If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a Takeout staff writer, it’s that food and beverage brands love to toss around words like “clean” and “organic” to sell their products. A perfect example of this misleading (and sometimes meaningless) word association: so-called organic and clean wines.
On the surface, these terms can imply that a food or beverage is “healthier” or “better for you,” but that’s not necessarily true. So, what do they actually mean?
We all know wine comes from grapes, so it follows that in order for a wine to be considered organic, the grapes it comes from must be grown organically. This is where the labeling gets a bit more technical, though.
In the United States, for a wine to be labeled 100% organic it must meet the requirements of the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Organic wine in the U.S is defined as having been made from organically grown grapes and without added sulfites—that is, the sulfur dioxide in a bottle of wine that prevents bacterial growth and preserves the wine’s flavor and freshness. The USDA requires that “grapes are grown without synthetic fertilizers and in a manner that protects the environment and preserves the soil.” However, a wine can be labeled as having been “made with 100% organic grapes” and still not qualify as an organic wine because of added sulfites.
The issue with labeling a wine “organic” is that the definition of organic varies by country. For example, Wine Folly explains that in most of Europe and Canada, the latter half of the definition is different, allowing for added sulfites. And “organic” still doesn’t tell you everything you might want to know about a wine—for example, organic wine can still contain additives such as yeast, egg whites, and animal enzymes, which means it cannot be considered vegan.
To summarize, in the United States, 100% organic wine must be certified by the USDA and cannot use any synthetic fertilizers in the process, but that certification doesn’t necessarily indicate a group of wines produced in a consistent way.
The label “clean wine” is one that involves a lot less red tape to achieve, and one that doesn’t require much accountability on the part of the wine producers. That is, clean wine is essentially a marketing tactic and nothing more.
VinePair calls out how the term “clean wine” is a way for certain brands to demonize their competitors, exploiting consumers’ general lack of knowledge around the winemaking process. Clean wines often call out their organic ingredients, low sugar levels, and minimal additives. The issue is that the term “clean” is not legally defined like “organic,” nor is it widely accepted like natural and biodynamic wines. “Clean” is too broad a term, one that mostly just plays on consumer perceptions of what it means for a product to be “healthy.”
No matter what you’re eating or drinking, it’s worth remembering that terms splashed across the label are not a foolproof way to determine a product’s quality. If you enjoy drinking a certain wine, you should buy it, but just know that “clean” does not equal “healthy,” “organic” does not necessarily equal “superior,” and a lot of winemakers are hoping that you’ll rely on their marketing to make your decisions, rather than doing your research.