The dirty truth about ‘clean wine’

Clean wine is a huge trend right now, but what actually is it? Journalist and author Felicity Harley takes a deep dive into the clean wine craze to see if it’s legit. 

Here’s a riddle for you: what do you get when you cross Cameron Diaz with a clean diet and a bottle of wine. Behold – Avaline – a so-called “clean wine”. The effervescent actress recently launched her wine range, with entrepreneurial friend, Katherine Power, to her 7.2 million followers on Instagram and it looks very pretty and appealing. Not sure about the taste.

Diaz’s post on launch: “We realised we knew the contents of everything that went onto and into our bodies – why not wine? I’ve always believed that the key to wellness is balance. Creating a clean wine that is full of natural goodness and free from dozens of unwanted and undisclosed extras helps me find that balance when I’m enjoying a glass of wine. It’s wine at its purest, created for those who embrace the pleasure of a whole life and a relaxed approach to wellbeing.”

A few weeks later, Diaz told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show that she was inspired to launch after learning wineries can add up to 70 additives, including grapes drenched in pesticides. The other thing she questioned: why did she feel so ill after just two glasses?

Just like cars and hotels and candles, wine wants a part of the billion-dollar wellness industry – yep, it’s getting Goopified. I’m all for clean eating and living as toxin-free as I can, but Diaz’s launch has made me question whether the wine I’ve been guzzling for years is, well, toxic. Should we be reaching for something healthier? Cleaner? Hang on, aren’t sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural wines already filling that spot? And isn’t wine made from a dangerous chemical anyway, called alcohol? Perhaps “clean wine” is just the ultimate wellness paradox.

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What the hell is clean wine anyway?

Winemaking is a complicated art form, continually evolving with the help of science. It’s also a regulated industry in Australia subjected to Commonwealth laws, but interestingly, wine bottles don’t carry ingredient labels. There can be added extras like chemicals to boost colour and longevity, processing aids, and sugar for taste.

“Even as a winemaker, I’m unsure of what this term ‘clean’ actually means,” laughs Phil LeMessurier, owner and winemaker of Corduroy Wines.

“Wine should be about minimal intervention and transparency anyway – things like where the grapes are from, how they are processed and how the wine is made. So, all wines should technically be clean.

“For us, we aim to keep every aspect of the process natural. We pick fruit from a vine and allow fermentation to occur (supervised), let that mature and then bottle. There are processes and additions that can be implemented, but often these are only done due to consumer desire.”

To health-conscious drinkers, selling wine as “clean” makes absolute sense. But, I can’t help see similarities between what Diaz desires and what already exists. Organic wine is all-natural, produced by sustainable farming methods, environmentally friendly, with grapes grown free of pesticides and containing minimal preservatives.

“They’re also a great way to enjoy wine as nature intended,” Dan Murphy’s says.

In accordance with the Australian Certified Organic Standard, producers of organic wine don’t apply any synthetic chemicals to the soil, vines, or wine.”

Healthier or marketing hype?

While clean wine might be more “natural”, is it nutritionally better for you? One word: no, says dietician and nutritionist Lyndi Cohen.

“This is a perfect example of green labelling an unhealthy product to profit-off our desire to live healthier lives,” she says.

“Alcohol isn’t healthy, even if it has some antioxidants added or if marketers have labelled it clean. Drinking alcohol has been linked with higher rates of some cancers – there’s nothing clean about that. This clean wine has found a loophole in the system, where they can make health claims without having any evidence to back it up.”

You see, while our obsession with health and fitness has increased, our love of drinking has declined. The Australian Health and Welfare Institute’s National Drug and Alcohol Survey 2019 surveyed 22,274 people about their alcohol, drug and cigarette habits and found that young people are consuming way less booze than their parents. Take 20 to 29-year-olds, for example, an intriguing 22 percent said they didn’t drink. So, how do you get Generation Dry buying wine again? You market health! Think about it: we’ve already got low-carb beer, healthy beer, and vodka with purified water, so why not cash in on those seeking a cleaner diet?

Whether it’s wine or the bag of lollies you picked up at the servo, be cautious when something is marketed as ‘clean’, adds Cohen.

“It’s a nutritionally meaningless term and is not a recognised health claim in Australia. The idea that wine could be considered ‘chemical-free’ is completely silly – as everything is made up of chemicals. If you’re trying to find a better-for-you wine option, then red wine is the way to go. Thanks to its rich-polyphenol content, red wine may help to prevent oxidation in the body that can contribute to disease. It just goes to show that celebrities spruiking these products have no idea what they are talking about.” Clean, organic or not, drink too much wine and you’ll get one big fat hangover, and there’s nothing wellness-y about that.

Felicity Harley’s Balance & Other B.S is out now. Follow her on Instagram for more.