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What is Clean Wine?

Clean wine is getting a lot of airtime lately, so we want to talk about why it's a thing and what dirty wine might be - spoiler alert, there is no such thing as dirty wine, unless you mean wine with a shot of espresso in it, like a dirty chai. 

Because as it turns out, this is an actual thing, in Italy at least, and it has a name - caffè corretto.

Caffe corretto is made with espresso and a shot of a grappa (distilled grape seeds, stalks and stems called pomace), sambuca or brandy. The legendary Robert Mondavi splashed a little red wine into his morning coffee, owing the habit to the way his mother made it for him when he was younger. 

If clean wine is not wine with coffee added, what is it? In short, clean wine doesn't have any additives. If you're wondering, "What's there to add? Aren't all wines just crushed grapes?" The simple answer is no.

We've been using additives in wine for, give or take, 6,000 years. 

But wine is more complex than that. Because the opposite of clean wine
isn't dirty wine, it's wine made with additives - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Winemaking is a delicate process with dozens of factors affecting the final product, and many times winemakers add things that help clarify their wines, stabilize them, preserve them from oxidation, make them taste more or less sweet, create a more full bodied wine or make the color look richer - and winemakers have been using additives since the beginning of winemaking time. 

According to A Matter of Taste's post on additives, "Shortly after the origin of winemaking, wine additives made their way into history. In 4100 B.C., Persians started using pine resin to keep their wine from spoiling. The ancient Greeks mixed their wine with perfumes, herbs, brines, and even seawater in attempts to improve flavor; and the ancient Romans were the first to add sulfites to wine." 

Calling a wine clean implies that additives are all bad, but there are no legal regulatory bodies governing what a clean wine is or isn't, though there are very clear laws about which additives are and aren't legal - there are only 76 approved by the FDA. If that sounds like a lot, there are currently over 10,000 FDA-approved additives for our food. 

Additives aren't necessarily bad 

Additives have been around for thousands of years for a reason. They help winemakers have more control over an art that is complex and subject to the vagaries of weather and climate. Especially for larger commercial wineries that need to make the same exact wine year after year, additives can be a must, but they are also employed by smaller wineries to help refine their wine and create the perfect end result their winemaker is looking for. 

As a small, independent winery, at BOXT we set our wines apart with our taste-first approach. Most wineries -  commercial or small independent winemakers - make their wines based on varietals. Each year is a totally different ball game for the grapes, depending on too much or too little rain, heat waves, drought, smoke, fires. Everything that comes into contact with the grape during its growing season affects how it will taste as a final product in your glass. To counterbalance this, many winemakers use additives to help produce the same taste in their wine that you've come to expect. They have to even out the natural differences year to year to make a more homogenized product. At BOXT, we design and make our wines by taste profile, so we're not tied to one single grape or one single vineyard. We source our grapes sustainably from around the world to bring you the taste highlights you expect, without having to add things to make it taste exactly the same as the year before. 

Since clean wines have no legal definition, the label is used to describe grapes that have been grown without synthetic pesticides (in clean wines organic pesticides are okay but they are not necessarily much better for you than traditional ones, but that's another article), and wine that has been made without additives. 

Some of the additives commonly found in wine: 

  • Mega Purple
  • Sulfites
  • Tannins
  • Clarifiers/Fining agents 
  • Sweeteners/sugars
  • Velcorin/preservatives

At BOXT, we make our wines by hand and use the minimum of processes to bring you a wine you're going to love, every single time. 

We do not add sugar to our wines.

We do not use Mega Purple.

We do fine our wines, but we use vegan-friendly fining agents.

We do use sulfur dioxide or sulfites to combat oxygen as a preservative.

We do not add tannins to our wines. 

Additives in your wine: the good, the bad and the neutral 

Mega Purple is a concentrate of unfermented grape juice made in Fresno, CA, by Vie-Del. It adds color, fullness and flavor to red wine and is often used by bigger commercial wineries to repeatedly produce the fruity and fuller bodied red wines that are popular in America right now. Mega Purple is also used after fermentation to increase sugar content (it's just concentrated grape juice after all) and it's the culprit for the red stains on your teeth after drinking a glass. 

Sulfites have gotten a lot of bad press lately, but remember, winemakers have been adding sulfites to their wine dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Sulfites are used as a natural preservative and to stop oxidation. If you're worried about added sulfites giving you a red wine headache, you can keep sipping that red you love, because they're not the culprit. 

Tannins are also naturally occurring and we recognize them as that astringent feel on our teeth and tongue when we bite into a peach with the skin on or when we take a sip of our favorite coffee or tea. The plants use tannins as an effective predator deterrent, but we humans have found ways to balance the tannic compounds of our food and drink to make it one of our favorite ingredients - especially in wine. Some winemakers add tannins in the form of aging in oak barrels, using oak chips (which aren't as pretty as barrels, but are much more environmentally friendly) or adding tannin powder, all with the desire to create what they consider the perfect wine. 

Side note: Tannins also aren't responsible for your red wine headache. People who get headaches from tannic exposure are extremely sensitive to tannins and changes in their serotonin levels and they get full blown migraines from it, not just a headache. Want to know more about tannins? We love this article by Wine Enthusiast

Fining agents. Nobody wants to drink cloudy or bitter wine. Fining agents are used to ameliorate both of these issues as well as to stabilize and remove yeast after fermentation. Fining agents can be plant or animal based, but either way, the idea behind them is for the agent to attract whatever the winemaker wants removed and then both the fining agent and its new hanger-on are both removed from the wine. Only fractional trace amounts may be left by the time you fill your glass.

Sometimes sugar is added to wine - not to make it sweeter, but to increase the alcohol content. It's called chaptalization and it's illegal in California and probably rarely necessary as the temperatures there allow for grapes to fully ripen (and reach their full alcohol potential) on the vine. In colder climates like the eastern United States, if there is an early freeze, the grapes may not have had time to ripen. They will not contain as much sugar, which then won't convert to the same amount of alcohol - which contributes significantly to changes the texture and taste of a wine. 

Velcorin and other preservatives stop fermentation and kill any living organisms left in the wine. Velcorin is highly toxic in larger quantities, but is FDA approved in micro quantities, which is how it is used in wine. Any preservative a winemaker uses is meant to keep the wine from clouding and spoiling. 

Want to know more about additives and the difference between clean and natural wines? We love these other articles by Wine FollyByrdie and this one on our very own blog.

Is clean wine better for you?

Clean wines claim that they do not use any of the above additives (or any additives at all) in their wine, but that doesn't mean clean wine is better for you or that the winery is taking into consideration its overall impact on the environment. We believe you should know what's in your wine, how it is made and who is behind the company, so you can make solid choices about what you want to drink and they types of companies you want to support.

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