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Wine Drinkers Face Little Danger from Pesticides, but Winegrowers Do

A French study found chemical residues in wines, but at low levels; experts hope to eliminate need

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: May 20, 2013

Disturbing reports of pesticides and fungicides in French wine have raised concerns for consumer safety, but the laboratory that sounded the alarm said the results of their study were misrepresented. The lead author said that chemical residues in wine are too small to have an effect on drinkers, but he added that vineyard workers are being exposed to a significant health risk.

"You'll consume much more pesticide residue eating apples and strawberries than drinking wine," said Pascal Chatonnet, Ph.D., owner of Excell laboratory, which works with wine and food industries in several countries, and runs labs in France, Argentina, Spain and Chile. "Your liver will be completely destroyed long before you'll have toxicity from pesticide residue in wine."

According to his analysis of 325 French wines produced between 2008 and 2010, 90 percent of the wines showed traces of up to nine molecules related to pesticides and fungicides. None of the molecules are known carcinogens, and the vast majority of wines had levels significantly below legal limits. Only 0.3 percent of the wines did not meet current regulations. "There is no health problem in drinking wine in terms of pesticides," said Chatonnet. "We have no reason to believe there are high levels of pesticides in wines."

Those at risk from heavy pesticide use in vineyards are the people working at the winery, potentially their neighbors, and the fragile ecosystem that helps the grape vine protect itself naturally from disease and predators.

The purpose of the Excell study was to lobby in favor of testing wine, not just grapes, for pesticides, and to draw attention to the number of chemicals in use. The concern is two-fold. First, the combination of certain molecules could be more dangerous than any single molecule by itself. Second, the accumulation of molecules poses risks. "It's not acceptable to be able to identify 9 molecules of pesticides. There is no technical reason to accumulate so many pesticides in wine. We could reach the same level of efficiency using fewer products," said Chatonnet.

Chatonnet is both a scientist and a winemaker. His family owns vineyards in St.-Emilion and Lalande-de-Pomerol, and he makes two wines, Château L'Archange and Château La Sergue, where he's proven it's possible to grow healthy grapes at sustainable yields while cutting pesticides. "Since 2010, we've only had either no residue or only one molecule and at very, very low levels. And we are not organic."

He's not the only one. Ten percent of the wines in Excell's study tested pesticide-free, and not all were organically farmed.

But some growers may have already reduced chemicals, yet the molecules linger. Chatonnet's wine tested positive for a fungicide for three years after he stopped using it. It wasn't until the fourth year that the molecule no longer appeared. "It's very disturbing," said Chatonnet.

The long-term impact on winegrowers is also disturbing. Generations Futures, an anti-pesticides non-governmental organization based in France, recently published the toxicology results from hair samples of vineyard workers and local residents in Bordeaux's Listrac-Médoc. Vineyard workers' samples contained 11 times the level of pesticide residues of people living a distance from the vineyards, and close neighbors had five times the levels. Four of the 15 vineyard workers' samples tested positive for more than 10 different pesticides.

Viticulture accounts for roughly 20 percent of France's 62,700 tons of pesticide consumption, and 80 percent of those are fungicides. Whistleblowers like Dr. Nadine Houédé, an oncologist at the Bergonie Cancer Institute in Bordeaux, have called for government and health agencies to take action. In 2012, Houédé joined others to testify before the French Senate, illustrating links between pesticide use by winegrowers and a variety of diseases, including cancer and Parkinson's. But many winegrowers remain silent about their illnesses, and it's difficult to have the conditions declared work-related.

A Swiss biologist might have an answer. Katia Gindro, working with chemist Jean-Luc Wolfender, has extracted and identified 60 molecules from Vitis vinifera grapevines. A couple are extremely powerful in killing vine diseases such as downy and powdery mildew and gray rot. She's working with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and hybrids, hoping to turn the molecules into treatments and eliminate the need for fungicides.

The research is funded by Bordeaux's nine most prominent estates—Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Ausone, Cheval-Blanc, Yquem and Pétrus—which contacted Gindro after reading one of her scientific papers. "They didn't hesitate to sponsor the research," she said. "They are very close to the problem."

Gindro expects to a have an ecological and worker-safe formula within two to three years. The goal? "The only molecules in wine will be those coming from the vine," she said.

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