A study published this month in the scientific journal Food Additives and Contaminants will undoubtedly rattle wine drinkers—and makers. It claims that 57 percent of the French wines that researchers analyzed contained significant amounts of dibutyl phthalate—an endocrine disruptor linked to premenopausal breast cancer, birth defects, fertility issues, asthma, and obesity. The lab behind the study, Laboratoire Excell, and its lead author, Pascal Chatonnet, are both located in the middle of France's wine country: Bordeaux. Yes, the region where some of the world's most revered, and expensive, wines are made.
Phthalates, according to the report, are seeping out of traditional cement fermentation and storage tanks—used in winemaking in France and throughout the world—because the plastic linings are deteriorating (alcohol being a strong leaching agent). "New tanks usually are less and less coated in Bordeaux," Chatonnet explained in a post-publication interview. "But I don't think that the highest quantity of coated tanks is [actually] in France. Argentina and Spain or China [should] be more concerned by this than Bordeaux."
The problem, identified only recently, stems from practices that had not changed until six years ago. But some wine-industry professionals believe the issue has been largely contained. "Up until 2008, phthalates were part of the composition of epoxy resins, the protective coating of concrete wine tanks," explains Agathe Marion, spokeswoman for the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB). "And according to our estimates, today only 15 percent of all wine tanks have not yet been renewed."
Based on these statistics, Marion rejects the idea that wine from old tanks is dangerous. "A person weighing 60 kilograms [132 pounds] would have to consume two liters [nearly three bottles] of wine per day to reach the limit," she says.
The Environmental Working Group, a public-interest organization in Washington, D.C., isn't so sanguine, listing phthalates on its "Dirty Dozen of Endocrine Disruptors." Put more dramatically: "Studies have shown that chemicals called phthalates can trigger what's known as 'death-inducing signaling' in testicular cells, making them die earlier than they should. Yep, that's cell death—in your man parts."
Steve Rosenblatt, of Sonoma Cast Stone in Petaluma, California, questions whether tanks need plastic liners at all. "Concrete is great for better temperature control," Rosenblatt says, "but, moreover, the wine gains flavor and softness and minerality from contact with the cement, and you can't get that if it's coated."
But you won't likely see concrete tanks mentioned on wine labels or websites, because they're far less romantic than oak barrels. So how can you tell whether the bottle you are drinking tonight has phthalates? The study doesn't mention any brands. So, short of a trip or a call to the winery, you just can't. Meantime, Chatonnet hopes to be part of the solution, working as a consultant. "Yes," he says, "we are fixing some problems in wineries all over the world."