Popular media tells us it’s okay to enjoy wine in moderation, and that red wine can even be beneficial to our health. It’s just grapes, after all.
While this was true when the first wines came on the scene thousands of years ago, the wine industry has evolved over the years to meet consumer demand—and so has wine itself.
Today’s wine bottles often contain a lot more than just fermented grape juice. But you’d never know it by looking at the bottle.
Why aren’t our wine bottles labeled with an ingredients list?
Wine falls under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) regulation, a government agency that’s given the green light to hundreds of chemicals legally permitted in commercially produced wine. And some of them are downright poisonous.
I’m not trusting them, and neither should you.
Here are six common wine additives you don’t want to find lurking in your favorite bottle of vino:
1. Added Sugar
Grapes contain sugar that ferments into wine, so you’d expect your wine to include a little sugar. But some commercially produced wine contains a lot of extra sugar. Wine producers often add sugar to increase the alcohol content and help with the fermentation process.
And it’s no small amount of the sweet stuff.
There can be up to 16g of added sugar or sweetener concentrate in your wine.
2. Mega-Purple Color
Much of red wine’s purported health benefits come from its antioxidant power. The antioxidants found in red wine come from the dark red pigment in the grape skin. But most of the time, that vibrant burgundy color so often responsible for “red wine teeth” actually comes from purple food coloring added to the wine during processing.
Purple grape juice alone isn’t powerful enough to leave that kind of color in your mouth after just one glass. Wine producers add the dye as a shortcut in the juicing and fermenting process (also known as maceration).
Red wine historically achieved its beautiful deep color because the skins remained in the juice after crushing. Today, few winemakers show the same level of integrity you’d hope to see from someone proudly stewarding an ancient craft.
Those who do are patient and allow for adequate time to pass during production, resulting in the best tasting and healthiest wine possible.
The rest add coloring and call it a day.
3. Chemical Pesticides
Most growers douse commercially grown wine grapes with more pesticides than almonds, table grapes, tomatoes, or strawberries. Lab tests have uncovered over 200 chemicals commonly used in the mass-production of wine.
From weed-killing compounds used to prevent weeds from sucking up essential nutrients needed for vines to thrive, to preservatives added during the winemaking process, these additives are what give so many people that awful wine hangover, sometimes after just one glass.
So the next time you wonder if hangovers come with getting older, remember it might not be you. It could be your wine.
4. High Sulfite Levels
Sulfites in wine are nothing new. Sulfites (also called sulfur dioxide) naturally occur in wine as a by-product of the fermentation process. They help preserve the color and taste of wine, extending its shelf life. Without sulfites, your wine would continue to ferment, eventually turning into vinegar.
Large-scale commercial wine production often involves rushing the fermentation process, which means the yeast can’t ferment long enough to produce enough sulfur dioxide for maximum preservation. The wine industry’s solution is to artificially bump the sulfite content along the way to maximize the shelf-life.
High sulfite levels lurking in wine pose a big problem for a portion of the population sensitive to sulfites. Sensitivity can cause side effects ranging from hives to diarrhea to headaches and worse.
Naturally, populations sensitive to sulfites will want to minimize exposure. But reducing sulfite exposure from wine is difficult when most bottles on the shelf contain levels ranging from 10-350ppm.
Luckily, the US regulates the addition of sulfites to wine, and bottles containing more than 10ppm are legally required to proclaim that their wine contains sulfites.
If you want to minimize sulfite exposure and still enjoy the occasional glass of wine, stick with sulfite-free wines. They still contain small levels naturally contributed by the fermentation process but will help lower your overall sulfite exposure.
5. Animal Proteins
We like our wines bright, clear, and shelf-stable, which means part of modern winemaking involves filtering. During the filtering process—also called fining—a “fining agent” is added that binds with a specific target, such as proteins, tartrates, and tannins, so it can be filtered out, clarifying the wine.
The most commonly used industry fining agents are casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein), and isinglass (fish bladder protein).
If you’d prefer your wine more on the vegan side, opt for products made by winemakers who use clay-based fining agents such as bentonite, which are particularly efficient at filtering out unwanted proteins. Activated charcoal is another vegan and vegetarian-friendly fining agent commonly used in the clarification process.
What’s the Deal With All These Additives?
A lot of it has to do with producing a consistent flavor. People expect a repeat performance whenever they reach for their favorite label. But any farmer and veggie lover will tell you that a fruit or vegetable crop can taste slightly different from season to season.
Many winemakers utilize these additives to ensure a consistent product. They’re trying to make a wine that looks and tastes the same, no matter what. And, let’s face it, speeding up production time and cutting costs is often considered “good for business,” … even if it’s not good for you.
How to Drink (Wine) Better
So shouldn’t we expect our wine’s flavor to vary year-to-year?
We should celebrate the beautiful variations and mysterious nature of, well, nature (cue the champagne)!
And some people are celebrating.
The clean-crafted wine movement is more delicious than ever and is having a positive impact on small family-run businesses nationwide and beyond.
Wine should be clean—clean on the palette, clean in production, and clean in farming. It should be crafted in small batches, by wine producers and grape growers who strive to protect the planet, respect tradition, and deliver exceptional wine to our plant-based table.
Wine should complement our farm-to-table meals, and help us celebrate all life has to offer with joy and love. So the next time you stock up on a bottle—or case–of vino, choose a clean-crafted wine that’s better for you. Cheers to healthier, tastier, and more sustainable wine!