Is Clean Wine As Great As It Sounds, Or Is It Just Another Scam?
From wine clubs to store shelves to Instagram feeds, “clean wine” is popping up all over the place these days, with marketing claims promoting health consciousness, sustainability, transparency in ingredients and more. You may even have a bottle of it in your home right now.
The increasing presence of clean wine from brands like Avaline, Good Clean Wine, FitVine, Scout & Cellar and Wonderful Wine Company have many wondering: What is clean wine? Does it mean other wine is “dirty”? And should I be drinking clean wine?
It turns out that the answer is pretty complex. Here’s what you need to know.
To start with, what is clean wine?
“Clean” as a marketing term is nothing new. For years, companies have attached words like “clean” to their products to persuade people to make a purchase. This tactic is all over the place in wellness culture, where we see “clean” stamped on products ranging from smoothies to packaged snacks.
Now this trend is making its way into wine, too. There are no federal regulations around the use of the term “clean” within the wine or food industries, nor is there a firm definition of what “clean” even means. Often, consumers infer it to mean that a product is more natural (another vague term), or free from artificial or potentially harmful ingredients.
At its core, “clean wine” is a subjective term and is defined differently from brand to brand. Often, clean wine brands emphasize transparency about their ingredients, use organic grapes and say their products are free of unnecessary additives. As for that last one, deciding which additives are necessary vs. unnecessary varies from company to company, and it isn’t synonymous with “no additives.”
Avaline, for example, is a natural wine company started by Cameron Diaz and entrepreneur Katherine Power. The brand told HuffPost that its definition of clean wine is always using organically grown grapes; never adding colors, concentrates, unnecessary sugars or sulfites; using National Organic Program-certified ingredients; and never using animal by-products.
“Many of our winemakers and others around the world have been making wine this way for generations, using old world winemaking techniques,” said Jessica Blumenthal, vice president of brand and innovation at Avaline. “It’s wine at its purest, created with discerning drinkers (and friends) in mind. The difference is we make it overtly clear to our customers.”
How is clean wine different from conventional wine?
Clean wine brands often talk about sticking to “clean” ingredients and staying away from unnecessary additives. Many clean wine brands are vegan, meaning they’re made without using animal byproducts and don’t contain added sugar.
Some brands, like Avaline and the Wonderful Wine Co., also emphasize transparency of their ingredients by listing the additives and ingredients that go into each bottle on their websites. This is a departure from conventional winemakers, which can use many different additives in their products without letting you know about it. Winemakers are not required to list ingredients, so it can be tricky to know what goes into the bottle, no matter what kind of wine you’re drinking.
“With around seventy-two permissible additives and a variety of machines available, the possibilities for what you can do to a wine are dizzying,” said wine writer Alice Feiring in the book “Natural Wine for the People.”
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Wine brands aren’t required to list their ingredients on the label, but clean wine brands are more likely to share their ingredients (usually on their website) than conventional wine brands.Holly Berrigan, founder of MYSA Natural Wine, told HuffPost it’s an overall win to see clean wine brands be clear about their ingredients and use fewer additives.
“It’s always felt wrong to me that you can add hundreds of different things to a wine and none of that has to be disclosed if it’s approved,” she said, pointing out that winemakers in the U.S. are able to include additives that cannot legally be added to wines within the EU. “I’m hopeful that as the community at large is more educated on these facts that there will be a larger public push for transparency,” she said.
Is clean wine the same as natural wine?
Some consumers put clean wine in the same category as natural wine, and while there may be some similarities, clean wine and natural wine are not the same ― natural wine takes things one step further than clean wine.
Like clean wine, the term “natural wine” can be a bit vague, but there is a generally agreed-upon definition. Adhering to the principal “nothing added, nothing taken away,” natural wine is made using organic or biodynamically farmed grapes and minimal intervention.
Some key takeaways about natural wine: natural winemakers avoid applying chemical sprays to grapes in the vineyard, handpick their grapes rather than using machines to harvest them, rely on rainwater rather than irrigation systems, steer clear of additives and use native yeast. Sometimes a minimal amount of sulfites will be used. In many ways, this process is far kinder to the earth than conventional winemaking.
“True minimal intervention, natural wines in their essence are just fermented grapes,” said Coly Den Haan, a sommelier and owner of Vinovore, a Los Angeles wine shop that specializes in natural wine. “Clean wines don’t take it quite that far and do seem to vary from each producer and even within a producer’s offerings.”
Does clean wine prevent hangovers?
There’s a lot of chatter around the idea that clean wine prevents headaches or hangovers, possibly due its lower levels of sulfites and other additives used in the fields and in processing. On Good Clean Wine’s website, for example, the company proclaims, “we won’t let anything pass our lips that we know will make us feel bad, today or tomorrow.”
Sipping wine without feeling any negative effects sounds great, but can you really drink clean wine without getting a hangover the next day? There isn’t much research to support this.
“The amount of alcohol consumed is what causes most hangover symptoms, so drinking clean wine will likely not affect this.” said Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and author of “Unapologetic Eating.”
That said, while you may not be able to avoid a hangover, some believe that there may be some truth to the idea that clean wine may not affect your body in quite the same way as natural.
“If these wines do in fact not have the additives — which I believe many of them do not — it’s a logical assumption that they’ll be easier for your body to process than conventional wines with mega-purple, acidifiers and/or other chemicals, Berrigan said. “That said, clean wine is still wine and has alcohol so you can of course become hungover and dehydrated from it.”
Clean wine’s impact on the environment
These days, many people are hyper-focused on responsibly sourced food — and for good reason. But when it comes to buying wine, many of these concerns — how and where it was produced, what went into it, its environmental impact, and more—go right out the window. In her book, “Wine. All the Time.,” wine writer Marissa Ross argues that it’s time we start thinking about wine much like we think about food.
“Most people don’t think about wine like they think about food, but it’s important that we all start doing so,” she writes. “Just like precious baby gem lettuces and radicchio, wine is an agricultural product, and mass-produced, commercial wines are often made with grapes grown in the same ways we shun in the produce aisle.”
Baia Abuladze of Baia’s Wine, a small family-run winery that makes natural wine in the country of Georgia, emphasizes the deep respect to nature involved in making natural wine, as well as the freedom this winemaking technique allows for. “Natural wine is truly expressive of the terroir and vineyard itself,” she said.
But is clean wine just as sustainable as natural wine? Not exactly. Most clean wine is not produced with the same level of attention to environmental sustainability as natural wine, but it can be a step in the right direction for the environment, especially if made using organic or biodynamic grapes or adhering to other principles that benefit the land, the planet and the people on it.
“I do feel like the clean wine producers ultimately have the same goals and even though they’re not checking all the natural wine boxes, every box checked counts,” Den Haan said.
Berrigan agreed that clean wine and natural wine are both similar in placing an emphasis on educating the public about what goes into their wine. “Clean wine just stops there and has marketing spin that may make a wine seem healthier than it is, while natural wine takes the discussion of additives and ingredients to a new level by also focusing on the use of native yeast and spontaneous fermentation, as well as being accountable for the people who make the wines from the growers to harvest crews to everyone else in the supply chain.”
Beware of health halos assigned to clean wine.
It’s important to keep in mind that “clean wine” as an overarching term doesn’t really tell us much. Some clean wine brands may stick with sustainable sourcing, use minimal intervention, use organic grapes, leave additives out of their wine and care about the livelihoods of those who produce wine for them. But this will vary from company to company — you can’t just pick up a bottle of a product marketed as “clean wine” and know that it’s made in any particular way unless you look into how that company makes its product.
The websites of many clean wine companies are lush with phrases that people may associate with health. Good Clean Wine’s website, for example, includes the line “wine that pairs with a healthy lifestyle” and “we’re living healthier and drinking better.” Beneath the line “wellness without deprivation” on The Wonderful Wine Co. website, the brand proclaims “our wines are naturally low sugar, low carb, keto-friendly, paleo-friendly, and vegan.” Avaline’s website proclaims its wine is “full of natural goodness, free of unnecessary extras.”
While it’s beneficial in many ways to care about the food and drink we consume and how these items impact the earth and our bodies, it’s key to realize that just because a wine is labeled “clean” or “no added sugar” or “vegan” or “natural,” doesn’t mean it will benefit your health.
“‘Clean’ wine is a marketing term that assigns a moral value to certain wines and implies that other wines are dirty or bad for you, which is simply not true,” Rumsey said.
She said that there isn’t a standard definition of what makes something “clean,” making it a fairly meaningless label that doesn’t measure or quantify the effect that clean wine may or may not have on someone’s health compared to conventional wine.
“Different winemakers use different processing agents, but this doesn’t make them good or bad, or clean or dirty,” she said.
Now is a good time to remind you that clean wine is still wine.
Products like clean wine often have a health halo effect, Rumsey explained. But ingredient lists and marketing claims aside, there’s one major point that’s glaringly obvious, yet easy to gloss over: Clean wine is still wine, and all wine — whether clean, conventional or natural — contains alcohol, which can be harmful to health when consumed in excess amounts.
“When people sip ‘clean wine’ thinking it’s the healthy option, they may end up drinking more than they realize,” Rumsey said. “Clean wine still has alcohol in it, so in that regard, it should be treated the same as conventional wine.”
Berrigan says that as far as she is concerned, labeling anything with alcohol in it as a wellness product is a dangerous and slippery slope.
“Is it likely that you may feel better drinking a natural wine or clean wine because it doesn’t have the additives? I think that’s a logical assumption to make,” she said. “But it is still ultimately an alcoholic beverage that can and will dehydrate you and all the normal things something with an ABV of 7-15% might do? It is, and trying to spin it as a healthy or wellness option doesn’t really sit well with me.”