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On ‘Clean’ wine – ambiguity among the vines

Published:  20 August, 2020

Wine is an odd consumable. It’s a drug, it isn’t legally required to list ingredients, and it’s often described with vague, ambiguous terms. In the wake of the natural wine movement and the age of ‘wellness’, it was just a matter of time until a brand tried to hoodwink us. Quickest to the mark were Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power with ‘clean wine’, Avaline.

It’s problematic that no official criteria yet exists to classify ‘natural’ wines. It’s generally accepted that they must be made from organic grapes, use only natural yeasts, have nothing added or taken away in the winery, and contain no more than 70ppm of sulphur dioxide. You’d be forgiven for assuming ‘clean wine’ follows suit, but you’d be wrong, it’s an empty term that means nothing.

Diaz and Power intend to bring transparency to wine but get off to a bad start, informing us simply that the white is from Spain and the rosé from France. They rail against additives in wine, which is probably why they fail to list the additives used (which include bentonite clay, pea protein, sulphites of 100ppm, yeast, yeast protein, and cream of tartar – all ingredients that can often be found in ‘normal’ wine). They state that no additional sugars, concentrates or colours are added, but this is hardly a unique claim and could be made by most decent winemakers at the same price point (RRP £18). If you want to lead a movement championing transparency, don’t be opaque.

The use of organic grapes is the only tangibly clean part of the Avaline story. However, there’s a huge difference between mass market wine and smaller producers with regard to their use of pesticides. Many winemakers practice organic farming where possible but have to be pragmatic. In cooler regions, mildew can run amok unless it’s treated with fungicide.

It’s the major brands at the cheaper end that use the most pesticides and additives. But even in these cases only trace amounts find their way to your glass and are considered harmless in such quantities.

The most controversial pesticide ingredient is Glyphosate (the market leader, Roundup, is now owned by Bayer). It’s used on a multitude of crops all around the world and has been linked to cancer and Parkinson’s. It’s everywhere because it’s cheap. France intended to ban it a few years ago but were forced to back track since switching to another pesticide would ruin vast numbers of wine producers across the country.

In a recent report, traces of Glyphosate were found in a broad spectrum of big name wines and beers. Those with the highest levels were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest brands, with Sutter Home, Beringer and Barefoot the worst offenders. Interestingly, there were also traces found in some organic wines and beers tested. According to Bayer you’d need to drink a bottle of wine an hour for the rest of your life in order to face any risk at this concentration. For those working with the chemical though, the risk appears to be genuine and goes far beyond the wine industry, with Glyphosate used as a weed killer in all manner of public places, including playgrounds, schools, and hospitals.

Many of us want to live cleaner, healthier lives, but changing the type of wine we drink is unlikely to make any difference. Wine is an indulgence, so indulging a little less would have a far more positive effect on our health. It’s worth keeping in mind that the liquid in a £5 bottle is worth £0.31 versus £2.70 in a £10 wine. If you’re concerned about additives and pesticides spend a little more, and seek out smaller producers whose focus is on quality, rather than sleight of hand.