The average bottle of wine contains dozens of chemical additives. The more inexpensive the wine, the more additives it likely contains.
You wouldn’t know this by reading labels, because wine is not subject to the same ingredient labelling laws as food. The exception is sulphites — you’ll find sulphite warnings on every bottle of wine in Canada due to a law passed several years ago. Everything else can be omitted, so consumers are left mostly clueless as to what’s in their glasses.
David Paterson, winemaker with Tantalus Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, gets asked regularly about additives in his wine. It’s spurred by the media attention on additives in the food industry, he says, and can be just as controversial.
“It’s more common to find wines that are under $20 having a lot of additives, because they’re often coming from vineyards that are commercially farmed,” Paterson explains. “They add a lot of fertilizers and other things so the yield is higher, but, because of that high yield, there’s not as much concentration or flavour in the grapes. So the winemakers have to compensate by adding products to the wines.
“I call them ‘franken-wines,’” he continues. “Yes, they are made from grapes, but they’ve got a whole lot of other stuff in them too. And the human body can react to that.”
Paterson uses minimal processing and additives in his wines, though he does use sulphur. Sulphur is used universally in the wine industry as a preservative. It’s often pinpointed as the source of ill health effects, but many other food products have much higher concentrations of sulphites than wine, such as dried fruits. Paterson says reactions to wine are likely caused by other additives or the alcohol itself. “Additives come in powders and liquids and the human body is very fickle,” he says. “A lot of people have mild reactions to additives because of their concentrated form.”
Aside from sulphur, winemakers may use hundreds of different additives to enhance a wine’s colour, aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, acidity and tannins. These additives are concentrated products derived from natural sources – often wine grapes themselves, or other things like tannins from oak. It’s impossible to know what’s in a finished wine unless the label lists these ingredients, something that very few wineries have done. “It would take a very important, high-powered winemaker or country to change the industry labeling standards,” says Samantha Wall, NAIT instructor in the Culinary Arts program and Wine and Spirits Education Trust diploma holder. She has only seen ingredients listed on a few Californian wines, including Foursight, Ridge, Bonny Doon and Atlas.
You won’t be able to avoid wine additives completely and this isn’t necessarily a problem — even the world’s best wines use additives to some degree, even if it’s just added sulphur. But it’s one more reason to choose quality over quantity, and to pay more attention to what’s in your glass — and especially how it makes you feel.