So, what’s in your wine?


Since reading Kermit Lynch’s book, “Adventures on the Wine Route,” I have become increasingly interested in knowing exactly what am I drinking when I pull the cork on my bottle of wine.  I mean beyond the sulfites, winemakers don’t tell you everything that goes into your wine.
However thanks to Deborah Grossman of Wine Enthusiast magazine ( I know more now than I ever have.  I will caution you now, if  you are one of those people that will be enjoying a meal until someone says something like, “wow this venison is good,” and you can’t take another bite, don’t read any further.
It turns out that your bottle could be packed and processed with a lengthy list of safe-to-drink preservatives, fining agents, and even flavorings.
Sulfur dioxide/Sulfites
Protects and preserves the integrity of the wine.  Sulfur can stop fermentation, if needed, and kills the nasty microbes and bacteria that can harm a wine’s flavor or aroma.
Potassium Sorbate
Like sulfur, potassium sorbate (also used in cheese and yogurt) wards off bad bacteria.  In sweet wine, it’s often used to prevent further fermentation once bottled. 
Tannin powder
Tannin powder is often added to enhance structure and astringency for varietals that are naturally tannin-deficient, or for grapes lacking them due to vintage conditions.  The powder is often a mix of grape seeds and skins, oak, chestnuts and nutgall, which are small nut-like swellings on tree branch bark. 
Used (where wine laws allow it) to restore water lost to dehydration or to lower sugar/alcohol levels. 
Certain enzymes help cull compounds from the skin and help clear out any impure, microscopic crud leftover from fermentation.
When faced with under-ripe grapes, winemakers may add sugar to still wines to increase alcohol levels.  Sugar may also be added before bottling to improve mouthfeel and lower astringency.  Many regions allow the practice (known as chaptalization), but in California sugar can’t be added to any still wine.  The only time it’s allowed in the Golden State is during the dosage phase of sparkling winemaking—the stage just before it’s corked. 
Mega Purple
A brand of wine-grape juice concentrate, Mega Purple boosts both color and sugar level—without technically adding pure sugar (hello, California).  It’s commonly used in commercial fruit juice.  There are similar grape concentrates for white and rosé wines.
Oak chips, staves or powders
These incarnations are far cheaper than barrels and provide for increased surface contact with the wine, which can help with consistency.  Winemakers can choose from American or French oak and pick specific flavor profiles, from vanilla and coconut to leather, smoke and spice.
Acid is a critical component in wine that affects microbes, particle stability, color and aging potential.  Tartaric acid is prevalent in wine grapes and is the most common addition.  Malic and lactic acids are also naturally occurring and often blended with tartaric into low-acid wine.  Grapes also contain small amounts of citric acid, which can be added before bottling to “lift” and add brightness to white wines. 
Yeast, the key ingredient in converting grape juice to wine, is a one-cell critter that gobbles up sugar and makes alcohol.  Yeast also impacts aroma, mouthfeel and flavor. 
The Four Main Fining Agents 
Suspended particles naturally occur when fermenting grapes and aging wine.  These particles cause cloudiness and sediment.  Winemakers clear wine by adding agents that glom onto these floaters and absorb them.  While many of these agents may alarm, know that these chemical sponges are filtered out before bottling. 
Fish Bladders
This one got me.  Known as isinglass, this pure form of protein can be used to pluck out bitter tannins and binds with haze-inducing particles.
Mammal proteins
Egg whites and gelatin are especially effective in clarifying red wines.  Casein, a milk protein, is used to clarify white and rosé wines. 
Bentonite Clay
In addition to absorbing, it helps reduce astringency.  Mined in Wyoming, bentonite packs the most sponge power of all the clays.  It’s common in toothpaste.  Lynch has a story about a white French wine that he had bought and that he and his customers had enjoyed for years.  New vintage arrives and its terrible flat and devoid of flavored.  Lynch checks everything do something go wrong is transportation, storage, finally calls the vineyard and learns after a prolong conversation that the winemaker had pumped that year’s vintage through a bentonite filter.  It was the last time Lynch purchased from that vineyard.
PolyVinylPolyPryrolidone, or PVPP, is a workhorse.  It eliminates ugly colors and helps stabilize the wine.
Other additives
Yeast nutrients
When yeasts get sluggish and winemakers don’t want to feed them sugar to boost fermentation, so they add nutrients.  These additives are basically vitamin pills for yeast. 
Acid reducers
When a batch contains too much acid, minerals like calcium carbonate come to the rescue.  Think of them as Tums for wine. 
I have done a lot of talking to a lot of people about this, and will probably continue for a very long time to try and get answers about what goes into your wine, but here’s what I’ve learned.  Most of what is on this list is removed from the wine in the production process.  Some of the fining agents have been used for centuries, so really this is nothing new.  Even so, I still find Isinglass disturbing.
Many retailers have told me, “if you buy a better quality of wine you avoid stuff like this,” or to use the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”  In this case, you don’t get what you don’t want but do have to pay for it.  I get it, but my reading tells me this stuff is everywhere, at all price levels, and is just part of the wine world.
A few months back I railed against having winemakers list the ingredients they put into their wine.  I argued that I didn’t like government telling wine makers what they had to put on the label, but, I’m less sure of that position today.  Ouch, that hurt my Conservative individualistic pride!  Some winemakers, though I haven’t found any yet, do list the ingredients they put into the wine.  The question I have is if they put it in the wine and then take it out, do they have to put it on the label?
As I sit writing this I have a big smile on my face. It’s wine!  Winemakers have been adding stuff to wine ever since the beginning: pine pitch, cinnamon, distilled liquor (Masala& Port), Sulfites, Finning Agents (egg whites), yeast; natural and engineered, all of this to make a better-tasting, longer-lasting wine.  And I applaud their efforts.
What I’m not sold on is adding mulch wood chips to flavor the wine, Mega Purple, and PVPP.  To me this crosses the line between winemaking and fraud.
I have yet to try an organic or natural wine.  I promise I will and you will get my full report.  I have tried to buy only non-factory wines.  Listen to how you can make 100,000 bottles of anything without resorting to wood chips, mega purple and PVPP.  Small is beautiful and most likely tastes better too.  Yeah, it costs more, but we’re talking a difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle, not a $10 bottle to $100 bottle.  So drink less, drink better, and enjoy!

One thought on “So, what’s in your wine?”

  1. As always John, I feel smarter after reading this. not really super comfotable about what could go in to my wine but… I stil eat Twinkies, so it’s not like i am afriad of chemicals in my food and drink.

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