First published in The Irish Times on Saturday 3rd November, 2018
It seems strange that a bottle of Coca-Cola must print the ingredients used to make it, whereas a bottle of wine does not. Somehow the wine business, along with beer and spirits, has largely managed to avoid telling us what is contained within. Back labels tend to have flowery descriptions, food recommendations and maybe a little marketing blurb, but very little information on how the wine was actually made. As well as adding the health warnings, maybe the Government might like to insist that a few key ingredients are included.
Additives and treatments are not always a bad thing; most of us do not want to drink faulty wine, and mass-produced wines do require greater intervention. Even at the very highest level, producers of luxury wines are not above using treatments that improve the finished product. Additives of some sort go back more than 5,000 years, to the very start of winemaking.
The most common is sulphur dioxide, the one ingredient that is listed on a wine label. It was first introduced by the Romans, and most winemakers consider it an essential anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial agent. Levels used are fairly low, and have dropped hugely over the last few decades, ranging from a minimum of 10 parts per million/ppm (sulphur being a by product of fermentation) to the EU legal maximum of 150ppm (parts per million) for red wine, 210ppm for white, and 400ppm for dessert wine. By comparison, raisins and other dried fruits can contain anything from 500ppm to 2,000ppm.
Other additives and processing aids include sugar (to add fizz to sparkling wine or increase alcohol); concentrated grape juice to sweeten; tartaric or ascorbic acid to add acidity; yeasts to get the fermentation going; nutrients such as diammonium phosphate to keep them working away; wood chips, enzymes and malolactic cultures.
Add in fining and filtering agents such as egg whites, isinglass, polyvinylpyrrolodine (PVPP), bentonite, gelatin and casein and lastly water – permitted in some countries to lower alcohol – and wine begins to look slightly less natural. There are also procedures such as reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation and spinning cones.
Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop, in their book Authentic Wine, give the example of the Co-op supermarket chain in the UK, which lists all ingredients on the back label.
A Sauvignon Blanc has the following ingredients listed: Grapes, acidity regulator (potassium bicarbonate), preservative (potassium meta bisulphate), copper sulphate. Made using antioxidants (carbon dioxide, nitrogen) yeast, yeast nutrient (diammonium phosphate). Cleared using bentonite, filtration pectinolytic enzymes.
Should we be worried about all of these additions? Possibly not; the overall standard of winemaking is higher than ever, and the use of sulphur lower. But although it might remove some of the romance of wine, I think we have a right to know how our wine is made, however unpalatable that might be.
Bellow’s Rock Shiraz 2016, Western Cape, South Africa
Rich powerful spicy dark fruits, with a nice seam of acidity running through. Great value at €9.95. With grilled or barbecued red meats.
Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie
Saint Mont 2016, Plaimont, France
Medium-bodied with lovely waxy apple fruits, a hint of pineapple and a dry finish. Intriguing and delicious. With creamy chicken dishes.
Stockists: Marks & Spencer, marksandspencer.ie.
Vermell 2016, Celler del Roure, Valencia Organic
Gloriously vibrant fruit-filled wine with herbs, liquorice and so much more. Perfect with a roast chicken.
Stockists: 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Baggot Street Wines, baggotstreetwines.com; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; Drinkstore, Manor Street, D7, drinkstore.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, searsons.com; Martin’s Off Licence, Fairview, martinsofflicence.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; World Wide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie.
Etna Bianco 2016, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, Organic
Floral, refined, elegant wine with fresh tangy peaches and apple, and a light creaminess. The perfect posh aperitif or with grilled brill, a wonderful delicate fish.
Stockists: 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; Deveney’s, Dundrum; World Wide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; Mitchell & Son, CHQ, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; Grapevine, Dalkey, onthegrapevine.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com.