When it comes to wellness, some terms repeat across industries, but what they mean and how they are used is often different. With eco-consciousness on the rise over the past decade, greenwashing has also become prevalent, especially given that legislation to regulate these terms is still new—or nonexistent.
Most recently, you might have noticed a rise in “clean” wines, but what does that even entail? How is it different from “natural” wines? Or vegan? And is it just marketing, or are there actual differences? As with cosmetics, these terms can and often do overlap, but they don’t all mean the same thing.
“Clean” has been used as a marketing term for years as a way to persuade people to make a purchase, but it is important to remember that there are no federal regulations on the term within the wine industry, or even a clear definition of what “clean” means. Often, clean wine brands emphasize transparency about their ingredients, use organic grapes, and say their products are free of unnecessary additives or added sugars.
For Good Clean Wine co-creator Courtney Dunlop, “clean” means minimal intervention. “We prioritize sustainability from grape to bottle,” she says. “[Our winemakers] also don’t manipulate the color, so every vintage is slightly different, or, as one of them likes to say, ‘It’s the color the grapes chose to be.’ […] To us, ‘clean’ also means sustainable farming and production.”
While there’s a lot of emphasis on respecting nature for many clean wine brands, that doesn’t necessarily mean the wines are natural wines. More on this below.
Natural wines are wines made with minimal intervention from the winemaker and without additives or chemicals. They also aren’t typically aged in oak barrels. There is no legal definition for “natural” wine, but it generally refers to wines made with native yeast, trace amounts of added sulfites, and without filtering or fining.
These wines are often described as unique-tasting and they can have a shorter shelf life due to their lack of intervention. Because there is no clear definition of the term, it’s important to ask questions about the producer when choosing a natural wine. A notable distinction: all natural wines are organic (since using organic grapes is part of their process), but not all organic wines are natural.
Despite being made from grapes and yeast, wine isn’t always considered vegan. This is because traditional fining agents, that help remove leftover sediment after filtration, often use animal products such as egg whites, casein, and gelatin. Vegan wine uses non-animal fining products like limestone or pea protein instead, and beeswax and milk-based glues are avoided in their production. However, while vegan winemakers face strict requirements for what fining agents they employ, they still use fining agents (albeit different from those of “conventional” wines) and thus can’t be classified as natural.
When you hear the term “non-alcoholic wine”, it might make you wonder… wait, is that not just grape juice? And while both start out the same, there is one key difference between the two: grape juice never gets fermented, while non-alcoholic wine is produced the same way as its alcoholic counterpart, before going through a process of removing the alcohol through evaporation under a vacuum. This maintains the flavor profile of the wine, making it a great alternative for anyone looking to maintain a sober lifestyle while still enjoying a glass with dinner.
So, what should you pick?
Ultimately, the only person that can decide what works best for their wellness journey and health goals is you. But between controversy surrounding the term clean, the unique taste of natural wines, etc, the important thing to note is doing your own research into the brands you’re considering.
Dunlop agrees. “Just like clean beauty, ‘clean’ is an unregulated term in wine,” she says. “Anyone can use it, even if their wine isn’t high quality. Unfortunately for the customer, there isn’t any foolproof way to know if wine is truly clean or not. There are no shopping tips. […] You have to know your winemakers because there is a lot of deception in the wine world. There are amazing wines out there that are ‘clean’ and you’d never know it, and there are ‘clean’ wines that are…not clean.”
Ultimately, wine is still wine, and any health benefit claims should be backed up by medical studies before you believe them. When in doubt, you might want to lean toward certified organic, biodynamic or sustainable wines. And if you want to avoid a hangover? Choose the alcohol-free option.