wine additives

What’s in my wine?

If you’ve purchased and drunk wine from a grocery store, liquor store, or your local 7-11 any time in the past decade, you have consumed (almost without a doubt) something called Mega Purple.

The name Mega Purple conjures a large, fun-loving, violet-furred creature that has its own Saturday morning cartoon. But the real Mega Purple is a common additive in commercially mass-produced red wine that darkens and sweetens it , and is likely a big part of the current trend in big, dark red blends with gothic packaging and names like “Authentic Black” and “Midnight Crush” and other such nonsense that sound like the emissions of a BET Harlequin comingling.

Wait, “additive?” you ask. Isn’t wine just fermented grapes? Uh, nope.

Here’s a link to the list of over 60 chemicals that can be added to wine without informing the consumer.

There are many reasons to add things to fermenting grape juice to improve the flavor of the resulting wine. In addition to the yeasts and bacteria that are added to ferment the juice you can add yeast food (which contains things like diammonium phosphate). And then there are special enzymes that help break down the skins to extract more color and flavor. And of course there’s sulfites (potassium meta bi-sulfite, for example), which is put in every wine except for organic wines. There are fining ingredients like clay (bentonite) and egg whites (yes, egg whites). And then there are the really weird things, like Mega Purple (a concentrate made from Rubired, a teinturier grape*).

What if you come up with some great new wine additive but it’s not on the list of 60+ approved wine additives (like MegaPurple)? No problem. Here’s a link to the simple process for getting a new additive approved. The only problem? There’s no simple process for making us consumers aware that a new additive has been approved… and added to our wine!

To be fair, a lot of the additives are pretty much harmless. But some are not. Copper sulfate for example is something often added to wine when it develops too much hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

H2S is the gas responsible for that rotten egg smell that you might have detected if you’ve ever encountered a ruptured sewage pipe… or rotten eggs… or an “off” wine. H2S is flammable and toxic and just gross, and most humans can smell it in very small quantities. Like under 10 parts per billion. And yeast produce it under certain circumstances. So you can see how it’s problematic for wine makers. No one wants to drink a wine that smells like sewage.

Copper sulfate is one way to deal with this problem because it bonds to H2S and then can be filtered out of the wine. The problem is that it’s also moderately toxic. It’s a lesser of two evils. And when a million dollar batch of wine is at stake, it’s clear why you’d be willing to dabble in a little evil.

What’s not clear is why the FDA doesn’t require this information on a bottle of wine!

Ironically the two ingredients that are required to be listed on a wine label are the least surprising – alcohol and sulfites. Thanks, ATB! Could you also require that sinks be labeled to show that they dispense water? That would be equally informative.

There is no good reason that wine producers aren’t required to list ALL the ingredients that they add to their wine. There may be several bad reasons, I’ll admit. But I hope that mine will be one of many voices that lead to a change.

We want to know that our wine contains diammonium phosphate just as much as we want to know that our ice cream contains guar gum. I will lead us to research those ingredients and make better choices as consumers about what we want to put in our bodies, along with our alcohol and sulfites. It will expose wine producers who “cheat” nature with additives like MegaPurple. Some of us might not care, but others of us may realize that this is why there can be a “sameness” to many mass produced wines, and it may lead us to seek out producers who put as little into their wine as possible and still get great, interesting results.

Knowing what is in our wine won’t kill wine sales. But it might sting a little. And that’s because a change is needed. We can’t value organic, local food at the same time that we buy wine without knowing what’s been added to it.

To all wine producers: I’m calling you out. If you have nothing to hide, prove it. List every single ingredient that goes into your wine on every bottle that you sell.

* a teinturier grape is a grape whose both skin AND juice is red. Most grapes have clear-ish juice which reddens because of contact with the crushed skins. More about this in another article.