Additives in Wine
But wine is just fermented grape juice, is it not?
Well, it used to be. But as science has evolved, so have our winemaking practices.
It started already during Roman times, by adding everything from salts, oil and plants to conserve or alter the flavour of the wine. Some claim that sulphur dioxide (SO2) was used already during Roman time, but it is not until the 15th century we can prove it was used with written sources. The practice back then was to burn sulphured woodchips in the barrels before adding the wine. To both sterilise the barrels and to prevent the wine from oxidising as it was stored (this practice is still commonly used). The wines produced up until sulphur dioxide was introduced would have been more similar to what we today think of as vinegar, since the natural progression of wine is to oxidise, and without something preventing the reaction, oxidation is inevitable. Read more about sulphur dioxide additions to wine here.
With the discovery of the microorganisms that are responsible for the fermentation process, the magic of wine was finally understood. And as we learned more, we left the old ways of making wine behind, where the quality of the wine in big part were left to chance (mainly to whatever naturally occurring microorganisms felt up to the task that day). We learnt how to take the success of winemaking from chance into a production line.
In our modern world, the regulations of what you may add or do to a wine will vary widely between our different countries and our different philosophies. Some countries are very strict, while others are looser when it come to the regulations, but with very few exceptions (See Natural Wine) today when you buy a bottle of wine, you do not only buy fermented grape juice.
Some additives, like sulphur dioxide, are used to improve the wines or reduce flaws, while others are used to lower costs and sometimes even to mislead the consumer, and there is where the biggest difference comes in.
Over the years there have been many scandals of producers taking shortcuts, adding illegal substances to improv their wines. That is dishonest and harmful for everyone concerned and will not be further approached here. This text is dedicated to the substances that producers are legally allowed to use, but that they do not tell us about all the same.
A good example of this is oak aging. When you think of wine being aged on oak, you think of a musty wine cellar, where barrels filed with exclusive wine, slowly but surely adds its flavour and structure to the wine. But, no. With the prices of an actual oak barrels (French or American), few budget wines will allow for that cost, which is why oak chips or more currently oak powder and liquid oak has risen in popularity. It is as simple as it sounds, chopped up, ground or who knows how they create the liquid oak, but all the same, artificial ways of adding that highly desired flavour and texture to the wine. Not quite what you bargained for when you bought that fancy looking bottle with an ancient looking castle on it, from the “on special” shelf.
In most wine producing countries, the wine producers are allowed to use additives to control the alcoholic fermentation and the malolactic fermentation, to add substances to increase the alcohol, and/or change the sugar level of the wine, add or take away from the acidity, use specific enzymes to provoke reactions (everything from preventing malolactic fermentation, to releasing certain aromas). Furthermore, many animal-based allergens are allowed as finning agents during clarification. Sulphur dioxide and other antioxidants (like ascorbic acid) are used to prevent oxidisation. To further stabilise the wine and prevent, for instance, tartrate precipitation one can use potassium bitartrate or calcium tartrate. Bentonite, tannins and gum arabic are used to prevent precipitation of material in wine (cloudiness). Potassium ferrocyanide and phytates are in some countries allowed to prevent metal haze, these processing aids are strictly controlled as they can be hazardous to human health. Additionally, different substances are allowed to improv the colour, flavour and aroma of the wine, like copper sulphate, activated carbon (charcoal), Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP), caramel (for colouring) and in the USA it is legal to add volatile fruit-flavour concentrate from grapes to directly ad new flavours to the wine…
And this is just skimming the surface. The full lists of allowed substances are available for most countries, if you know where to look. In the European Union, more than 60 different additives are allowed for wine making (as direct additions or processing aids). The majority of these are completely harmless, and as for the harmful ones, the addition of them are very strictly regulated preventing any harm from coming from their use (if handled correctly).
Wine are one of the few food products that is (more or less) exempt from having to state the ingredients on the bottle. If sulphur dioxide is added, it must be written out, and the demand to list allergens are becoming more widespread. But other than that, the every day consumer has no idea of what goes into making their favourite bottle of wine.
All additives are not bad. That has to be stated, most of them are used to improv the quality of the wine and to make the wine stable and clear in the bottle. Not all of them are necessary, actually very few of them are. They offer shortcuts to the winemakers, ways to save money and time, and many producers are now taking advantage of this system, creating artificial flavours in the winery, making the quality of the initial product, more or less irrelevant, since the aromas, the flavours, the mouthfeel can be created artificially.
The big question is, where do you want your wine created?
In the vineyard as the result of the farmers hard work,
Or in the winery, as the result from a complicated chemistry experiment?
An ingredient list on the back of the bottle, listing the actual ingredients as well as the processing aids would solve this problem. Let the consumer know how the wines were made and then leave it up to them to decide if the $4 wine is still a bargain with its 30 ingredients, compared to that seemingly overpriced bottled, where the producer put his heart and soul into making the wine, but left out the additives.
In the end, there will probably still be a market for both products