Wine has long been considered a pure elixir, 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 pesticides and herbicides hidden in many conventional wines. Grapes rank near the top of the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list of vegetables and fruits carrying the heaviest pesticide-residue loads. And a laboratory analysis by the California Public Interest Research Group found glyphosate, a suspected carcinogen that is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, in each of the five wines it tested — even the organic ones.
Though the organic wines in the analysis contained noticeably lower glyphosate levels than the conventional brands — 5 parts per billion (ppb) versus 50 ppb — it’s still worth noting. Experts suspect that the chemicals 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 trying to avoid in their food,” says Josh Nadel, master sommelier of Thrive Market’s Clean Wine program.
Consumers can reduce pesticide and herbicide exposure by choosing organic or biodynamic wine — but finding brands containing fewer additives is tricky. By and large, the U.S. government doesn’t require winemakers to disclose all the ingredients in their wine. And most don’t.
Though winemakers must document the presence of sulfites (over a certain amount), FD&C yellow No. 5 coloring, and carmine, for example, they are not required to list other additives.
So how can conscientious wine-lovers make smart choices? Learning about common additives and interventions is a good place to start.
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 as a preservative for just as long.
In other words, humans have been altering wine for some time. But why? Can’t a bottle of wine be just grapes and yeast?
In truth, it can. Today, many farmers and vintners are striving to bring more transparency to the market, and some sommelier-led, direct-to-consumer programs have emerged to deliver less-adulterated options. The trend has even reached restaurants and liquor stores; “natural” wines now appear frequently on menus and store shelves.
But wine is a delicate and temperamental beverage, quick to go bad or taste “off.” That’s why it 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 select 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 the chemicals that turn up in 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, it can be difficult to know what’s in your glass. The following tips can help you make healthy and tasty choices.
Be mindful of both grape-farming and winemaking practices. What happens at the vineyard and what happens at the winery are two different things. 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.
Seek out ingredient labels. Unlike food, wines are not legally required to have ingredient labels, so if you can find a label at all, it’s a sign that the winemaker is committed to transparency. The practice of not revealing what goes into a bottle has been dubbed “black-box winemaking,” and it has received shockingly little pushback from consumers and regulators.
Meanwhile, some wineries, like Ridge and Bonny Doon, have voluntarily begun adding ingredient labels to their bottles.
Know what might be lurking in unlabeled wines. It is virtually impossible to know what’s in an unlabeled wine. It 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 more, says Bosker.
Though these additives have been approved for use in wine, some ingredients raise eyebrows among experts. One example is the additive 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. “But 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, it’s no wonder allergies and illnesses are on the rise.”
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); they do not contain added sulfites.
The phrase “made with organic grapes” is a term officially designated by the National Organics Program, and it means that winemakers use organically grown grapes but may include a controlled amount of sulfites and other additives.
Don’t place too much stock in “natural wine” labels. While many natural-wine producers are working to create better wines with fewer additives, the phrase “natural wine” has no legal definition. This can lead to consumer confusion.
“Ask 10 different people and you’ll likely get 10 different answers,” says Nadel.
Generally speaking, wines labeled “natural” 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.” To be sure about a given brand, do some background research about the vintner’s production practices before you buy. (For more on natural wines, visit “A Rare Vintage”.)
Look for biodynamic wines. 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 labeling involves a registered international certification process (governed by the Demeter brand), so when you see it on a label, you can trust that the bottle meets a rigorous 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,” he explains. “They think of it as something to be worked with.”
Just as with organic wines, look for “biodynamic wines” and remember that those “made with biodynamic grapes” may have some additives.
Buy from a smart wine store or curated program. Look for a wine store that handpicks a selection of organic or biodynamic wines. Certain third-party organizations vet wines for purity, and they can be good resources if you want to know what’s in a bottle but lack 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.
You can also try a service like Thrive Market’s Clean Wine program, which offers brands guaranteed to be organically or biodynamically farmed, pesticide- and herbicide-free, and processed with minimal intervention. Likewise, they contain limited amounts of added sulfites and flavorings and no added sugar.