What’s Clean Wine? Plus the Wine Industry Dirt You Should KnowSeptember 17th, 2018
Over the last six months, we’ve been hard at work developing a clean wine collection for our members—and during that process, we were shocked at how difficult it was to find wines that met the same quality standards we’ve set for our food and household products. For us, this means wine in its most honest form—wines that are farmed organically or biodynamically, and made with as little manipulation possible.
As it turns out, you might be able to see through a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc when it’s held up to the light, but there’s nothing transparent about how most commercial wine is made today. Because wine isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, wineries are under no obligation to share what goes into every bottle, which makes it almost impossible for people to be as thoughtful about their wine as they are about their food. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 60 chemical materials can be legally added to wine, and are not required to be printed on labels. Common additives include copper sulfate (to hide nasty smells), Velcorin (a chemical sterilizer also found in Gatorade), and added sugar.
When Cork Dork author and sommelier Bianca Bosker researched the world of wine production, she found people “developing wine the way flavor scientists develop the new Oreo or Doritos flavor.” Another discovery? Many mass-produced wines are held in steel vats infused with oak chips, a widely-used enhancer designed to evoke real wooden barrels. For us, these processes don’t align with our core beliefs — primarily, a belief that the process of making wine shouldn’t take its cues from developing junk foods.
Is clean wine harder to make? Absolutely. But that didn’t stop us from assembling a team of passionate winemakers, farmers, and sommeliers who share our vision. As a result of these partnerships, Thrive Market has launched a new collection of clean wines, and most of the imported bottles haven’t been readily available in the U.S.—until now.
Our Definition of Clean Wine
A clean wine needs to tick a specific set of boxes to be considered for our wine program. Instead of adhering to commercial standards for consistency, high yield, and low cost—the same goals in place for conventionally processed packaged foods—our wines are farmed organically or biodynamically, and developed with minimal intervention in the winemaking process. When you order one of our bundles, you can raise your glass to family, friends, a good meal, and also to the comprehensive set of standards that defines our program.
Clean wine starts with organic, biodynamic, or verified sustainable farming practices. Along with our partners, we believe that a wine made this way not only authentically represent its terroir — the environment where vines are grown, the soil, and topography of the region — but also ensures a lasting ecosystem for generations to come. Here are a few things we prioritize when vetting where grapes are grown:
- Organic, biodynamic, or sustainably farmed grapes
- Sourced from small and mid-size producers
- Minimal to no irrigation whenever possible
- Certain bottles use preferred farming practices such as:
Good grapes do a lot of the heavy lifting in the cellar, but skilled winemakers are essential to helping wine reach its full potential. We believe that minimal intervention and limited use of synthetic additives is crucial to creating a delicious, clean wine that reflects the character of the grape, the flavors of the region, and the talents of the winemaker. To ensure this, our winemaking partners adhere to the following guidelines:
- No added sugar: Mass-produced wine often goes through an enrichment process, which involves adding sugar to grapes that don’t have enough sweetness. On the flip side, there’s also a de-enrichment process, where water is added to reduce sweetness, resulting in a dry wine.
- Minimal fining and filtration: Although the wine industry has created the expectation that wines should be translucent, the clarity comes at a cost—additives, correctives, and other tinkering. A bottle of clean wine may have some natural sediment resting at the bottom of the bottle, but it’s harmless and won’t affect the wine’s flavor. And while some might consider it an imperfection (like rejecting slightly misshapen heirloom tomatoes based on their looks), there’s an opportunity to enjoy observing the wine’s evolution as it decants and swirls in the glass, like the living organism it is.
- Low sulfites whenever possible: Sulfites are preservatives that help prevent oxidation. Wineries pile on additives to cover up faults developed during winemaking, but when you start with superior grapes, a minimal dose of sulfites creates highly drinkable wines.
- No oak chips, staves (thick oak sticks), or flavorings: There’s nothing wrong with fermenting wine in steel barrels, but there is an issue with creating the illusion of oak barrel aging, which has become the default process when subpar fruit is used. Real oak barrels are also more expensive, which means wineries can fall back on flavorings to create a toasty flavor profile at a lower cost. Think of it a bit like slow-roasting a cut of meat over a wood fire versus dousing your BBQ in liquid smoke.
- No flash pasteurization: To kill bacteria, many commercial wines are heated up and cooled down quickly. The only problem? Doing this to massive quantities of wine also kills the natural aromas, requiring other additives or corrective measures to bring flavors back.
- No manipulation of must (freshly pressed juice), such as reverse osmosis, centrifuge, or watering back: This is yet another way to cover up flaws in both the grapes or the winemaking process.
- No use of dimethyldicarbonate (DMDC): Known as Velcorin, this chemical preservative is used to sterilize and de-alcoholize wine.
No use of polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP): This powder helps reduce bitterness and correct color.
Meet Our Master Sommelier
Crafting clean wines without leaning on correctives and additives is challenging, which is why we’ve turned to Master Sommelier Josh Nadel, our enthusiastic partner who’s helping bring lesser-known, handcrafted wines to your table. A native New Yorker, Josh is the executive beverage director of Andrew Carmellini’s NYC restaurants, including Bar Primi, and has more than a decade of experience as a sommelier. To choose our first 15 bottles, Josh (and his palate) went on a global search from Oregon to France, and identified wines that not only meet our high quality standards, but also taste delicious.