I never really thought about what was in my wine . . . until I did a wine tasting in Boston.
I was just like a lot of people, hitting the wine aisle in the grocery store for a quick and easy grab and go bottle. I reveled in the no fuss shopping experience; walking happily to the checkout counter with my little gem in tow, and even more thrilled that it was wearing a paper coupon around its slender green neck.
But, with one visit to ‘The Wine Bottega’ in Boston, MA, my eyes were opened to the world of organic and natural wine. That’s when I realized my grab and go selection process was uneducated, careless, and lent itself to conventional wines alone. Organic and natural options for food are everywhere these days, but I never suspected wine to be a part of that culture.
Going beyond the grape . . .
. . . getting educated about conventional wine production.
If you’re wondering what’s in wine besides fermented grape juice, just check the ingredient label. Go grab a bottle from the ‘wine fridge’ and tell me what you see – a brand name, vintage, region, variety, country of origin, alcohol content, a government warning, an admission: ‘Contains Sulfites;’ there’s no ingredient label to be found, and why should there be – it’s just grapes right?
Surprisingly, wine manufacturers are not required by law to list ingredients on the label, both within the U.S. and Europe, and I think they like it that way because it saves money, time, process, and according to a Los Angeles Times article, (1), they don’t mind keeping consumers in the dark. Even the ATF (Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco) admits that labeling regulations for alcohol would increase costs to consumers and place unnecessary burdens on the industry.
Is it just grapes: what exactly is in that innocent sip? . . .
. . . Sulfites
“Today, over 99% of commercial wines contain sulfites. All countries monitor the amount of SO2 present in wines.”(2)
Sulphur dioxide “is the most widely used and controversial additive in winemaking. Its main functions are to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and to protect wine from oxidation.”(3) Basically, it keeps your wine from going bad in color or odor – it preserves. SO2 is added at several points during the process of conventional vinification (wine-making) and is present in the finished wine in the form of sulfites.
Although sulfites occur naturally in wine as a byproduct of the fermentation process, many winemakers believe that it is impossible to make wine without additional sulfites. According to morethanorganic.com, wines that naturally contain anti-oxidants like red wine, don’t need added SO2, but some manufacturers add it anyway. White, Rose, and sweet wines do not contain natural anti-oxidants, making them more susceptible to oxidation, hence the need for added sulfites.
Should we be concerned?
Sulphur dioxide, SO2, collectively known as sulfites, is a colorless pungent toxic gas formed by burning sulfur in the air. “Whilst harmless to healthy persons when used in recommended concentrations, it can induce asthma when inhaled or ingested by sensitive subjects, even in high dilution.” (4) Skin, digestive, and respiratory problems may also arise, but for the most part, only a small percentage of the population has sensitivity.
The U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australian wine labels contain an admission of sulfites. In the U.S. sulfites are ‘reassuringly’ listed by the FDA as GRAS- Generally Recognized as Safe in a variety of products, such as food, beverages, cosmetics and medications.
“The level of sulfites in wine is measured in “ppm”, or parts per million. In the United States, conventionally made wines are permitted to contain up to 350ppm of sulfites. Organic wine-making typically limits the threshold level of sulfites to 100ppm, and levels are generally much lower (around 40ppm to 80 ppm).”(5)
Another possible interaction from sulfites: “In most countries a 750ml bottle of wine can have up to 250ppm of sulphites added, and at that level a sensitive person can expect a nasty headache or sinus reaction after just one glass.”(6)
“Sulfites within the range of six and 6,000 ppm can be found in everyday foods: canned tuna, pizza dough, jams, gelatin, trail mix, cheese, deli meat and even prescription pills. Wine is one of the few products that carries the words “contains sulfites” on its label.”(7) Dried fruit contains sulfites as well; far more in proportion to wine.
Wine naturalists believe that the population of sulfite wine drinkers have not only developed desensitized taste buds, but have bought into mass produced wine which is bland and uninteresting. In essence, we’re so used to the taste of sulfites, we’ve gone ‘taste bud numb.’
What else is in that innocent sip? . . .
. . . Additives
“The best wines always seem to have the least intervention . . . but that might be because they need the least intervention.”, according to Pat Henderson, instructor, Introduction to Enology at Santa Rosa Junior college, CA. (8)
Wine is big business and our choices seem to have multiplied overnight; mass production has taken over. If you are in the wine business and you’re more interested in the bottom line, you will do whatever you can to speed up the wine making process, which can include using additives and treatments.
France’s only female Master of wine, Isabelle Legeron, a well-known advocate for natural wine, believes conventional wine “is the by-product of chemically induced and tightly controlled fermentation through the aid of additives and structure-altering equipment . . . all sorts of stuff is added and the goodness of the wine is removed by fining, filtering, reverse osmosis and dozens of other processes and gadgetry. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are routinely used in vineyards, which is not only questionable for biodiversity but can also end up in the wines we drink.”(9)
Fumaric Acid, Sorbic Acid, alcohol, Dimethyl Dicarbonate, Lysozyme, and color concentrates such as Mega-purple and Mega-red are a list of just a few of the additives that may be used in wine to inhibit bacterial growth, enhance color, flavor, and aroma.
It’s not so different from the processed foods we eat. If there are problems in the vineyard, if the wine needs doctoring, the additives and enhancers walk through the door to save the day, and many of those wines in need get help from companies that make a business out of ‘fixing’ wine. (check out http://www.latimes.com/la-fo-newwine28mar28-story.html)
“More than 50 additives are allowed by law in the EU (European Union) – many of which are used even in organic wine.”(10) Take a look at the following site to see the long list: http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/additives.asp
What more could be in that innocent sip? . . .
. . . Allergens
“The eight major allergens identified by FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling and consumer Protection Act of 2004) are: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.”
Fining agents are used to effect the chemistry of the wine. “Fining is a technique that is used to remove unwanted juice/wine components that affect clarification, astringency, color, bitterness, and aroma.”(11)
“Fining agents are extracted from many strange sources and elements you would never think of putting in your wine. They are composed of proteins, minerals, or elements taken from a variety of unlikely places, like the swim bladders of fish, seaweed, fossils, activated charcoal, clay, egg whites.”(12)
There are two types of fining agents: those that absorb and those that attract unwanted elements in the wine, causing them to sink to the bottom as sediment. These agents are used selectively and for different reasons during the tricky process of ‘fixing’ a wine. Professional wineries and home wine-making enthusiasts alike can strip wine of natural color, body, taste, and aroma if fining agents are added incorrectly.
Some examples of fining agents:
Isinglass– a collagen (protein) derived from the air bladders of fleshy fish such as sturgeon, catfish, and thread fins, Gelatine– a collagen, the primary structural protein in animal bone and skin from which it is derived, Chitin– derived from exoskeletons of crustaceans, Casein– major milk protein, Egg-whites– containing albumen and globumin, Blood – ox blood. (13)
According to wineinstitute.org, it’s hard to know exactly what allergens remain in the finished wine product. “There are very few performance-tested methods for evaluating the presence of allergens in finished foods.” Unlike peanut testing, “there are no such methods available to test for the presence of eggs, milk, wheat, or fish in wine.” (14)
Both the Wine Institute (trade association of California wineries) and Wine America (national association of American wineries in 48 states), have submitted their response to proposed regulations to mandate food allergen labeling for wines, distilled spirits and malt beverages, naming cost for analytical testing and new labeling as top concerns.
The U.S. is hesitating when it comes to the requirement for allergen labels, but Europe is on board. “The European Union Commission will be publishing new compulsory wine labeling requirements for certain allergens in wine, affecting all wines from the 2012 or after harvests, labeled after June 30, 2012, and intended to be sold within any EU country,” according to June 26, 2012 ‘Beverage Alcohol Brief’ by Nixon Peabody (law firm)nixonpeabody.com.
As of 2011, the TBB, U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reports that it too will have mandatory allergen labeling, but accurate testing methods have not proven reliable, so until then, the current ‘voluntary’ admission of allergens is in effect for U.S. winemakers.
One last thing that could possibly be in that innocent sip? . . .
. . . Chemicals
“The heavy-handed use of synthetic fertilizers, weed-killers, fungicides, pesticides and inappropriately applied heavy metals like copper have destroyed soil life in most vineyards. . . “Synthetic chemicals in the vineyard mean unhealthy vines and few yeasts so an arsenal of additives have to be used to compensate. Many growers I have spoken to say that it takes years to bring life back to conventionally farmed vineyards,” states Isabelle Legeron. (15)
Chemicals are clingy; they seem to be hard to shake when it comes to food production. Within conventional wine-making there are approved man-made pesticides, herbicides and equipment cleaning chemicals. Organic winemakers have approved pesticides as well.
“. . . the majority of vineyards use man-made pesticides because they are more powerful, and require less effort. . . man-made chemicals benefit the grape-grower, whilst organic pesticides are of benefit to the consumer for health reasons.” (16)
The naturalnews.com article from 2008, also raised questions about chemicals that have leeched into oak barrels and conventional corks, which therefore could leech into wine. In my research, I was unable to confirm current standards for treating and cleaning barrels, as well as chlorine based pesticides being found in cork, but from some sites I viewed it seems that technology has stepped in and made positive advancements. if you’re worried, drink unoaked wine and look for updated corks or screw tops.
We as consumers always seem to have to fight the good fight, which means being educated about what you choose to put in your body. It’s sad that something so natural, fermented grapes, have been taken over by human intervention and the bottom line. Advancements in technology are very important – I enjoy this computer far more than an electric typewriter- but when it comes to our bodies, it’s a whole different ball game.
If you have allergies, if you are vegan, or if you are trying to rid your body of the onslaught of preservatives and additives present in so many items we choose to swallow, you need to be educated, whether we’re talking about wine, food, medicine, cosmetics, . . . and the list goes on and on. On the flip side, if you read this and decide a processed chocolate cake snack treat with white cream filling pairs well with a glass of conventionally made wine – no one’s going to stop you. It’s hard to live in the world we live in, and we all make allowances!
To reiterate, it is still not clear at this point what is left in the finished wine product when it comes to fining agents and allergens. Possible statements like ‘processed with’ could be placed on wine in the future to warn consumers of possible interactions.
What else is out there?
With so much to learn about wine, splitting this post into two parts was necessary. Look for my next post which will cover Natural and Organic wines as well as farming techniques and sustainability; we have options.
Until then, try some organic wine. Bottles might say contains sulfites or contains no detectable sulfites (meaning none were added and only exist naturally.) I have found most liquor stores and even some grocery stores will carry a few affordable bottles. Frey Organic wine is vegan and gluten free and one I have found locally. http://www.freywine.com/
*Check out ‘The Wine Bottega’ as well, http://thewinebottega.com/
(14) http://www.wineinstitute.org/files/ALPC.pdf (2006 and 2008 pdf available)