Limiting pesticides in wine — and a little of my skepticism, too

The Zero Pesticide Residue Label that will appear on wines certified by Nouveaux-Champs. The organization has begun to certify wines and one of the producers is a winery I used to import from.

This morning I read an article about a new certification in France for agricultural products containing zero pesticide residues. And that a few French wineries had joined the effort and become eligible to label some of their wines as “Zero Pesticide Residue” products.

Best of all, to my enviro/chemical engineer mind, the resulting bragging sticker to be placed on the bottles contains five important words: Within the limits of quantification. This acknowledges that the wines might contain pesticide residues, but that the quantities are so small that current instruments and methods can’t yet detect them.

Bravo for the honesty. And good for the certifying organization, called Nouveaux-Champs (or New Fields, in French), for coming up with something that conveys accurate and useful information to consumers so that they can make more informed choices.

Back in 2015, I wrote about a study of pesticides in French wines. All of the 100 or so wines tested contained detectable pesticide residues, even the ones labeled organic. Some wines contained what seemed to be high quantities, although no wines exceeded government standards.  Que Choisir, a French consumer organization that did the study, recommended that wineries opt into a testing program that would allow wines with the fewest and lowest quantities of detectable pesticide residues to label themselves that way. It looks like Nouveaux-Champs has created a program to do that, also requiring demonstrating sustainable practices and periodic third-party monitoring of production in addition to publicizing the result.

The first winery to join, Les Vignerons de Tutiac, a large cooperative in the Bordeaux region, is one I know well. I used to import one of their wines. The winery has a reputation for high-quality production. Because it’s a large cooperative with many growers, it makes sense that the operators could find a few growers with exactly the right conditions for the three wines that will bear the zero pesticide residue label. As I mentioned before, many pesticides persist in the environment, so even a long break without pesticide use can still result in pesticide residues in agricultural products. And pesticides travel by air in dust and droplets far from where they’re used. Even pristine areas can show detectable pesticide levels.

So how can zero pesticide residue wines be made? In all likelihood the grapes are grown on land that hasn’t seen any pesticide use in decades. I’d bet that the properties are all relatively isolated from other agriculture, as well as industry and major roads. And that they’re surrounded by some kind of natural physical barrier, like woods or bodies of water, that blocks pesticide drift and air transport. Or otherwise topographically sheltered from prevailing winds.  Few vineyards can achieve these kinds of conditions, at least under current agricultural practices. It’s especially remarkable in Bordeaux, which Que Choisir found to be the region with the most and highest pesticide detections in wine.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer some caveats. Because the substances weren’t detected doesn’t mean they’re not there. A barely undetectable amount of a really bad actor could be much more unsafe than a detectable amount of something much less toxic. There’s no reason to expect this kind of situation, but we don’t know what we don’t know.

Another issue is that “pesticides” is a catch-all term for a bunch of substances. These include insecticides, obviously, but also fungicides – something that nearly every winery uses at one time or another. The pesticides that Nouveaux-Champs tries to measure almost certainly don’t include the things approved for use in organic wine production. After all, sulfites, which are created as part of fermentation, are “pesticides” even if we don’t think of them that way, since they kill bacteria that could cause the wine to spoil. (Sulfur compounds are also used as fungicides for grapevines.)  And nearly every wine produced on the planet contains measurable amounts of sulfites, even if they’re not added by the winemaker.  The difference is that we know they’re in the bottle because it says so on the label by law.

One final thought that might be considered a caveat. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out economically. Nouveaux-Champs estimates that those products certified as containing zero pesticide residue can expect up to a 30% price premium from consumers. With the normal supply chain markups, this means that that producers would earn between about four and seven percent more per bottle (they’d get the entire 30% for wines sold at the winery). Grape growers may receive even less.  Is that enough money to bring more wineries into the fold, given the increased costs for production and certification? We’ll find out as time goes on.

But OK, enough objections from me for now. In my former life as an environmental scientist, I advocated for the public’s right to know – about toxic chemicals coming from industrial facilities, toxic chemicals in children’s toys and other consumer products, and about genetically-modified organisms in our food. Not because anything would kill or even necessarily harm us, but because we have the right to make informed decisions about our lives. This ought to extend to the wine we drink, too. I’m really pleased that we’ll now start to have that chance.

No recipe this post — I’ve been spending a bunch of time responding to the proposed 100% tariffs on European wines, as well as commenting on the 25% tariffs on certain French, Spanish, and German wines.  I’ll share some of those comments with you next time, and I promise a recipe, too.

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2 Responses to Limiting pesticides in wine — and a little of my skepticism, too

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: The State of the Wine Industry in 2020

  2. Pingback: Liquor Industry News 01-27-20 | Franklin Liquors

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