The Down and Dirty on Clean Wine

By Vicki, Wine Ninja

Sorry, there is science involved here. It turns out, you can’t make wine without it! I know, I thought it was magic too. If you aren’t too afraid of a little science, and believe, like me, that the truth will set you free, read on.

I have been reading articles from many sources and a term that comes up often is Clean Wine. The idea that there now exists a “Clean Wine” suggests that the wines we have been drinking and enjoying for all these years must be… well, dirty…

Never fear, the clean wine craze is more about marketing than science, but it comes at a time when wine-drinkers are interested in the topic. There is a call for transparency in labeling for wine. The lack of transparency opens the door for claims that wine is full of additives and sugar. Sugar is in grapes, naturally and is the catalyst for the fermentation process.

In all dry wines the sugar is eaten up by the yeast as it converted into alcohol. Clean wines do not corner the market on low sugar wines. Dry wines are all low to no sugar. Whether or not a wine is Vegan depends on how the wine is fined and filtered. Not all wines are fined and filtered, but many are. If you are vegan, ask how the wine is fined. If it is fined using bentonite (clay) or pea protein, the wine is vegan. Other fining agents are isinglass (fish bladder), and egg whites and milk casein which will prevent a wine as being labeled vegan, but technically no trace of these agents should remain in the wine.

When celebrities get behind an idea like this it can gain traction fast. Read through the flowery terms and ask how the wine is produced then ask how it is produced differently than other wines.

I have poured wine for countless wine tastings all over the country. I always hear this at least once.

“I can’t drink wine. It always gives me a headache. I am allergic to sulfites.” Sometimes it is more specific-

I can’t drink red wine. I can’t drink sparkling wine. I cannot drink it on a train. I cannot drink it in the rain… Well, you get the idea.

What are sulfites? Are they bad for you? Is it possible that you have an allergy to them?

The United States and Australia are the only countries that require producers to label sulfite contents.

Sulfites are in processed foods and often raise concern for health problems like migraines and body swelling. Sulfites in wine are, for the most part lower than in processed foods.

Sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions which cause a wine to go bad.

The use of sulfites in winemaking goes all the way back to ancient Rome. Winemakers would burn candles made of sulfur in empty wine containers to keep the wine from turning to vinegar.

In the early 1900s sulfur was used in winemaking to stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing.

Most people do not have allergies to sulfites, but headaches can be caused by dehydration, so drinking water throughout the evening while drinking wine (or any alcoholic beverage) is key for warding off the headache.

If you have a sensitivity to cured meats, canned soup, and cheese, you might have a problem with wine due to sulfites. An elimination diet could help you figure it out, but I suggest trying 1 glass of water for every glass of wine first.

So, if sulfites don’t make wine dirty, what else is in there?

Let’s address the obvious first. There is alcohol in wine! Depending on the varietal (which just means the grape that the wine is made from) and the style in which the winemaker decides to handle the grape, wine has 5.5%-21.5% alcohol. Alcohol is a neurotoxin. This is why you can get tipsy from drinking wine.

What else is in there? 85% of wine is made up of water, anthocyanin (an antioxidant) and polyphenols (like resveratrol which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and Quercetin which has been studied for its ability to alleviate lung disease and promote healing in arteries)

To recap so far- there are many components of wine (the good ol’ regular, been around for centuries wine) that have been scientifically proven to be good for you.

Wine is an alcoholic beverage. If you drink too much wine (or any alcoholic beverage on a regular basis,) the bad quickly outweighs the good.

Moderation is key. Drink water. Enjoy wine with food. Know your limits.

What else may be lurking in wine?

Biogenic Amines are organic nitrogen compounds that emerge naturally in winemaking.

One of them you have heard of, and the other three, not so much.

They are Histamine, tyramine, putrescine, and cadaverine.

These are found in processed fish, meat, cheese, and fermented things (wine, beer and kimchi for instance).

Higher levels can cause flushing, headache, nausea, and fatigue. Some people are more sensitive to biogenic amines than others.

What can you do to mitigate effects of Biogenic Amines sensitivity?

  • Drink water. 1 glass of water for each glass of wine.
  • If you are drinking more than a couple of glasses, stick with white or Rose’ (they have lower levels of Biogenic Amines because they spend less time on the grape skins)
  • Sulfites stop the creation of biogenic amines by controlling microbial growth! Poor misunderstood sulfites!
  • High acid wines (wines with a pH under 3.3) resist the creation of biogenic amines, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
  • Some people suggest taking an antihistamine before drinking wine. Don’t try this without checking with your doctor first.

There is a camp of winemaking that is producing what is not so affectionately referred to as “Frankenwine” by members of the wine trade. Technology has come a long way in the production of wine. Like most good things. It can be a double-edged sword. Wine can be manipulated with technology. A winemaker can change texture, flavor and even take away alcohol. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but taken to the extreme, it does not make wine better, but more formulaic.

I know this is going to sound like a crazy wine lady thing to say, but I prefer wine with soul. That doesn’t happen in overly manipulated, highly stylized wines.

The best winemakers find vineyards that are farmed responsibly * planted with a varietal that is suited to that terroir **, and then continue to be guardians of that vine through decisions like pruning, irrigation and pesticide use.

They pick the grapes at the proper time. They intervene thoughtfully during production with the tools available to them.

My tips to you for elevating your wine experience:

  • Don’t get pulled in by marketing fluff. Worry less about how a wine is marketed and more about where and how the grapes are grown.
  • Taste as many different wines from different growing regions as your budget will allow.
  • Listen to your friends and read wine publications but trust yourself over a score.
  • Enlist the aid of a trusted wine professional to help guide you toward your own style and preference. ***

Wine is a journey. The more you learn, the more you trust yourself, the more you will enjoy what is in your glass.

Cheers to the journey!


*sustainable farming is important. I will write about that as well as organic and bio dynamic farming practices in another blog piece.

**more on this in another blogpost, but most simply- the soil, climate and aspect of where the wine is planted

*** If you don’t already have that trusted wine professional, I will happily volunteer.

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