We Need to Talk About “Clean,” “Organic,” and “Natural” Wine
Take a spin around your local wine store in 2021, and you’ll probably find certain labels slapped on (more expensive) bottles of wine: Think words like “clean,” “natural,” and “organic.”
These labels are confusing enough when they’re attached to a container of blueberries or carton of eggs, but add them to a bottle of fermented grapes and it raises even more questions. Specifically, what benefits will we get if we opt for clean, natural, or organic wine? Less of a hangover? a smaller carbon footprint? To get to the bottom of this, we chatted with wine experts—here’s everything you need to know.
What Does it All Mean?
Isis Daniel, a WSET Level II-certified wine professional also known as The Millennial Somm, explains “clean wine” is a label used to indicate the wine has been grown with no synthetic pesticides, additives, or added sweeteners—but there are also no lab tests done to confirm this.
“Then there’s natural wine, which has no uniform definition, so it can range widely. Generally speaking, the term refers to a movement among winemakers for production of wine using simple and traditional methods,” she says. “Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in compliance with the principles of organic farming. It typically excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.”
Like Clean Beauty, There’s No Uniform Definition
Long story short: These labels mean something, but often the label itself won’t tell you enough. If you really want to understand exactly how your wine is made and how that specific wine retailer is defining words like “natural,” “clean,” and “organic,” your best bet is to have a conversation with small, local retailers.
“They are the ones who will be able to tell you vineyard practices and how the wines are made,” says Melissa Smith, founder of Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services. “Most organic or biodynamic wines will actually not indicate that on the labels for a ton of reasons, one of which is how expensive those certifications actually are. You want to have a conversation with the wine shop clerk the same way you’d have a conversation with the farmer at the farmers market: How do you grow your fruit? Do you use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides?”
The overall consensus from wine professionals is that the legal definitions of words like “clean” and “natural” are murky. If a wine says organic on it, you may be more sure that your wine is mostly free of pesticides and chemical additives, but they might still be there in small amounts.
Does This Affect Your Hangover?
As much fun as it can be to enjoy a great bottle of wine, we’re always looking for “hacks” to skip the hangover the next day, and investing in a wine with these labels on it might seem like a great first step.
Unfortunately, Daniel says you’re probably out of luck if you think clean wine is your ticket to a hangover-free life. “It’s often a better option because you’re not dealing with additional or man-made chemicals that can be harmful to your body, but there are natural by-products in wine that will affect your body in different ways,” she explains. “Some people have different sensitivities to different sulfites, for instance. Some people are naturally more sensitive to sulfites than others, and because it’s a natural by-product in wine-making that helps to preserve the wine, if you are sensitive to it, you still can be affected.”
Is it More Sustainable?
One thing you should keep in mind, though, is that these labels could mean these types of wines are better for the environment—but there’s no guarantee. “Just because it says it is natural or clean does not mean that the company is actually sustainable or pays attention to how their wine-making process is affecting the earth.”
The best thing you can do if you really want to know what a bottle of wine’s carbon footprint is like? Have a conversation with the people at your local wine store, as they may be able to elaborate on what the label on a bottle of wine they carry actually means.
The Bottom Line
If your goal is to drink wine that’s free of chemicals, pesticides, additives—the list goes on—unfortunately, you can’t confirm this based on the label alone.
“I believe these labels are mainly used as a marketing tool,” says Daniel. “If you say your wine is organic, most consumers assume that the wine is sustainable, vegan, or natural. They don’t always understand that your wine has to be only a specific percentage organic to get that label.”
One day, there may be stricter regulations in terms of what these labels actually mean, but for now they don’t mean much. So you may be better off sticking with a bottle of wine you know you love—and as a nice bonus, it will probably be less expensive.