What’s in YOUR Wine?

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Wine is pretty much just fermented grape juice, right? Close, but there’s actually more to it than that. A recent Wired magazine article by Christopher Null, “Juiced: How to Make Mass-Produced Wine Taste Great,” got me thinking. When it comes to wine, we really don’t know how much we don’t know.

We’ve all gotten used to seeing additives listed on the nutritional labels of foods. There’s talk of these labels on wine, too, but as of now, there’s no information on bottles that explains any of the potentially included additives (more than 70 allowed by the ATF). So, let’s take a peek at a few of the things that might be in your wine, though not listed on the bottle.

  • Water – Yes, water. Many wineries are giving the grapes more “hang-time,” that is picking riper fruit these days. This immediately translates to increased sugars in the harvested fruit, and a corresponding hike in the alcohol level of the wines. As a remedy, “watering back” is done to reduce the alcohol. But, at times this can also lead to a sense of an “under-filled” wine, or one that seems somewhat diluted on the palate.
  • Sugar – Sugar in the fruit is necessary for fermentation, but if grapes don’t properly mature or are picked too soon for weather reasons, it may be necessary to add sugar to the crushed grape must to help fermentation. This is called chaptalization in parts of the world where it is legal (France, New Zealand, Oregon) to do so. However, it is illegal in California, as well as Italy and Australia.
  • Tartaric Acid – One of the byproducts of growing grapes in a warmer climate or allowing vineyard fruit too much hang-time for ripening is that the natural tartaric acid found in grapes gradually dissipates. This acid directly contributes to flavors and balance in the wine, and helps it age gracefully. A lack of this acid makes for a flabby wine with insufficient mouthfeel and finish. Adding powdered tartaric acid to the wine is known as acidification, and helps address these issues.
  • Mega Purple – This is a concentrated product made from grapes by Constellation Brands (owners of Robert Mondavi and Ravens¬wood). It’s used to darken the color of a wine that can be light and/or diluted looking. As with things like sugar, few will admit to using it.
  • Velcorin – Arguably the most controversial of additives, this is a trade name for dimethyl dicarbonate, which can be added in minute quantities to kill bacteria and yeasts that would otherwise ruin a wine. Interestingly, it’s approved for and widely used in most fruit juices. Many winemakers probably use it; and many winemakers condemn its use.

Now, before you get into a tizzy about any of the foregoing, remember, these additives are U.S. approved for use in wine, despite not being mentioned on the label. Frankly, I don’t give it a second thought. To paraphrase foodie and television personality Andrew Zimmern, if it tastes good, drink it!

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