Wine Additives Guide: The 9 Most Common Chemicals and Additives in Your Wine
Anish Patel @ 2022-01-13 07:28:02 -0800
Pictured above is a natural wine without chemical additives.
Wine additives—you may have heard the buzz about them, but what exactly are they? Winemaking is a complicated process with many steps and decisions that need to be made, additives included.
Almost all commercially-made wines include additives in their process. The U.S. allows over 60 additives in wine, and winemakers aren’t legally obligated to disclose whether they’ve used them. But just like in food, you need to know what’s in your wine.
Wine labels can be a little confusing as-is. For example, European wines don’t disclose the grape on the label. Instead, they label their wine by region. Each region has laws governing what grapes can be grown, alcohol levels, yields, and how the wine can be made.
While many American wines list the grape, they don’t have to disclose most of the additives they may use during winemaking.
This guide is designed to explain what wine additives are, why they’re used, and who uses them, and we’ll answer the most important question: does it even matter?
Who uses wine additives, and why?
Commercial winemakers and smaller producers tend to have different goals.
Commercial winemakers are under pressure to create a consistent product each year. But this isn’t exactly a realistic expectation for winemaking, in which so many uncontrolled factors affect the final product.
Changes in weather from year to year determine how the grape ripens, and this makes the wine taste different. This is why vintage (the year the grapes were harvested) can always be found on the label.
Small producers embrace the subtle nuances that vary from year to year in their wine, but commercial wines need to make a uniform product that appeals to their consumers’ palates. Profit is the main objective for commercial producers, while sustainability, artistry, and complexity are more important to small and natural winemakers.
To create a uniform wine each year, commercial winemakers often use additives to mask the differences in their batches. Even if the fruit isn’t good, additives allow these winemakers to present a product that appears to be better than it actually is.
So, what exactly are these additives?
The federal government regulates what you can and can’t put in wine, but even some approved additives aren’t good for you. For example, many people don’t know that animal products—which are sometimes listed as allergens—are used to filter wines.
Here are some of the common additives you may find in your wine.
Sulfur dioxide is added to wine before and after fermentation, and the amount used is up to the winemaker. It acts as a preservative, stopping bacterial growth and preventing the wine from spoiling.
Many people believe that sulfites in wine cause headaches and hangovers, but the reality isn’t so simple. Sulfites may be contributing to your headache, but alcohol, sugar, and other additives can also cause this reaction.
Some winemakers add more sulfur dioxide than others. Without it, importers need to spend more money on transporting and storing the wine in temperature-controlled containers. For example, U.S. winemakers can use up to 350 ppm of Sulfites in their wine, while a natural winemaker will often limit sulfites to 35 ppm or less.
Mega Purple is a highly pigmented juice concentrate made from the world’s second-largest wine producer in California. Surprisingly, it’s widely used in wine to intensify the color of wine. It also adds a little bit of body due to the residual sugar content in the product.
Many wineries are choosing to use mega purple because they find that consumers prefer big, bold, and fruit-forward red wines. If the color is too light, adding Mega Purple will make the wine look more appealing.
But Mega Purple also mutes nuanced flavors in the grape. It covers up pyrazines, a naturally occurring compound in grapes that shows vegetal flavors like bell pepper, asparagus, and grass. Conventional winemakers want to cover these aromas up and make a wine that tastes fruity.
Small producers embrace these aromas because they add complexity to the wine.
Velcorin—AKA dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC)—is lethal in high doses, although the FDA deemed it safe in small doses in 1988. It is also approved for use in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition to wine, Velcorin is used to sterilize many sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks, and even cannabis-based seltzers.
Velcorin is a colorless liquid with a strong smell that acts as a synthetic preservative, killing yeast and living bacteria in wine. It is very dangerous in its original form–workers have to wear hazmat suits and follow strict safety regulations when dosing wine with it.
If the substance is absorbed either through the lungs, skin, or eyes, it can cause you to collapse and even die. After 24 hours, the chemistry changes, and the wine is no longer lethal.
The preservative is also widely used to kill a natural yeast called Brettanomyces. Many winemakers leave “brett” in their wine, which imparts funky, earthy aromas. Still, others consider it a fault.
Not everyone likes the taste of wines with brett, so winemakers who wish to appeal to a larger audience may use Velcorin.
Some winemakers use animal products to clarify their wine, which they aren’t required to disclose. Still, these animal products are sometimes listed as allergens.
Now that consumers are starting to become aware of animal products in their wines, more and more winemakers are choosing vegan fining agents.
Fining is the precursor to filtering the wine. During wine production, a fining agent is added to the wine, where it binds with particulate matter that needs to be filtered. Then, the weight of the fining agent causes the solids to drop to the bottom of the barrel so that the wine can be strained off or filtered.
One common non-vegan fining agent is isinglass. Isinglass is gelatin derived from the dried swim bladder of fish. It’s also used to filter beer.
Egg whites are another very common fining agent. Egg whites contain a protein called albumen. This protein binds with solids and carries them out of the wine.
Yeast plays an important role in wine. It takes the sugar in the grapes and converts it into alcohol. Yeast grows naturally on the skins of grapes, and it also multiplies in the winery. Natural yeast is found in the air, on the walls—basically everywhere in wineries.
But natural yeasts can ferment slowly; they kind of have a mind of their own. Winemakers must be willing to be patient with the winemaking process if they want to make a completely natural wine. Commercial winemakers, of course, don’t like this. To speed up the process, they introduce a lab-grown yeast.
Commercial yeast allows winemakers to have more control over the fermentation process, and it can impart different flavors than natural, or ambient, yeast. However, this detracts from the liveliness of the wine and overshadows the terroir.
Tannins are also naturally occurring in wine. They come from the grape skin, seeds, and stems. Tannins act as a natural preservative, giving wine the ability to age for decades. They also add an astringent mouthfeel to the wine. Oak from barrel aging adds tannins to the wine. Oak chips add to tannins as well.
However, adding tannin additives in powder or liquid form during the winemaking process can turn wine brown and tasteless.
The process of adding sugar to wine is called chaptalization. Winemakers do this when the climate is too cool, and the grapes aren't able to develop enough sugar to make wine.
Some regions have laws against adding sugar to wine, while others allow it. With chaptalization, the sugar is consumed by the yeast and doesn’t remain in the wine. Instead, it gets turned into alcohol.
Some winemakers add sugar not to convert to alcohol but to sweeten the wine in a process called “enrichment.” However, high sugar levels can lead to headaches and hangovers.
There are some less controversial additives in your wine.
There are many additives that, while common, are unlikely to cause any problems. Here are some of the most common (and least controversial) additives you might see in your wines.
Tartaric and Amino Acids
Acidity, like tannins, preserves the wine, boosts age-ability, and adds structure to the wine. It also balances out the sweetness and alcohol in the wine, creating a balanced flavor profile.
Acidity develops in the grapes as they ripen through the summertime. If a vintage is too hot, the grapes lose their acidity. But if the vintage is too cold, the grapes may be too acidic and lack enough sugar needed to balance it out.
Tartaric acid is often added to a wine that has lost its acidity and needs a boost for shelf stability. If derived from organic grape sediment, it is a natural additive.
Amino Acids are used as yeast nutrients to assist completing fermentation. More often used by conventional winemakers to speed up fermentation, however occasionally minimal intervention winemakers may use amino acids to assist a stuck fermentation get over the line.
Bentonite clay is used as a vegan fining agent alternative to milk and animal products. This practice is becoming more and more popular as consumers show interest in harmful wine additives.
Bentonite clay is a fine powder that forms as volcanic ash ages. When added to wine, it absorbs hazy particles and unwanted proteins. It attaches itself to the particulate matter and the weight causes it to fall to the bottom, leaving your wine clear and animal-product-free at the same time.
Are wine additives bad for you?
The answer to this is yes and no. Many additives are harmful, while others don’t make a difference. Everyone has different responses to different foods, chemicals, and ingredients. So, it’s up to you to determine what’s best for your health.
If you want to steer clear of additives, look for natural wines. Natural wines are made from smaller producers and will often disclose their entire winemaking process on their website. Natural wines are made with organically and often biodynamically grown grapes—and little else.
The better care that is taken in the vineyard, the better quality the wine will be. Good fruit doesn’t need as many additives as poorly grown fruit does. Small producers know this and they devote a lot of hard work to maintaining a healthy vineyard with nutrient-rich soils that can support a healthy grapevine.
Can you taste the difference? We think so, but you’ll have to decide that for yourself. Try our natural wine's here.