible, dive into the controversial world of natural wines, wine additives, and more, including:
- What exactly are natural wines?
- The questionable ingredients in mass-produced wines
- How to find a truly natural, organic wine you can trust
- A brief history of herbal wines and meades
- How to make herbal wines and herb-infused wines
- And relaxing herbal alternatives to alcohol
What are Natural Wines (and isn’t all wine natural)?
The term “natural wines” is as broad as the term “natural foods,” which raises the obvious question:
“Aren’t all wines natural?”
The answer is yes and no.
Traditional wine is a natural product made by the fermentation of grapes or other fruits into wine using sugar and yeasts.
If that’s where the process stopped (never mind the mass use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in conventional wine for a minute!), then yes, wine is a natural product.
However, like conventional and even organic, packed foods, most winemakers add other ingredients to ensure consistency in flavor, color, and feel while enhancing specific attributes of the wine.
Unlike the food industry, the wine industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or other food agencies. The Treasury Department regulates it and does not require nutrition labels or full ingredient disclosure.REF#3110
This leaves consumers in the dark about what ingredients they’re ingesting when they relax with a glass of wine.
Questionable Ingredients Used in the Production of Conventional and Organic Wines
There are currently 76 different substances that can be added to wine without consumer disclosure.REF#3111
Some are natural, like oak chips, while others are synthetic chemical-based.
Many, but not all, of these, must only be used in controlled concentrations and/or removed from the end product entirely due to toxicity issues, and not all wine additives are cause for concern.
This applies to organic and conventional winemakers, so buying organic doesn’t necessarily guarantee an additive-free or low-additive product.
The following is a short list of common additives found in mass-produced wines.
- Acetaldehyde is considered a respiratory irritant, possible carcinogen, and health hazard and is used to clarify and stabilize wine.REF#3112
- Dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC) is an acute toxin and corrosive irritant. It is used to sterilize, stabilize, and remove alcohol from wine.REF#3113
- Dyes. Specifically, a product called “Mega Purple,” which, according to Wine Business Analytics,REF#3114 is added to most inexpensive wines to give them a deeper color, more fruity flavor, and added sweetness. Mega purple is not only an artificial color and flavoring agent, but it contains high amounts of sugar. Some winemakers argue the sugar gets filtered out if added before the fermentation process begins. However, due to loose labeling laws, consumers cannot know how or at what concentration Mega Purpose is being used in their wine.
- Excess sugar. There is a lot of misinformation about excess sugar in wine, so here’s the deal. Most wines do not contain much sugar due to the fermentation process, which transforms those sugars into alcohol.
Plus, adding cane sugar to wine is illegal in some places, including Argentina, Australia, California, South Africa, and Southern France.
So, what’s the problem with excess sugar then?
Winemakers everywhere are permitted to add grape concentrate, which contains high sugar levels. In addition, some wine brands add sugar after fermentation to increase the sweetness factor.
Bottom line, if you like sweeter wines and are concerned about added sugar, it’s probably worth inquiring how much sugar it contains.
- Higher concentrations of pesticide residues in conventional wines when compared with organic or biodynamic wines.REF#3115
- Higher levels of sulfites compared to organic or biodynamic wines.REF#3116 All wine contains some naturally occurring sulfites. However, some winemakers add extra sulfites to improve appearance, taste, and shelf-life.REF#3117 This is problematic for anyone who is sensitive to sulfites or has asthma, as sulfites can cause headaches and irritate the respiratory tract.REF#3118
- Isinglass, also known as “fish bladders.” These wine clarifiers are removed from the wine before bottling and are not considered a safety hazard. However, they may not be desired by vegans, vegetarians, or anyone with a fish allergy or sensitivity.
- Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP) is used to clarify and stabilize wine and to remove color. It is also a corrosive irritant.REF#3119
- Silicon dioxide is considered a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and health hazard and is used as a defoaming agent.REF#3120
- Tartaric Acid is considered a corrosive skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and health hazard. It is used to correct natural acid deficiencies and reduce pH in wine.REF#3121
There are also concerns about unsafe levels of mycotoxins, a type of mold toxin, in red wines.REF#3122
Mycotoxins are not directly added to wines (although some approved wine additives are made from molds) but may form for various reasons and can cause unwanted symptoms.
Plus, research has shown conventional wines contain higher levels of pesticide residue than their organic/biodynamic counterparts.REF#3123
This may be due to pre-existing levels in soil, nearby industry, or heavy-metal-based pesticides used on wine grapes or neighboring farms.
That’s a lot to swallow for anyone who presumed they were drinking a primarily natural product.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining in all of this.
A growing number of small vineyards have committed to producing genuinely natural and organic wines in the old tradition that are tested for many of these concerning chemicals, pesticides, mycotoxins, and other additives.
You can also learn to make your own wine or meade (honey wine) easily these days, using all-natural ingredients, including herbs.
How to Find a Truly Natural, Organic Wine You Can Trust
In general, small vineyards committed to regenerative, organic growing practices are less likely to use unwanted additives.
Natural wine curators, like Dry Farm Wines, also source wines tested for purity from small vineyards and provide them via subscriptions.
A quick internet search of “additive-free wine” will yield various articles touting specific brands and vintners.
You can also inquire at your local natural foods store or wine shop about their recommendations and standards for natural wine brands they carry.
What are Herbal Wines? A Brief History & Introduction
If you’re interested in trying your hand at homemade wines to avoid additives and other questionable ingredients, herbal wines are a great place to start.
Herbal wines or meades (honey wines) are made from flowers, leaves, stems, roots, and other parts of various herbs and spices.
Herbal wines have been used for centuries for various purposes, including:
- As a way to preserve herbs and spices
- As wellness tonics for supporting various aspects of health*
- For pleasure and practicality. Herbal wines, herbal beers, and meades were popular during medieval times, for example, as a daily beverage and for celebrations
Although China and the Middle East provided the first reports of plant additives in fermented beverages, herbal wines have been used in traditional herbalism across cultures.REF#3124
- The ancient Incans drank fermented Maca beverages
- The traditional Spanish fermented herbal wheat barley beverage, Abydos, is made with native rosemary, mint, and thyme
- The Egyptians still use herbal ingredients in their native wines
- In North America, traditional herbalists have made use of wild herbs like dandelion chamomile, and rosehips to craft various herbal wines, meades, and fermented elixirs
Ultimately, herbal winemaking was used as a practical way to harness and preserve the beneficial properties of herbs and spices in a tasty beverage.
Although you can find some herbal wines or herbal-infused wines for sale, today, herbal wine-making remains largely a hobby of herbalists and home-brewing enthusiasts.
Common Herbs Used in Herbal Wine
Technically, you can use the flowers, roots, leaves, fruits, and stems of nearly any herb to make herbal wine.
However, not all herbs ferment well in alcohol, nor are they all pleasant tasting.
This may be fine if you’re only interested in their potential health benefits.
However, if palatability, preservation, and health benefits are your goal, consider the following traditional herbs for winemaking:
- Lemon Balm
- Red Clover
There are endless ways to use these herbs in herbal wines, meades, and even beer.
Some recipes combine several herbs, while others, like Dandelion wine, focus on one.
You can also use these herbs to infuse pre-made natural wines.
How to Get Started Making Herbal Wine Recipes
Herbal winemaking is not overly complicated, but it is an art and science that requires knowledge, equipment, time investment, and skill.
Essentially, you are fermenting a combination of sweetener (honey or sugar), yeasts, lemon juice (an acid), herbs, spices and/or fruits, and wine tannin.
These ingredients are combined in a special fermentation bottle and left to ferment, then ferment again for several weeks.
The wine is then tasted, adjusted, and bottled in special wine bottles designed to preserve the wine for extended periods of time.
This is a basic description of the process, which varies depending on what type of herbal wine you’re making and what type of sweetener you’re using.
Meade, herbal wine made with honey, for example, must ferment longer than a sugar-based wine.
There are several excellent resources for herbal wine recipes and learning the craft, including:
- The Herbal Academy Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course
- The Joy of Brewing Cider, Mead, and Herbal Wine: How to Craft Seasonal Fast-Brew Favorites at Home
How to Make Herbal-Infused Wine At Home
Making herbal-infused wine at home requires no special knowledge, equipment, or skills.
You only need a bottle of your favorite wine, a mason jar or decanter, and some herbs.
When choosing the right herbs for your infused wine, consider how the flavor pairs with the wine.
- Robust reds are complemented by potent and flavorful herbs such as Rosemary, Rosehips, Yarrow, and Juniper
- Rose wines pair beautifully with Sage, Basils, and Citrus Peel
- Whites lend themselves to more delicate flavors such as Chamomile, Lavender, Elderflower, Rose petals, and Lemon Balm. Zesty ginger is also lovely in white wine
- Sweet wines can stand up to various herbs such as Dandelion, Ginger, Sage, Rosemary, Lemon Balm, Lemongrass, Chamomile, Rose, and Vanilla
To make herbal-infused wine:
- Pour the bottle of wine into a mason jar or decanter.
- You can leave the wine in the bottle, but adding the herbs may cause it to overflow. Plus, it will be difficult to remove the herbs.
- Note: If using dried herbs, consider using a muslin cloth, cheesecloth, or tea bag for easy removal. Otherwise, you can use a sieve to strain them out.
- For fresh herbs, leave them whole on the stem (if possible) and tie them with twine for easy removal.
- Some recipes recommend leaving your herbs in for several weeks and shaking them daily. This takes more time but will produce a stronger-flavored end product.
- Strain or remove the herbs, and enjoy your wine!
Healthy Herbal Alternatives to Alcohol
Drinking alcohol, including wine, has been associated with some health and longevity benefits.REF#3125
However, drinking alcohol, especially excessive drinking, is also associated with increased mortality, addiction, and mental health issues.REF#3126
It can also be good to take a break and try something new, which is where herbs come in.
If you’re looking for alternatives to alcohol, several herbs can help you achieve a natural feeling of relaxation and calm.
Kava is a non-addictive plant from the pepper family that has been traditionally used as a ceremonial drink in the Pacific Islands for hundreds of years. It produces a mild sedative effect, promotes relaxation, and calms the mind and body.REF#3127
You can find Kava in herbal supplements or hit up a Kava bar to sample a variety of Kava elixirs.
Golden milk with a Kick
Golden milk is a traditional Ayurvedic beverage made with milk, natural sweetener, Turmeric, and other warming spices such as Ginger, Cardamom, Nutmeg, Black Pepper, and Cinnamon.
Many people find this beverage naturally induces a deep state of calm.
However, adding something spicy, like Cayenne or chilis, may stimulate the release of endorphins (those feel-good chemicals) while enhancing the flavor of the Golden Milk.
Add just a pinch of cayenne or a piece of chili, and adjust the heat accordingly.
If you’re used to the calming effects of an alchoholic nightcap, try these herbs instead:
- American Skullcap
- California Poppy
- Lemon Balm
- Tulsi (also known as “liquid yoga”)
These calming herbs can be taken as a supplement, tea, or used in creative mocktails.
Adaptogens are a type of herb or substance that helps the body adapt and thrive under various physical, mental, and emotional stressors.
Adaptogens come in many forms and have been used for centuries across the globe.
Some examples include:
- American Ginseng
- Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Ginseng
- Maca Root, also known as Peruvian Ginseng
- Rhodiola, also known as Russian Ginseng
- Tulsi/Holy Basil
Adaptogens typically do not work as quickly as alcohol, although some people do experience an immediate sense of calm when taking them.
However, their benefits may compound over time.
Like calming herbs, adaptogens can be taken as supplements, teas, or used in mocktail recipes, like this Maca Colada with Maca Powder.
Herbal-Infused Kombucha (low-alcohol)
Kombucha, a traditional Japanese fermented tea, has become a popular fizzy drink among the health-conscious.
Kombucha does contain a small amount of alcohol due to the natural fermentation process.
However, if you can tolerate a tiny bit of booze, it can make an excellent alcohol alternative (just steer clear of hard kombuchas, which contain more alcohol).
You can find various herbal-infused Kombuchas or make your own at home using store-bought kombucha or from scratch.
To infuse store-bought kombucha, follow the same instructions for herbal-infused wine. You can even reduce the time to just a couple of hours.
Homemade kombucha requires a scoby, also known as a kombucha mushroom, tea, water, sugar, and whatever herbs you wish to flavor it with, along with a proper fermentation vessel and bottles.
An online search will yield several tutorials for herbal-infused homemade kombuchas using black or green teas.
For more tips on living without alcohol, check out:
- Sober Curious? Your Guide to Non-Alcoholic Drinks and Activities
- Black Elderberry Syrup Mocktails: Yes, Please!
- 4 Herbal Mocktails to Spice up Any Party
Time for a Natural Wines Recap
We’ve covered a lot, so let’s recap the highlights:
- The wine industry is regulated by the Treasury Department, and is not required to disclose ingredients
- Most mass-produced wines found in the grocery store (including organic wines) contain additives, pesticide residue, and other questionable ingredients
- Although the term “natural wine” is broad and unregulated, it generally encompasses wines from small vineyards dedicated to organic, regenerative, or biodynamic growing practices and limited or no use of additives
- Herbal wines can be made at home (with the right training, skill, and equipment) and may be available in small wine shops or local natural foods stores
- Herbal wines and meades (honey wine) may contain one or various herbs used to flavor the wine or impart specific properties of the herb or spice
- Herbal-infused wine is an easy way to make herbal-inspired wine at home using premade wine and your favorite herbs
- Various herbs, such as nervines, adaptogens, and calming herbs, can be used as alcohol alternatives in teas, supplements, or mocktails to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and help calm body and mind.
Cheers to healthier alcoholic and non-alcoholic elixirs!
- 1. , "24.246 Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice", Code of Federal Regulations . 1 1. , "24.246 Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice", Code of Federal Regulations .
- 2. , "Acetaldehyde", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information.. 2 2. , "Acetaldehyde", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information..
- 3. , "Dimethyl dicarbonate", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information.. 3 3. , "Dimethyl dicarbonate", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information..
- 4. , "Mega Purple", Wine Business Analytics.. 4 4. , "Mega Purple", Wine Business Analytics..
- 5. , "Differences in the levels of sulphites and pesticide residues in soils and wines and under organic and conventional production methods", Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. 5 5. , "Differences in the levels of sulphites and pesticide residues in soils and wines and under organic and conventional production methods", Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.
- 6. , "Differences in the levels of sulphites and pesticide residues in soils and wines and under organic and conventional production methods", Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.. 6 6. , "Differences in the levels of sulphites and pesticide residues in soils and wines and under organic and conventional production methods", Journal of Food Composition and Analysis..
- 7. , "Use of sulfite and hydrogen peroxide to control bacterial contamination in ethanol fermentation", Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 7 7. , "Use of sulfite and hydrogen peroxide to control bacterial contamination in ethanol fermentation", Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
- 8. , "Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives", Gastroenterology and Hepatology From Bed to Bench.. 8 8. , "Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives", Gastroenterology and Hepatology From Bed to Bench..
- 9. , "1-Ethenyl-2-pyrrolidinone (9CI)", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information.. 9 9. , "1-Ethenyl-2-pyrrolidinone (9CI)", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information..
- 10. , "Silicon Dioxide", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information.. 10 10. , "Silicon Dioxide", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information..
- 11. , "DL-Tartaric acid", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information.. 11 11. , "DL-Tartaric acid", PubChem NIH National Library of Medicine National Center for BioTechnology Information..
- 12. , "Mycotoxins in red wine: Occurrence and risk assessment", Journal Food Control.. 12 12. , "Mycotoxins in red wine: Occurrence and risk assessment", Journal Food Control..
- 13. , "Heavy metal ions in wines: meta-analysis of target hazard quotients reveal health risks", Journal BMC Chemistry.. 13 13. , "Heavy metal ions in wines: meta-analysis of target hazard quotients reveal health risks", Journal BMC Chemistry..
- 14. , "Production of Herbal Wine Using Herbs-A Review", International Journal of Research in Engineering and Science (IJRES). . 14 14. , "Production of Herbal Wine Using Herbs-A Review", International Journal of Research in Engineering and Science (IJRES). .
- 15. , "Alcohol and Human Health: What Is the Evidence?", Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. . 15 15. , "Alcohol and Human Health: What Is the Evidence?", Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. .
- 16. , "Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges", Nutrients. 2020. 16 16. , "Kava as a Clinical Nutrient: Promises and Challenges", Nutrients. 2020.
- 17. , "Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review [Internet]. Alexandria (VA).", USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review. . 17 17. , "Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review [Internet]. Alexandria (VA).", USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review. .