Wine has a reputation as a simple, one-ingredient drink. But that all-natural street cred can be misleading.
“We cling to the romantic idea that wine is made simply from grapes and yeast and love,” says Bianca Bosker, author of Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. “Yet there are more than 60 additives that can legally go into wine to shape its taste, flavor, texture, and more.”
And that doesn’t account for the herbicides and pesticides in many conventional wines. Grapes are No. 6 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the highest loads of pesticide residues. Laboratory analysis by the CalPIRG Education Fund found glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, and a probable carcinogen, in each of the five wines it tested — even the organic ones. The organic wines in the analysis were noticeably lower in glyphosate than the conventional wines — organic varieties topped out at 5 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate, while the nonorganic wines hit 50 ppb — but it is still worth noting. Experts suspect that toxins blow onto organic crops from nearby conventional farms or get introduced via rainwater.
“A lot of wines test high for pesticides and herbicides, things that many people spend a lot of time, energy, and resources to avoid in their food,” says Josh Nadel, master sommelier of Thrive Market’s Clean Wine program.
Wine consumers can reduce herbicide and pesticide exposure by choosing organic wine, but finding wines without additives, or with fewer additives, is tricky. By and large, the government doesn’t require winemakers to disclose everything that’s in their wine — and most don’t. Winemakers must disclose the presence of sulfites (if over a certain amount), FD&C yellow No. 5 coloring, and carmine, for example, but they are not required to disclose other additives.
So how can conscientious consumers make smart choices? Learning about wine’s most common additives and interventions is a good place to start.
The History of Wine Additives
Though it sounds like a modern invention, adding compounds to wine to improve taste or extend shelf life is nothing new. “In Bordeaux, winemakers have been fining wine with egg whites for centuries,” says Bosker. (Fining is the practice of adding substances that bond with undesirable particles in the wine so that they can be more easily filtered out.) Sulfur dioxide has been added to wine as a preservative for just as long.
In other words, humans have been altering wine for some time. But why? Why can’t a bottle of wine be just grapes and yeast?
In truth, it can — and today, many farmers and winemakers are striving to bring more transparency to the market, and some sommelier-led, direct-to-consumer programs have sprung up to help connect wine consumers with healthier options. The trend has even reached restaurants and liquor stores, with minimal intervention, as we see “natural” options appearing on menus and store shelves.
But the more nuanced reality is that wine is a delicate and temperamental beverage, quick to go bad or taste “off.” That’s why wine has a long history of intervention, and why many winemakers continue in that tradition.
“Wine tends to need a bit of protection,” says Nadel, adding that even some winemakers who prioritize natural farming and winemaking processes occasionally make judicious use of additives to safeguard flavor.
“These are choices made in the service of taste.”
That isn’t to say that all low- to no-intervention wines have an unpleasant taste profile. Many are delicious and free of chemicals that turn up in many conventional wines. But in some cases, low- to no-intervention winemaking comes at the expense of taste.
“A lot of these wines smell like nail-polish remover or taste of apple-cider vinegar,” Nadel concedes.
This poses a unique challenge for consumers. With no labeling laws, and confusion about the designations that appear on some bottles, how can you know what’s in a wine? This guidance can help you make healthy and delicious choices.
Ignore “natural wine” labels. The phrase“natural wine” has no legal definition, a fact that adds to consumer confusion. “Ask 10 different people, you’ll likely get 10 different answers,” says Nadel.
Generally speaking, wines labeled “natural” will use fewer additives in the winemaking process and fewer chemicals (and more sustainable practices) in the grape-farming process, but the word “natural” isn’t a guarantee. The same applies to the phrase “clean wine.”
Be mindful of both grape-farming and winemaking practices. What happens on the grape farm and what happens at the winery are two different things, so don’t assume that the words “organic” or “made from organic grapes” — both of which refer largely to standards on the farm, not in the winery — mean the wine is additive-free or intervention-free. “The winery is where a lot of the additives sneak in,” says Nadel.
Expect some sulfites. Sulfites occur during the fermentation process, so all wine contains some naturally occurring sulfites — though most winemakers, including some “natural” ones, add more sulfur dioxide to extend the bottle’s shelf life. Many (but not all) natural wines eschew added sulfites or contain very few. Any wine that contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfur dioxide will have “contains sulfites” on the label.
Don’t blame sulfites for your headache. Sulfites have long been the scapegoat for the infamous red-wine headache, but according to the FDA, true sulfite sensitivity affects only 1 percent of the general population. What’s more, symptoms of sulfite sensitivity are often dermatological, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, and cardiovascular, but they very rarely show up as a headache. Plus, sulfite-related symptoms tend to happen quickly, between five and 30 minutes after exposure, not the next day, like many wine headaches.
So what causes post-wine headaches? One theory is that the histamines in wine can dilate blood vessels, leading to headaches. Another possibility is that the tannins in wine are the real culprit, triggering the release of serotonin, which can give some people a headache. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so wine can be dehydrating, which can lead to headaches.
Pay attention to “organic” versus “made with organic grapes.” This is especially important if you’re concerned about sulfite intake. Organic wines are made with grapes that have been grown without synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides (though, as studies have shown, low levels of toxins can turn up in organic wines because of drift from nearby conventional farms or contaminated rainwater), and they do not contain added sulfites. The phrase “made with organic grapes” means that winemakers use organically grown grapes but have added sulfites or used other additives.
Look for biodynamic. Biodynamic winemaking follows the same principles as organic winemaking but takes them a step further. Biodynamic farmers consider the health of the whole ecosystem, including soil, water, and air, as well as the lunar cycle and other astrological and spiritual rhythms. Biodynamic is a registered certification, so when you see it on a label, you can trust that the bottle meets a set of sustainability standards.
“Is biodynamic better for the planet than organic? Probably, yes,” says Nadel. For example, he says, biodynamic farmers avoid monoculture crops and won’t engage in some of the practices that an organic farmer might, like using the maximum amount of a permitted natural fungicide if they’re facing major crop loss. “Biodynamic farmers don’t think of disease as something to be defeated. They think of it as something to be worked with.”
Know what might be lurking in unlabeled wines. It is virtually impossible for the average consumer to know what’s in an unlabeled wine — which, says Bosker, can include ingredients that boost acidity (tartaric acid), reduce acidity (potassium carbonate), build fullness (gum arabic), add flavor (powdered tannins), enhance aromas (designer yeast strains), and much more. While the additives have been approved for use in wine, some ingredients raise eyebrows among experts. One example is an additive called Velcorin, or dimethyl dicarbonate, which is added to some wines as a chemical stabilizer and antimicrobial agent. “Velcorin is used to stop microbial disco parties,” says Nadel. “When you think about all the compounds in commercial agriculture that are meant to kill metabolic processes and you put that into your own body . . . and people wonder why allergies and illnesses are on the rise. It’s pretty brutal.”
Consider buying from a third party. Some third-party organizations vet wines for purity, and they can be good resources if you want to know what’s in a bottle but don’t have an ingredient label to consult. For example, Dry Farm Wines puts all its wine through independent lab testing to get an exact picture of what’s inside. The company promises that the wines it sells are sugar-, mold-, and additive-free, naturally or biodynamically farmed, low in sulfites, gluten-free, and fermented with wild native yeast.
Thrive Market recently launched a Clean Wine program. Wines sold through the program are guaranteed to be organically or biodynamically farmed, pesticide and herbicide free, and developed with minimal intervention in the winemaking process. Likewise, they will have limited use of added sulfites and flavorings and never have added sugar. “At Thrive Market, we have no problem with judicious use of sulfur dioxide, and we permit cultured yeast in the service of taste, but consumers are guaranteed a clean, non-flawed wine from here or around the world,” says Nadel.
Seek out ingredient labels. The practice of not revealing what goes into a bottle of wine has been dubbed “black-box winemaking,” and it has received shockingly little pushback from consumers and regulators. Some wineries, like Ridge and Bonny Doon, have started voluntarily adding ingredient labels to their bottles.