A new study on pesticide residue in wine has caused a furor in France by raising questions about leading labels, including Bordeaux’s Mouton Cadet and seven wines from large French producer Castel. Commissioned by French consumer magazine Que Choisir and conducted by the Excell enology lab, the study analyzed 92 wines from around France for 165 chemicals related to vineyard treatments.
At first glance, the results are worrisome. Thirty-three chemicals found in fungicides, insecticides and herbicides showed up in wines, and every wine showed some detectable trace of chemicals. Organic wines fared better, but still showed some, suggesting contamination from neighboring vineyards or that the chemicals are lingering from past use.
Carbendazim, a fungicide banned in France and not approved for food crops in the United States, was found in a few wines, as was bromopropylate, a pesticide also banned in France.
The reaction from winemakers was grim. The front-page story coincided with wine fairs held annually in French supermarkets. The wines analyzed ranged from a $2 generic red to a $20 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with many sold by supermarkets.
But Pascal Chatonnet, owner of Excell lab, a Right Bank winemaker and a passionate advocate for reducing pesticide use, said the results should reassure rather than alarm consumers. “Except for a few cases, we should be satisfied. The level of pesticide residue is very slight. And even those few ‘higher’ cases are well within the legal norms.” While almost every wine had detectable trace amounts of chemicals, very few had measurable amounts, that is, more than 10 micrograms per kilogram of wine.
But others believe that while levels may be low and within limits considered safe, more must be done. "First there is the wine, then there is the environment around it and the people who work in the vineyards and live next to the vineyards,” said Jean-Michel Comme, technical director at Bordeaux's Château Pontet-Canet. "The only acceptable for me is 'zero'—no pesticide residue and no using synthetic treatments and chemicals."
The study measured three things: the number of chemicals detected, the number of chemicals in amounts sufficient to be measured, and the accumulated content. What’s immediately clear from the study is that the French have come a long way to meeting their goal of cutting pesticide use in half by 2018. “We will get there. This study is reassuring and the few exceptions show that there is work to do,” Chatonnet told Wine Spectator.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work done over the past decade to reduce the amount of pesticides, mainly out of concern for the environment and employee health," said Castel Group spokeswoman Anne Margerit. "There are still traces of pesticides in wine, but it’s not dangerous for the consumer.”
While all 92 wines showed traces of chemicals, all but two had five measurable chemicals or less. Thirteen wines, including five from Bordeaux’s damp climate, had no measurable quantity of pesticides or fungicides. An impressive 35 wines had only one quantifiable chemical.
“The number of molecules has been reduced, but what’s really changed is the type of molecules,” Philippe Degrendel, technical director at Mouton Cadet, told Wine Spectator. "We’re using ones that have less of an impact on the environment."
While scientists debate how the chemicals interact, they agree the best answer is to limit the variety of vine treatments used. That poses a considerable challenge to large-volume wines and cooperatives. Mouton Cadet produces 1 million cases a year from grapes supplied by 400 growers, who can all choose from a variety of chemicals. Neither Chatonnet nor Degrendel were shocked that the brand showed traces of 14 chemicals—seven in measurable amounts.
“We weren’t surprised,” said Degrendel. "Mouton Cadet is produced from selected plots on different estates. The richness of Mouton Cadet is this accumulation of Bordeaux terroirs. But that means we might also accumulate more chemicals than if the wine came from just one estate."
Others call that unacceptable. "Just because a wine is inexpensive does not make it acceptable to have pesticides in it," said Comme.
Castel Group’s Les Caves de Noémie Vernaux Lichette Blanc, a Vin de France, revealed traces of 10 chemicals, five of them measurable. In the Loire, La Cave d’Augustin’s Saumur-Champigny 2012 had traces of 13 chemicals, four measurable. Noblesse du Comte de Fronton, produced for Auchan supermarkets, had 10 detectable chemicals, six of them measurable.
"We attach particular importance to the approach of our vineyards and work in farming," said Margerit. Both Castel and Mouton Cadet insisted that their labs run a thorough analysis of purchased grapes and wines to prevent unsafe pesticide residues.
“We export Mouton Cadet to 30 countries. We test the wine when it arrives from suppliers and after it is bottled,” said Degrendel. “We haven’t found illegal chemicals in the wine but we have refused lots that contain concentrations of legal chemicals that are too high. We can’t risk having a container blocked at customs.”
The presence of restricted chemicals raises serious concerns. Carbendazim was found in Mouton Cadet as well as Noblesse du Comte de Fronton, a St.-Emilion cooperative wine, and Lichette Blanc. It's a fungicide suspected of disrupting human hormones. Years back it made headlines when excessive use by apple growers led to fears for the health of children.
Both wine companies put forward the same defense. "Carbendazim is also a metabolite of thiophanate-methyl, which is licensed for vineyards in France and Europe," said Margerit. "The article suggests that the presence of this molecule shows that the grower would have used it. This is not the case, as it can come from the degradation of thiophanate-methyl, which is allowed."
But some experts doubt whether the carbendazim came from methyl thiophanate, and believe it comes from benomyl, another pesticide that is illegal in France. And the study authors worry that because carbendazim is legal in Spain, and sold cheaply, it's tempting to poor growers. “We know there is a parallel supply market,” said Chatonnet.
Bromopropylate was found in one wine, Castel Group’s Cramoisay produced by Les Caves de Noémie Vernaux and overseen by subsidiary Patriarche. Officials at Patriarche refused to comment.
Many argue that the only solution is to set legal limits for pesticide residue in wine rather than just grapes. “Until we have legal limits for these chemicals in wine, there’s nothing you can do,” said Chatonnet.
“We’re open to this idea. It would provide better transparency and it’s pertinent,” said Degrendel. “We work with the philosophy of continually improving. We encourage our partner vignerons to only treat when and where necessary at the lowest amount.”