Wine Words: Wine Additives

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'Additives’ is a wine word that most wine drinkers know very little about, because wine is one of the few consumable products that is not legally required to have ingredient listing on the label.

Most people consider wine simply as fermented grape juice. While some wine is made naturally or with minimum intervention, the vast majority either contains additional ingredients, and/or has used additives as processing aids during the winemaking process. While there are always exceptions, in general the more high volume the wine, the more industrial the winemaking process, and the more use of additives to ensure consistency in terms of style and flavor to meet market demand. 

At this point it is important to point out that most additives are not harmful. Most of them are eliminated from the wine before it is bottled and most are derivatives or concentrates that have been developed from either grapes or yeasts.

Wines without additives

Of course it is possible to make wine without recourse to any additives. Simply harvest the grapes and let the native yeasts from the vineyard do the work. Steps such as clarification and stabilization would occur naturally and slowly over time.

Widely accepted winemaking additives

The use of cultured yeasts in lieu of native ones is widespread for winemaking, even for the finest wines. This is because the natural vineyard yeast population is often not sufficiently strong or healthy to ensure a complete fermentation. The last thing a winemaker wants is a stuck or problematic fermentation.

Sulfur Dioxide is probably the most well-known and debated additive. It serves as an anti-oxidant and preservative. All wines are mandated to carry a label stating that they contain sulfites. 

Fining agents such as egg, milk and fish proteins as well as bentonite clay are widely used to remove residual grape and yeast solids as well as some tannin from wine.

The addition of tartaric acid (the same principle acid that exists naturally in wine) is used in warmer climates and hot vintages to regulate the wines’ pH and acidity levels. The addition of lactic bacteria to initiate the malolactic fermentation (i.e. to convert the harsh malic acid in wine to the softer, creamier lactic acid) is an important stabilization process as well as a tool for enhancing texture and mouth feel.

Yeast nutrients and clarifying enzymes to speed up the juice clarification process are other additives that are often employed and widely accepted.

Very little if any of these ‘agents’ remain in the finished wine, However, wine drinkers with allergies to milk, fish, eggs or sulfites as well as vegans or vegetarians would want to know whether any of these products were used.  

Today there are just a handful of wine producers who list ingredients on the wine label. Bonny Doon was the first, but both Ridge (Santa Cruz) and Shinn Estate (Long Island, New York) now also list ingredients.

Other’ more controversial additives

The bigger and more controversial issue is that as well as the additives mentioned above, there is increasing recourse to using more innovative additives to enhance a wine, especially higher volume wines. 'Mega Purple,' an extremely sweet grape concentrate that is used to add color, is one of the most controversial and talked about. Flavor enhancers are also increasingly used. The addition of water to reduce alcohol as well as use of tannin powder and other tannin products to reduce astringency are just some of the many permitted 'tricks' of the trade.

Further reading 

The scope of this post does not permit a full discussion or analysis of wine additives or a full debate of the transparency issues regarding mandatory ingredient listing for wine.

For a more detailed list and discussion on EU and U.S. permitted wine additives I recommend reading the following documents:

(Image: Underlying image by Sadovnikova Olga/Shutterstock)