In my last post about pesticides in wine, I mentioned that I had been making my way through a French study on the subject. Finally, it’s time to write about it.
The study was conducted by Que Choisir, a French consumer organization, and released in September 2013.** The news accounts that followed all focused on a few points: 1) There are no standards for amounts of pesticides permitted in wine in France; 2) At least one pesticide was detected in every wine tested; and 3) The total didn’t amount to levels that would cause concern. Reading the original (in French) and some of the supporting documentation, I think the study is far more significant than the news reports indicate.
As I wrote last time, the U.S. has no standard for pesticides in wine either. The U.S., like France and the E.U., has pesticide residue standards for grapes but not wine. And while TTB, the federal agency that regulates alcohol in the U.S., randomly tests wines for 150 pesticides each year, the Que Choisir study names names and gives concentrations — data I have requested, but not received, from TTB. While there are some limitations on the amount of data for certain wine regions and categories of wine (organic wines and rosés, for example), these are the kind of data we should have for wines in the U.S. It must have cost Que Choisir a huge amount of money to do these tests and produce the report, which is probably why we haven’t seen a similar one here.
The study is also important because while vineyards comprise only 3.7% of France’s agricultural acreage, they absorb 20% of the country’s agricultural pesticide use. The French government has committed to a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2018 based on 2007 use levels, so understanding where these chemicals end up in actual products means that reductions can be strategically targeted. As the deadline approaches this becomes more critical, since pesticide use in France actually increased between 2010 and 2012. Three points to keep in mind before I get into it all:
- “Pesticides” includes insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and chemicals to kill/ward off rodents, as I mentioned in my last post. So finding a “pesticide” in wine doesn’t mean it was an insecticide in there. For the most part, chemicals detected were fungicides. With a few exceptions, the application of substances found in this study was standard practice.
- You’ll see two particular words used here — detected and measured. With the tests and instruments used to do the tests, there’s a limit of detection (where you know it’s there but not exactly how much), and a limit of measurement (above which you can measure how much is there). Detection means a concentration between 1 and 10 parts per billion (ppb). 10 ppb is the minimum concentration that can be actually measured.
- For presentation, Que Choisir added up the number of pesticides detected and measured in each wine — although the data are also available separately. So the numbers in the table I made (below) are for that total number of detected + measured (after all, they’re detected if they’re measured). They also added together concentrations for the measured pesticides, even though there might be five different pesticides measured in a particular wine, including insecticides and herbicides. This is pretty much standard practice when reporting concentrations of pesticide residues.
So here’s my take on what Que Choisir did, what they found, and what it might mean for wine drinkers.
Which wines were tested? Que Choisir tested 92 wines, selected from nine wine regions or appellations across France, and focusing on wines that people consume daily. The price ranged from 1,60 to 15 euros, or $2 to $20. So the prestige wines that you’ll find reviewed in magazines weren’t there. Many of the wines were available in supermarkets, although not necessarily purchased there. Full disclosure: None of the wines imported by First Vine was tested by Que Choisir.
Which pesticides were tested? Wines in the study were tested for 165 different pesticides or breakdown products of pesticides. Of these 165, 33 different substances were found. Three of the wine samples tested contained residue of a particular pesticide not allowed for use in France or the E.U., and a fourth contained residue of a different pesticide that’s also not allowed for use.
Were organic wines tested? Nine of the 92 wines were labeled organic, or just under 10%. Interestingly, according to the New York Times, 8.3% of the wine produced in France in 2012 was organic, so this was a good sampling in terms of the overall mix. This study also shows that it’s possible to find organic wine in France at everyday prices.
What is the overall finding? As was reported in the news accounts, pesticide residues were detected in every single one of the 92 wines tested. Twelve of the wines (or 13%) had no measurable pesticide residues, although residues were detected even in those wines.
What’s the overall finding for organic wines? Six of the 12 wines with no measurable pesticide residues, or 50%, were labeled organic. In contrast, just 7% (6 of 86) of the non-organic wines tested had no measurable pesticide residues. The fact that every organic wine had at least one detectable pesticide residue is likely due to two factors: use of the chemicals in the surrounding area, and previous use of pesticides on the property (since some of them can persist in the soil). The 50% vs. 7% having no measurable pesticide residue is encouraging, but there needs to be more work to pin it down. As far as I know, these are the first data examining pesticide residue in organic and non-organic wines.
How big was the geographic variation in selection? Only three of the nine wine regions had 20 or more samples: Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, and Languedoc-Roussillon. The others had seven or fewer wines tested. In the case of two regions this was probably because of price — Bourgogne and Champagne make more expensive wines. There are also some pretty pricey rosés from Provence and wines from the Loire, although there are certainly enough inexpensive ones that would fit this survey. The percentage of total selections from each region doesn’t track with wine consumption in France as a whole, and not every wine region was included.
What was the geographic variation in results and how can it be explained? Looking at the three regions with the most selections tested, Côtes du Rhône had the lowest percentage of detections of more than five pesticides, and the lowest percentage of wines with total measured pesticides of 50 ppb or more. Languedoc-Roussillon and Bordeaux were pretty close to the Rhône for pesticide detections, but higher in terms of measured pesticides of 50 ppb or more. Climate is probably the main reason for this. Both the Rhône valley and the Languedoc are hot and dry in summer, compared to Bordeaux. I would have thought the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc would have tracked more closely, so I was surprised to learn that a greater percentage of samples from the Languedoc had residues totaling at least 50 ppb than the Rhône Valley. When I visited the Languedoc in 2013, the climate and terrain were touted as being particularly suitable for less chemical intervention. Perhaps the vintages were atypical? I’ll have to do some more checking to see.
One other thing stands out to me. Three of the four wines from Provence tested were rosés. Rosés sit on the grape skins for much less time than red or white wines do, and there were many fewer detected and measured pesticides in the three Provençal rosés than in wines from other regions. This makes sense if the majority of pesticide residue is on the grape skins, rather than in the juice. Provence is also hot and dry, so climate probably played a role in the result. A glance at the data for five of the other six rosés tested looks good as well (sadly, one was a real doozy), although there aren’t enough data on rosés here to do a real statistical analysis.
Was there a difference between red and white wines? While the study says that whites contained more than twice as much pesticide residue on average as reds (242 vs. 114 ppb), I think the difference in this study is due to just a handful of white wines examined that had much higher levels of residue than the other whites. Still, it makes some sense overall that red wine grapes might require less pesticide applications. Red wines are often described as having aromas and flavors of tobacco, which contains some natural insecticides. Tannins, found in the skin of red wine grapes, can also have some effects on reducing pests and possibly serve as fungicides too. Of course, fungicides sprayed on grapevines are as much to keep the leaves from rotting as the grapes, so there’s only so much the grape skin tannins can accomplish.
Do the levels of pesticides found pose a health risk? Obviously, finding two banned substances is unacceptable. As for the rest, I’m going to have to say I don’t really know. If I had to guess I’d give it a qualified no, provided that wine was one of the few sources of pesticides in a person’s diet. Que Choisir points out that the concentrations found in some of the wines with the highest totals wouldn’t be allowed in drinking water — also that most people drink more water than wine. But after reading this study, I will think carefully and try to avoid routinely drinking wines that contain greater amounts of pesticide residues and routinely consuming foods higher in pesticide residues.
Of course, this only works if you know more about the wines and foods you consume. Que Choisir endorses the suggestion of another French NGO that wineries should voluntarily submit samples for testing, and wines with less than five detected pesticides and total concentrations less than 50 ppb could be eligible for a special label. I think it’s a great idea, although it would be good to know who applied but didn’t get the label.
One final thought: This is one study, a snapshot in time, and if it were repeated today the results could be different. Still, I hope that the producers in the various regions will do some more detailed studies to identify wines with greater numbers and levels of pesticide residues and find ways to reduce the totals.
In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to press TTB to provide data on its annual testing. And I have to say that as an importer of some southern Rhône wines, I’m pretty excited — preliminarily, of course — that the region came out well in the study. I didn’t need another reason to like the wines, but this is definitely an encouraging one.
** Que Choisir, 518, October 2013, pp. 46 – 50.
It’s finally spring, at least most of the time. This means that Cy and I get to sit on the front porch instead of inside the house for our Friday evening snacks and drinks. And instead of cheese and olives, which we seem to crave in the winter, we’ll want a lighter snack. We’ll probably still drink red wine for a bit, since these are not the really warm DC nights we’ll be having in a couple of months.
This week’s recipe for nuts roasted with herbs will do the trick. Rather than using a lot of oil to coat the nuts and get the herbs, salt, and pepper to stick, I like to use egg whites plus a little oil. You can really use any herb you like, fresh or dried. I use dried thyme since I always have it around, and fresh rosemary (since it generally survives the winter). This version makes 2 cups of nuts, about a half a pound, which will easily feed 6 people pre-dinner. You can cut the recipe in half if there’s just a few of you. While you could pop the leftovers in the freezer and then bake them until warm, I think they’re better fresh. So it’s probably a good idea to make less rather than more.
For wine, a southern Rhône red (you thought I’d recommend something else in this post?), medium-bodied, no oak. Plenty of those that fit the bill, but I’m thinking of Cave la Romaine Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15) for this Friday. It’s medium-bodied, 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah. Perfect for that transition to warm evenings.
Serves 6 as a hearty snack
2 cups mixed nuts (unskinned almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, unskinned hazelnuts), or all of any one you prefer
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 egg whites
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
Coarse salt (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. About 5 minutes after the oven starts heating, spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and put them in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let the nuts cool while the oven comes up to temperature.
In a large bowl, combine the egg whites, salt, pepper, and dried thyme. Beat with a fork until you get a little foaming of the egg whites. Beat in the oil, then stir in the nuts. Make sure the nuts are all well-coated. Pour the nut mixture onto the baking sheet and spread the nuts out a bit so they’re just barely not touching each other. Sprinkle the chopped rosemary over the top.
Put the pan in the oven for 5 minutes. Then take the pan out and scrape up the nuts with a spatula to make sure they don’t stick and break up some of the crust. Bake for 5 more minutes, or until everything’s lightly brown and smells beautifully. Taste one of the nuts for salt, and sprinkle with a bit of coarse salt as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature.