As the ‘Natural Wine’ phenomenon continues to chug along, an ancillary conversation has been begun by some, asking: what are the wineries allowed to add to the wines we drink? Even if you are not a follower of the natural wine dogma (‘nothing added, nothing taken away’: see Wine Geek Speaks, September 30, 2016 on our website), it is natural (sorry) to wonder what might be in this elixir called wine other than fermented grape juice.
The short answer is: maybe a few more things than you think. A longer answer is nothing that hasn’t been approved by one, or more than one of the international bodies that oversee such things. Indeed, there is an organization called The International Office of Vine & Wine, created in 1924 that is an association of scientific bodies & governmental agencies around the world which recommends standards in wine production, categorization and nomenclature. More specifically to us in the U.S.A., the TTB has oodles of standards, allowed practices and allowed additives to wines produced and/or sold here (www.ttb.gov/wine_treating_materials). Though the naysayers (i.e., natural wine proponents) might assert that all of the ‘additives’ can be harmful, the reality is most (all?) of the materials/procedures used are used to make wine more sound, stable and tasty.
To be fair, the naturalists are more than entitled to follow any standards they set for themselves, but so too should be the people that just want a delicious glass of wine, and if a winemaker uses a technique to accomplish this, so be it. Think of a chef adding demi-glace to a sauce, or reducing a sauce to make it more focused or concentrated; wine too is a food product after all. Some wineries have done extensive research on the flavors in wine that have the most appeal to consumers, then matter-of-factly try to create those flavors in the wines they produce, usually via techniques such as oak chips, mega-purple (grape concentrate), or perhaps adding tartaric acid to make a wine more balanced. However, when Bianca Bosker (author of the book Cork Dork—highly recommended) asserted there is a place for such wines in an op-ed in the New York Times, you would think that she had recommended we feed our children shards of broken glass. We agree with Ms. Bosker’s logic frankly and have suffered no ill-effects from enjoying such wines. To clarify (sorry again) for those that are curious, listed below are a few commonly used additives/procedures that make the wines we enjoy more consistent and enjoyable (and safe):
- Antiseptics/Antioxidants: Used in the vineyards, as well as in the winery before and after fermentation (SO2, Potassium Bisulfate, Ascorbic Acid).
- Nutrients: used to assure complete and healthy ferments (Enzymes, Thiamine, Ammonium Sulfate, Diammonium Sulfate).
- Stabilizers: kill off any residual yeasts, excess proteins or other organisms that might be present so as not to create any ‘off’ flavors…or have the wine start to re-ferment once bottled (Yeast Mannoproteins, Potassium Tartrates, Metatartaric Acid, Cold Stabilization).
- Fining & Clarification: assure wine is not hazy/contains floaters; makes wines star bright. (Bentonite, Isinglass, Casein, Egg Albumin, Silicon Dioxide).
- Filtration: Like Stabilization and Fining, removes some micro-organisms and assures a clear wine (Charcoal, Crossflow Filtration).
There are also ‘corrective measures’ a winery can use to ‘fix’ grapes that may not be in ideal condition to make a good wine:
- Enrichment: ever hear of Chaptalization? In some locales in some years, Mother Nature doesn’t ripen grapes sufficiently to make a sound wine. A spoonful of sugar can make things better (in Germany they call it ‘sunshine in a sack’). Also, if the must is perhaps too dilute (rain at harvest) some wineries will use reverse osmosis or a centrifuge.
- Acidification: Sort of the opposite of the above; when sugars go up, acids go down…and if they go down too far, a squeeze of lemon (or actually a slightly different version of acid—usually tartaric) will bring the wine into balance.
- De–enrichment: Sometimes the grapes are too rich, i.e. too high in sugar (17% Cabernet is a bit ‘droopy’), so in many parts of the world, winemakers ‘water back’ the must (yes, add water).
- Hydrogen Sulfide: Sometimes there are off flavors/aromas in wines caused by reduction…the wine is termed as ‘reduced’; copper can remove these flavors (today they use ‘inputs’, back in the day, winemakers would just run the wine over a sheet of copper).
WE love, love, love all sorts of wine; perhaps it distorts our objectivity. And there is an old saying: If you like sausage, don’t visit a sausage factory. But Wine Geek does NOT think it goes the same for wines and wineries. Wine is among the most natural of all beverages, even with the tricks of the trade and modern scientific practices employed by most wineries today. Should you not be sure however, we’d be thrilled to visit your wine cellars and relieve you of any good wines you don’t want. We’ll drink them with our sausage.