Wine Additives – a cautionary tale

The scene –  La “Cave Atemptor” somewhere in the world

Two wine enthusiasts/geeks coming over all Jilly Gouldenish whilst sampling  the wines from the above mentioned Cave.

“I’m getting a hint of pub carpet and just a faint blush of Baboon armpit……no wait a minute, no it’s not Baboon, no, no it’s actually Gibbon armpit, probably the left one”

“Yes, I’m with you and I’m finding also a soupcon of  fish bladder,  a frisson of carbon followed by a satisfying  burst of bovine liver on the finish”

Followed by much stroking of beards etc.

All pretty absurd I hear you say and so it is yet the second comment is not quite as loony as it appears, indeed the Cave in question should be in fact a warning to all buyers as they would certainly not be alone in being guilty off adding all sorts to their wine whilst keeping the customer in blissful ignorance.

It’s a  fact that under EU laws written by litigators in order to protect against litigation nearly all wine additives have no requirement to be listed on labels. Strange but true!

The most common substances added to wine are probably sugar, tartaric acid, potassium carbonate, citric acid, ascorbic acid, cultivated yeasts, enzymes (of which there are hundreds) and of course sulphites, the only product the winery must put on the label. These products are added in an attempt to improve the wines desirability by changing its character, often quite radically and to protect the wine against spoilage.  Unfortunately buying Bio certified (organic) wines do not protect the consumer from these additives, as most of them are authorised for use.

Now I don’t have a problem with adding something like sulphur dioxide (the sulphites) to a wine to help keep the wine clean and without fault as long as it’s added in minimal doses. I do not agree however that sulphur dioxide should be added liberally in order to correct poor wine making habits and a lack of hygiene.

As for adding acid (normally tartaric in powder form), or potassium carbonate to de-acidify, cultivated yeasts to give notes “black current” or “pear drop” or whatever else to the wine, enzymes (yes sometimes extracted from a cow’s liver) that perform all sorts of roles, some necessary but all too often to change the profile of the wine;  well let’s just say I’m not a fan. If you pick high quality, healthy fruit from great vineyards at the right time and vinify and blend it it correctly, you will produce fruit forward, well balanced wines with no need of adulteration and all the more satisfying for it.

I know that “natural wines” (an uncertified wine making philosophy involving winemakers who believe in minimal intervention) get a lot of stick, probably most of it justified for being over priced and quite often a bit fizzy, a little animal or dirty tasting, but at least you know what you will be imbibing is good old fermented grape juice. A lot of the wine additives used today as in the second critique  above, the activated carbon, Isinglass (a collagen extracted from the dried swim bladders of fish) and the cow liver enzyme, Catalase are all used to help clarify and stabilise wines and are again, just not necessary. Of course these products will only exist in the wine in minute doses and are completely undetectable aromatically or taste wise,  but the application of temperature control in most cases will achieve the same result. Maybe not as surefire but I’d rather take the risk and perhaps one day drink a wine with a slight haze and know it’s natural, but on that point I suspect I’m in the minority.

 A product known as Velcorin, chemically, dimethyl dicarbonate, used to sterilise wine, is so toxic it will burn your skin and is potentially fatal if inhaled. Yes again it’s added in small doses and completely breaks down in the wine, but even so I’d rather not take the risk. So if you can find  naturally made wines that are clean, of high quality and affordable, even if there may be a small premium to pay, I think you’re on to a good thing. We’re very fortunate here in the Languedoc,  as it’s an area that is truly at the heart of global natural wine production.

In conclusion, additives that are used to stabilise and protect the wines are often added unnecessarily and is the result of “safety first” winemaking.  Not great but perhaps understandable. The trick is, is to work hygienically and only add something to help the wine that is as natural as possible and at the lowest feasible dose when absolutely critical . Products that are added to essentially change the  profile of the wine, hide its faults and hoodwink the customer, are in my opinion unacceptable. In both cases these products should certainly be listed on the label in order to help the wine drinking public make an informed purchasing decision.

As a self confirmed “natural winemaker” working as sensibly as possible in an attempt to bring “terroir” driven,  fruit forward wines to the market I can in no way claims to be impartial on this subject. There are of course, horses for courses and every opinion is valid but at least it would be nice to have some transparency in letting the public know what they have chosen to drink.

Caveat Emptor