There has been a lot of discussion recently in the wine world as to whether or not wines should have similar ingredient labeling like other food products are required to. A lot of this discussion seems to generated by people who don’t actually make wine as is evident by the fact that they keep using the word Ingredient, defined as a component part of a mixture…but that’s not how wine works. Therefore, here’s a little primer for any lawmakers or regular ol’ wine drinkin’ citizens that want to be more informed.
Wine making is conceptually similar to sculpting: you start with a single source material and remove the parts you don’t want. This is the opposite of making beer or, to carry on with art metaphors, painting, where you start with a single source material (beer: water, painting: canvas) and then add to that material to create your final product. In beer making or painting, it is wholly appropriate to use the word Ingredients when talking about the final product. In wine making or sculpting, the word Ingredients is not applicable due to the very nature of how the product is created.
At this point, some of you may be wondering why the government keeps a list of legally allowed materials that can be used during the wine making process. Aren’t these things being added to the wine? Yes and no. These materials are being added to the process of making the wine, but they aren’t present in the final product that you consume, at least not in noticeable amounts. There are some very minor, yet notable exceptions to this, which I’ll point out as I give an overall explanation as to what types of materials and what happens to those materials get added in to the wine making process.
Yeast: When yeast is added to grape juice it converts the sugars into alcohol and CO2. You can drink the resulting product and get drunk off of it so this is technically all it takes to “make wine”. The amount and types of yeast can determine what percentage of the sugars get converted into alcohol and some of the aromas that will show up in the wine, but when the yeast has done its job, it sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tank and then is physically separated from the juice that is now arguably wine. Technically, Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is also a byproduct of fermentation, but more on that later.
Fining, clarifying, and stabilizing agents: These are all the things that most people drop their jaws to in surprise to find out they are used in wine making: Fish scales (Isinglass), egg whites, milk casein, Polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone (PVPP), clay (Bentonite), and a host of other hard-to-pronounce substances that most people would never be interested in consuming by themselves. When these materials are mixed in to wine they slowly fall down to the bottom. Along the way though, they do some work at the molecular level of which the result is to make the wine look more aesthetically pleasing. Some materials are used to break apart stubborn compounds that are causing the wine to look hazy while others are binding to oppositely charged particles and dragging them down to the bottom as they fall. At the end of this process there is a layer of solids at the bottom of the tanks which are then physically separated from the liquid.
Acid modifying agents: Tartaric acid, malic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid are the predominant organic acids found in grape juice. These are also there in the finished wine product most noticeably in the amount of saliva that rushes into your mouth after you swallow. However, a winemaker may change minor changes to the amounts of each during the wine making process. Can this mean actually adding acid into the wine? Yes, it can and here is one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before. Technically, a winemaker can add as much as they want, but it has been found that anything above a minor adjustment will make the wine less acceptable to consumers. Minor adjustments also go for taking acid out of a wine which is done with various Calcium compounds. These calcium compounds work similarly to the fining agents in which they are mixed in, fall to the bottom and take something with them along the way. They are physically separated out before the wine is bottled. Perhaps the largest change that can be made is what happens when Malo-Lactic bacteria is added to the wine. As the name implies, this changes the harsher malic acids into softer lactic acids. The total amount of acid isn’t changed in this process, the percentages of each are modified.
Preservatives: There has been a segment of the “Health and Wellness” movement that have labeled preservatives as the devil so let’s clarify this up front. The preservatives used in wine are not the same as those used in industrial food manufacturing. In fact, there is effectively only one used in wine: Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). This is the same preservative used on dried fruit. Additionally, this is also one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before. The acidic nature of wine and the amount of alcohol in it are doing the the heavy-lifting when it comes to protecting the wine from unwanted bacteria, but nevertheless, spoilage can still happen which is where SO2 comes in as a supporting player. As I mentioned above when talking about yeast, SO2 naturally occurs as a byproduct of fermentation and usually only at levels of 50-100 ppm. The legally allowed limit of Total SO2 in wine in the US is 350 ppm. In Europe, it is 160 ppm for red wines, and 210 ppm for whites and rosés. Why the difference between red and white? The reason is because SO2’s other job is to protect the wine from oxidation. Here, the degree to which SO2 plays a supporting role is determined by the amount of Tannin in the wine which are natural protectors against oxidation.. Tannins, which come from the skins and solids of the grape are therefore inherently found in red wines at much higher levels than whites or rosés. Despite the legal regulation differences, all good winemakers follow the “natural law” that whites and rosés require a little more SO2 than reds. For a more detailed explanation on SO2 in wine, check this out.
Ageing: It’s debatable to say that anything is added to the wine during the ageing process. Traditionally, you put wine into a steel tank or oak barrel to age it. Alternatives include: concrete or a clay vessel known as an amphora if you’re feeling ancient. When you age wine (or any other alcoholic beverage), oxygen is being slowly allowed to interact with the wine, but it’s not like oxygen is being added in to the wine. Compounds from the oak, which is usually toasted with a flame, are technically added into the wine, but this isn’t much different than when some aroma compounds are imparted into the wine from yeast. These include things like eugenol (think clove aromas) and vanillin (you can probably guess on this one). Technically, if a wine maker uses oak chips or oak powder instead of a barrel, they are “adding” these into the wine, but like everything else added in, those get taken out before the wine is bottled too.
As you can see, anything that gets added during the wine making process, doesn’t actually stay in the final product that we drink. Even the exceptions that do stay in the final product (SO2, acids) are only things that already naturally existed in the wine before. Therefore, the idea of labeling a wine with its “ingredients” is ridiculous because in actuality, there is only one: grapes. The real question is whether you want to list the treatments the wine has gone through on a label.
In general, I am very much for transparency in food labeling as it provides the customer with actionable information. This is especially true for those customers with food sensitivities or allergies. Even though when you treat a wine with a material, effectively 100% of that material is removed from the wine, technically a tiny little bit could remain; as in <1 ppm. Food labeling laws in general don’t require items be listed on a label unless they hit a certain threshold. That’s why you don’t see “Parts of rats and bugs” listed on a food label as an ingredient because food product producers are legally required to keep the ppm of rats and bugs in their products to a minimum. The exception to this is known allergens. When a producer cannot guarantee a known food allergen like nuts, dairy, or soy was kept out of the product due to the product being made in the same location as other products, they put the “This product may contain trace amounts of…” verbiage on the label. In wine, we already have that. This is why you see a notice about the wine containing sulfites on the label because we know sulfites are an allergen to approximately 0.4% of the population.
Personally, I would be very happy if wines were required to list all the ways they processed their wines on their labels, but that’s me as a wine professional, not me as a wine consumer. Big Data analyses on various wine treatment methods? Yes, please. But, a regulation like this, while not particularly burdensome to the wine producer since they already write that information down for their internal quality processes, is just not helpful to the consumer. One could argue there’s a reason to add calorie and sugar levels to alcohol labels in addition to the ABV%, but at the same time, it’s difficult to mindlessly consume alcohol without very negative short-term effects, unlike snack food products. Food labeling, which was developed primarily as a public health information awareness mechanism so the population would think about their long-term health probably wouldn’t have the same impact with alcohol. Having consumers be able to choose a wine based on its caloric content given that the range for dry-ish wines is generally between 70-120 calories per serving (5oz), probably won’t have much of an impact, if any on their weight-loss or other health-related goals. Residual sugar could be useful in determining how sweet the wine will taste, but then you’d also have to add in the Total Acidity level to to really figure that out and then somehow explain to the consumer how those two measures interact to define how sweet the wine appears to be.
Now if someone could interpret those German wine labels for the average American consumer, that would be something…