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Pick your poison! What’s really in your wine?

Nevermind the alcohol, wine is full of nasty chemicals! We investigate what's really lurking in your glass of red and get the low-down from experts about which wines are the best for us öko-conscious Berliners.

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Photo by Valeria Boltneva. Want to avoid pesticides? Experts tell us which wines are your safest bet.

“Most customers are looking for a wine to accompany a specific meal,” says Erika, the saleswom­an at Prenzlauer Berg’s Kopenhagener Weinhandlung, a neighbourhood shop that stocks wines from all over Europe, mostly Germany. “A third of of our wines are organic, but I’d say that no more than a quarter of our customers would specifically look for them.” That’s actually a lot com­pared to the national average, a mere six percent of overall sales according to a 2019 study*. Over at Kreuzberg’s Weinhandlung Suff, where as many as half of the wines have been grown organically, the situation is similar: “Whether the wine is organic is definitely not the first question. People orient themselves around taste.” In short: whereas ever more consumers are repelled by pesticide-coated pears and biodiversity-crushing bananas, their concern doesn’t seem to extend to wine. Yet winegrapes are among the plants most heavily treated with synthetic pesticides, resulting in a high concentration of toxic residues in your glass.

Chemically contaminated

“Conventional wines don’t only contain sulfites, artificial yeast, synthetic aromas, but also toxic pesticides, including heavy metals from the petroleum contained in those pesti­cides,” says Gilles-Éric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, France, who has co-authored a ground-break­ing book on the topic (The Taste of Pesticides in Wines) and is best known for his career-long fight against pesticide giant Monsanto, now a subsidiary of Bayer. According to Séralini even the most famous wines are contaminated: “If you take a €400 bottle from Château L’Evangile with 100 out of 100 points in the Parker Guide, that still has a level of boscalid that is 1600 times the amount authorised for tap water.” And the health risks associated with the fungicide, most notably on the liver and thyroid, are much more severe than the damage caused by the alcohol content of your regular glass of red. This begs the question of regulation: how, exactly, are such substances authorised for human consumption? The short answer is that wine is regulated for quality of taste rather than chemical composi­tion. Faced with the increased vulnerability of the wine grapes to disease due to centuries of inbreeding, winegrowers are relying on all kinds of substances, from innocuous sulfites and natural fungicides down to deadly syn­thetic pesticides. “Whoever says their wine is fungicide-free is lying,” says Dr. Gerlinde Nachtigall of the Julius Kühn Institute, a federal research centre for cultivated plants. What distinguishes organic from conventional wines then? Copper, the only ‘natural’ alterna­tive to synthetic fungicides when it comes to downy mildew.

Natural pesticides anyone?

Although technically ‘natural’ and used to protect vines since the late 19th century, copper is still a highly toxic heavy metal that can wreak havoc on both human bodies and ecosystems, an argument often put forward by sceptics and the conventional winemak­ing industry to discredit organic wines. But according to Séralini, copper’s toxicity is a matter of dosage: “There is, on average, 10 times less copper in organic wines than in conventional ones,” he says. A recent study he co-authored found that we would need to drink 80 litres of organic wine a day to suffer copper-induced poisoning. Meanwhile a mere 22ml, i.e. a large glass per day, of conventional wine was found to have a long term, toxic impact on our health.

And chemical residues are not the only problematic substances in wine. Sulfites, the most widely known additive used to prolong shelf-life have been accused of causing aller­gies. Here, too, organic wines can shine: to get bio certification, an EU regulation limits the permitted amount of sulfite to half of what is authorised for conventional wines (100-150ppm compared to 150-200ppm for non-organic, for red and white respectively). You’ll still get other, ‘natural’ additives rang­ing from oak chips to bentonite clay – both more harmful to taste than to health – as well as animal-based substances (such as gelatine, egg-white, fish bladder). If you’d like an entirely additive-free drinking experience – natural wines are your best bet.

The unadulterated taste of raisin

“Natural wines are certified as ‘bio’, but they’re much more than that,” says French­man Sylvain Delétang of Rocket Wine, one of Berlin’s premier stockists of natural wines. Basically made out of raisin and yeast only, mostly unfiltered and vegan, this is pure fermented grape juice, with only minimal amounts of sulfites allowed (30-40ppm). As for copper dosages, these are carefully calibrated to remain at ultra-safe levels. Add to that the probiotic health benefits of the natural yeast fermentation process, and it’s hard to resist the appeal of natural wine. While often dismissed as cloudy grape cider by the uninitiated, the absence of additives in unadulterated fermented grape juice lends truth to the claim that one can taste the distinctive qualities of a particular vineyard. Both Séralini and Delétang say that after dis­covering natural wines, they were unable to go back to the standardised palate of conven­tional wines. Anticipating the complaint that natural wines are hard to come by and heavy on the wallet, both converts mention Raisin, an app containing information on all nearby stockists of natural wine – for Berlin it lists 16 bars and 11 wine shops: “At Markthalle Neun you can get a bottle for €7.20,” Delétang says. Meanwhile some prestigious wine estates have already adopted the ‘natural’ method. “Some of the bottles from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, which is among the world’s greatest wine producers, and among the world’s most expensive, are actually natural wines,” says Delétang. “They don’t label it as such because they don’t want to scare people off.” But Sérallini is optimis­tic. “Fifteen years ago, organic wines had the reputation of tasting ‘bad’, and winemakers were cautious about the certification. Now it’s the same with natural wines. Maybe the first weren’t the best, but by now you can get really amazing ones.” Time to download Raisin, perhaps, and try for yourself. As a matter of scientific fact, we can tell you it won’t hurt!

* source: London-based institute International Wine and Spirit Research