If you had to guess what was in your favorite bottle of wine, the first ingredient you would think of would naturally be grapes.
But last week’s Uncorked on organic viticulture and winemaking got me thinking about how little we know about what might be in a particular bottle of wine.
With the exception of sulphites, unlike most food products in Canada, wine, beer and spirits are not designed to list ingredients on the label or elsewhere. (Coolers, pre-mixed cocktails and the like.) When reviewing a wine, I often visit the winery’s website to try to find what’s called a spec sheet – a one-page document that details the oak aging regime, alcohol level, pH level, how the grapes were picked, maybe some vintage info and more. But I have never found a detailed list of ingredients that are in a wine.
Beyond fermented grape juice, what else is in your bottle of wine? The first place to start is yeast, the ingredient that converts the sugar in grape juice into alcohol in the first place. While some producers choose to use the natural yeast found on grapes, which is how wine has been made for centuries (and discovered by accident long ago), the bulk of wine produced today contains commercial yeast added to stimulate fermentation.
If fruit arrives from the vineyard slightly underripe — picked too early, or from a cooler vintage or otherwise — some wine regions allow producers to add sugar to a wine, a process called chaptalization. And if there aren’t enough drying tannins in a red wine, powdered tannins can be added for texture.
If the fruit lacks just the right amount of freshness, the acidity of a wine can also be adjusted. Tartaric, lactic and citric acids are commonly present in wine. Too little acidity in a wine and a producer can add more; depending on the type of product they are making, winemakers may also add ascorbic acid or sorbic acid. If a wine has too much acidity, calcium carbonate can be added to solve this problem. And if a winemaker wants their red (or fuller-bodied white) to provide a creamier texture, a wine can undergo malolactic fermentation, which uses bacteria to convert malic acid into creamier lactic acid.
The toasty taste of aging in oak barrels can add the perfect finishing touch to a wine. But these French and American barrels aren’t cheap, so for some wines (especially the cheaper ones), a winemaker will add oak staves to a stainless steel tank, add oak chips, or even pour in powdered oak. oak to try to get that oakiness. flavor without the expense of buying barrels.
For the winemaker for whom red isn’t quite the right color, there are options. Grape juice concentrate can be added, particularly if there are issues with the level of sweetness as well. Or how about the deliciously named Mega Purple? Particularly popular in California red wines, Mega Purple is a grape concentrate made from the intensely dark Rubired variety used (unsurprisingly, given its name) to add depth of color.
There is more. Most of the wines we see on our shelves have been clarified or clarified to some degree, and there are all kinds of products that can help remove particles from a wine. Some aren’t even vegetarian – egg whites are one option, bentonite clay another, or even isinglass, made from fish bladder. Any fining agent of this type is eliminated before the end of the wine.
The last thing winemakers tend to add to the bottle, just before sealing things off with a cork or screw cap, is sulfur dioxide, which helps keep wine relatively stable during transport. Sulfur dioxide (or SO2) can also be added earlier in the winemaking process to prevent oxidation, which would see wine turn to vinegar, as it would if you left an open bottle on your kitchen counter. .
These are just a few of the ingredients (beyond grapes) that could end up in your wine. As we continue to pay increased attention to what we put into our bodies, it will be interesting to see if there is a push to add an ingredient list to the back of wine labels on bottles.
Wines of the week
Sileni 2020 Hipi Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand – around $19, private wine shops)
Pale straw in color, there is an appetizing citrus peel note in this sauvignon blanc, along with notes of grass, gooseberry and bell pepper. It’s very dry and brings invigorating acidity to the light palate, accentuating the green fruit notes as well as the bell pepper component before a chalky note emerges before the short finish (it’s 12.5 percent alcohol). . A little more maturity would help flesh things out, but as it stands it’s a very linear and racy white. 3/5
Matias Riccitelli 2019 Hey Malbec! (Mendoza, Argentina – $20.99, liquor stores and beyond)
A blend of grapes from the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo regions, this Argentinian Malbec is aged entirely in concrete vats rather than oak barrels, allowing aromas of fresh blackberries, meat, chocolate black, plum and black/salty pepper from the grape shines through. It’s dry, full-bodied and smooth, with dense blackberry and plum notes accompanied by grippy, moderate tannins that accentuate the cracked pepper component, the bitterness of the dark chocolate flavors showing well and a green/savoury/herbal edge. /underlying meat that adds character. Drink now or ideally within the next 18 months. 4/5
Gnarly Head 2019 Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi, CA – $17.99, liquor stores and beyond)
From Zinfandel vines between 35 and 80 years old, this California red Zinfandel brings aromas of blackberry as well as hints of raisin, vanilla, spice and red licorice. It’s full-bodied and mostly dry, with some residual sugar that lends a bit of jam to the black and dried fruit notes. The wine spends some time in French and American oak barrels, which heightens the vanilla and spice notes, and the 14.5% alcohol finish brings some warmth. Not as sweet as many California red blends, but definitely retains that plush dark berry component. 3/5
Literary editor, beverage author
Ben Sigurdson edits the books section of Free Press and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.
Read the full biography