Do you know about these common (and not so common) wine additives?
Winemaking, in theory, is such an easy process – you pick grapes, crush them and let the naturally present yeast work its magic. Using the sugar from the grapes, the yeast turns the resulting liquid from grape juice into wine.
But life isn’t that easy*, not when winemaking is an industrial process.
*unless you’re making low intervention wine.
Wine is simply a way of preserving grapes – if left in their natural state, unused, they rot. But turning grapes into wine isn’t always a stable process. Which is why wine additives are used.
Some additives are good, some are bad. Some are necessary, some are wholly unnecessary. But what are wine additives? What are they used for? And why is natural wine with nothing added, readily available (if you know where to look), whereas the vast majority of wine, the 99% of wine that most consumers come into contact with, jam-packed full of additives?
Why are some wines additive-free whereas others need them?
Like many modern food production techniques, scientists and flavour chemists have gotten in on the act, driving profits and enabling industrial production of wine, far beyond the natural output.
And winemaking is naturally a very sensitive process – the smallest hiccup can derail an entire batch. Which is why, over the years, winemakers have developed techniques that have enabled them to guarantee a stable end product. These techniques range wildly from tiny tweaks, to interventions that can completely alter the profile of a wine.
Historically, additives weren’t added to wine, meaning it was literally just fermented grape juice (what we know and love today as natural wine), but the problem with this (for winemakers mass-producing the stuff as cheaply as possible), is that wine has a tendency to be unstable and if left unchecked, or if a bad grape sneaks through, it can spoil the whole barrel.
But mass-produced wines take interventions to a whole new level. For example, to meet demand, handpicking the grapes when they’re perfectly ripe, only selecting the best grapes and discarding any tainted ones, isn’t an option open to winemakers that are pushing quantity over quality. They need to pick all grapes regardless of how ripe they are, and include them all, even the rotten ones. And so they need to add certain elements to the winemaking process to counter any and all problems they might come up against.
Which is why they need to rely on wine additives.
Most wine additives fall into two categories: for common inclusion or for correction.
Common inclusion are those additives which are routinely used in winemaking, such as for fining, or to prevent the wine oxidising, for example.
Additives used for correction, on the other hand, are used to correct a problem in the winemaking process itself. For example, to counter low-quality grapes or if the grapes were grown in a climate that was too cold or too hot.
These additives can usually be broken down into 6 categories:
- Acid control
- Fining agents
If you’ve ever opened and not finished a bottle of wine, leaving it overnight uncorked, to consume the next day, it won’t taste the same, it will have oxidised.
Sulfites are the most common antioxidant and can be added to wine at any stage of the winemaking process, before, during or after fermentation. Their inclusion ensures the end product doesn’t go bad when exposed to oxygen.
Sulfites work by killing any unwanted bacteria or yeasts in the wine that are leftover from the winemaking process. The amount of sulfites that can be added to wine isn’t capped, but if it exceeds 10 ppm (parts per million) in the finished product, then winemakers have to record the volume of it on the label.
There are two kinds of yeast that winemakers use – ambient yeast, i.e. the naturally occurring yeast found on the grapes themselves and on the winemaking equipment. And then there’s the cultured yeasts, the curated cocktail of yeast that commercial winemakers rely on because it reliably produces the same results over and again. Both methods result in wine, but each has its pros and cons.
The main pro of ambient yeast is that nothing is technically added to the wine. Fermentation with ambient yeast occurs because of the naturally occurring yeasts (you could argue how natural are ‘natural yeasts’ found on winery equipment, because they need to have been introduced at some point to get them there, but that is an argument for another article). The cons being you have limited control over the fermentation process and ultimately the end result will vary wildly (although of course natural winemakers view this as a pro).
The pro of cultured yeast is that winemakers have control over what they’re making, the con being it’s an additive.
3. Acid control.
How wine tastes and how long it will last can be down to its acidity levels – acidity is a characteristic of wine, and typically white wines are more acidic than red.
Wines that are crisper, tarter on the palate are high acid wines, they make your mouth water and you drink more, think a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Lower acid wines are smoother, creamier, rounder, think a French chardonnay.
As well as flavour, having a high acidity, low pH also means better ageing for the wine, as high acidity wines improve over time. Low acidity wines are more prone to contamination and therefore require something added to protect them – and this something is routinely sulfites.
Higher acidity wines require more sulfites to be added to prevent oxidation as the high levels of acid decrease the overall effectiveness of the sulfites. But too much sulfite and the wine becomes sulphurous. And who wants to drink rotten eggs?
It’s a catch-22.
Unripe grapes have naturally high acid levels which decrease as the grapes ripen. In grape growing areas which are prone to cooler weather, where ripening the grapes on the vine can be challenging, de-acidifiers are added to wine to bring the acidity down. This process is known as malolactic fermentation, where the sharp malic acid is turned into softer lactic acid.
And when there’s not enough acidity in the wine – a common occurrence in warmer climes when grapes have a tendency to over ripen – acids such as tartaric acid (not all winemakers view tartaric acid as an additive because it is naturally occurring in grapes), malic acid or citric acid are added.
While tannins aren’t an essential part of winemaking, they are a nice to have – they add character to a wine.
Tannins are a wine descriptor that refers to the mouthfeel of wine – its dryness, bitterness or astringency. Wines that are low in tannins won’t have the necessary flavour balance or textural appeal that drinkers who enjoy a dry mouth look for, nor will they have a particularly long shelf life, plus they can be hard to clarify.
And while tannins can occur naturally – tannins come from contact with the grapes’ pips and skin during the winemaking process – they can also be an optional extra that are introduced through oak ageing. Oak ageing can happen either by ageing wine in oak casks, or much more cheaply by simply adding oak chips to the fermenting wine.
5. Fining agents.
The crystal clear wine you typically find on the supermarket shelves is a result of fining and filtering.
During the fermentation and ageing process, grape particles (colloids) suspended in the wine impart flavour, but they aren’t attractive and they potentially might affect the end product’s flavour, aroma or colour, and so producers routinely remove them prior to bottling.
These particles are so small that filtering them out on their own won’t work, so they need to become sizable enough to be removed.
Traditionally egg whites were used for removing these particles from the wine – the protein in the wine binds to the protein in the egg whites, clumps together and falls to the bottom of the barrel. While egg whites are still used today, other non-vegetarian fining agents such as bentonite, casein or isinglass (dried fish bladders) are also used to achieve the same results,
Natural wine producers don’t fine their wines as they believe removing these colloids removes the natural flavour and texture of the wine.
Wine is a naturally unstable and reactive product that can be affected by its environment once bottled. Extreme temperatures or humidity, or even rough handling can all spoil a bottle of wine.
So winemakers, keen to reduce their hard work being ruined, will use stabilisers to ensure nothing can affect their product. Along with sulfites, there are numerous other stabilisers that winemakers routinely add into wine to stabilise it.
Additives such as acetaldehyde stabilise the colour of the grape juice prior to its concentration, or dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC), an additive that is used to sterilise wine as well as stabilise it, or even remove the alcohol from it. DMDC is poisonous within the first hour of its inclusion, but hydrolyses within half an hour.
Extra wine additives
While the above are more commonly known additives, there are other additives that winemakers can draw upon and use throughout the winemaking process.
These include additives that can enrich wine, de-enrich it, stabilise the colour or reduce astringency, correct bad aromas or help the yeast ferment, for example.
Sugar. The process of adding sugar to wine is known as chaptalisation. Adding sugar to the grape juice doesn’t affect the flavour of the wine, it doesn’t sweeten it. What it does is it feeds the yeast as it ferments the grape juice, increasing the alcohol content by up to 3%.
Chaptalisation is routinely used in cooler climates where the grapes struggle to ripen. However it isn’t a process that is legal everywhere – California, Argentina and Australia, for example, have made it illegal. To get around this, winemakers instead use sugar-rich grape concentrate to achieve the same results.
Mega purple. Think of mega purple as a wine cordial. It’s predominantly added in commercial winemaking towards the end of the winemaking process to boost the colour of the wine and enhance its complexity. Made from a grape with the nickname ‘Ruby Red’, this wine concentrate is so powerful it can stain glass. The point of mega purple? To enable winemakers to make passable wine from poor fruit.
Copper sulfate. This removes unwanted characteristics from the wine, such as natural (bad) smells. Adding copper sulfate effectively removes free sulfurs in the wine, the undesirable smells that can occur after fermentation. Once it’s done its job, like the fining agents, it’s removed from the wine, so it doesn’t reach the consumer.
If knowing about all these additives has put you off consuming mass-produced ‘regular’ wine, then take a look through our collection of natural and low intervention wines. They’re delicious, refreshing and they’ll open your eyes to a whole new world of wine.