Wine: Naturalness, Sulfites and the Homogenization of Flavor

There is a certain beauty in simplicity; but beauty is not simple. Take the works of Jackson Pollock, who created his art by splattering and dripping paint across a canvas. His method was primitive, basic and immediate. This simplicity is precisely what allows the abstraction and authenticity in his art. Anyone who has gazed into Pollack’s work will attest to this power. His work is at once, just paint but then again something entirely more meaningful, profound and complex.

It is by this same measure we can look to the wine world in search of authenticity and beauty. Wine is simple. At some point thousands of years ago, grapes were collected, put into a vessel and forgotten. As the fruit broke down into its basic sugars and acids, wild yeast trapped on the skins began eating those sugars forming alcohol. Thus, the vessel was discovered shortly thereafter and we have the first wine. Wine is simply grapes that have gonebad. Then again, it is much more.

During this simple act of fermentation, alcohol is created along with thousands of stereoisomers, the complex chemical formations responsible for our olfactory perception of flavors in wine. Just as in the drips of Pollock’s brush, these chemical formations are nearly impossible to predict and control, seemingly forming from somewhere outside of the process itself. In the English language we have no words for this phenomenon, so instead we borrow “terroir” from the winemaking French. Karen MacNiel’s Wine Bible describes terroir as “the sum entity and effect of a vineyard’s soil, slope, orientation to the sun, and elevation, plus every nuance of climate: rainfall, wind velocity, frequency of fog, cumulative hours of sunshine, average temperatures and so on”. This absolute uniqueness is the very foundation of wine.

Just as every Pollack painting is just paint, every wine is just grapes — but there is a deep complexity and uniqueness to each bottle. Merlot grapes grown on one side of the hill will not make the same wine as those grown on the other side. The complexity and flavors of the wine literally come from the land. It is this understanding that has produced complex and beautiful wines for thousands of years.

However, winemaking has deviated from its simple origins. Industrial production facilities buy and trade juice which is protected with added sulfur dioxide and other preservatives. Sugar may even be added to boost alcohol levels. The juice is then inoculated with specific yeast strains for optimal fermentation. This product is then sent through harsh filters and later fining agents are added, including bentonite (a type of clay) or even Isinglass (a collagen extracted from the bladders of fish). Finally, if the end product is not of sufficient quality, various acids are added to achieve balance. Randomness and authenticity are taken out of the equation.

Ancient winepress from Israel. Grapes were crushed by foot. Juice flowed down to the lower side and collected in the basin.WikiCommons

The consumer is indeed aware of this to some degree. The presence of sulfur dioxide is mandated to have a warning label and there is a push to include other warnings. In fact, EU ministers have begun a lengthy battle with wine makers concerning the labeling of these additives. On one hand we have an increasingly industrialized market, relying on additives to achieve market-ready wine; and on the other, we have an increasingly informed consumer, questioning the merits of these additives. So what are these so called “unnatural” additives and what are their health concerns?

Sulfur Dioxide is probably the most major cause of alarm among consumers. Many consumers claim that it is these compounds that trigger asthma, headaches and hangovers. Although this is true to some degree, the amount of people actually affected by sulfites is largely exaggerated. As far back as 2001,double-blind studies have shown that even individuals sensitive to SO2 did not respond to their presence in wine at above average levels. Furthermore, many of these individuals claiming that sulfites are responsible for some ill effect can easily consume dried fruits, juice and preserved food which can contain up to 1000 parts per million.

If sulfites do not present an actual health concern they are still indicative of a larger problem with modern homogenized wine making. On one side of the spectrum, there is a misinformed consumer who earnestly condemn SO2 as the source of all problems; while on the other end, we have disingenuous educators and distributors pointing out that SO2 occurs naturally during fermentation and shouldn’t be a concern. However I believe that both of these groups are missing the point entirely. It is not a health concern that the consumer questions, it is a quality concern. Just because SO2 occurs in some small way, does that mean it should be used to whatever degree necessary for industrially produced wine?

“It is not a health concern that the consumer questions, it is a quality concern.”

The answer to this question becomes obvious when tasting wine with high levels of SO2. Sure, it may not cause allergic reactions for most people, but at around 30 ppm it will affect the taste and smell of the wine (think burnt matchstick). If sulphur is used at all, it is best used in small amounts immediately before bottling because only a small amount of the total SO2 is actually useful as a antioxidant and preservative. The ratio of “free” to “bound” SO2 decreases the earlier it is added to the wine. This means that wine made from juice or mass produced wine, will categorically contain larger amounts of sulfites — most of which accomplish nothing. It is this sort of industrialized practice that frightens consumers; and large producers have taken notice. “Certified Organic” is a term often seen on labels these days, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you might think. In fact, organic has more to do with the way the grapes are grown than the way the wine is produced. Whatever happens to the grapes after they are picked does not fall under the “organic” certification. Consumers are often shocked to find the very same sulfate warnings on the back of organic bottles as they find on standard bottles.

As consumers, we need to start focusing on the actual wine instead of the marketing for said wine. Further, the entire debate regarding sulfites distracts from more legitimate concerns. SO2 is a food additive so it is required to be labeled — but what about all the other things used in production that do not fall under this classification?

Fining agents are one of those additives that should be a concern — but their presence is often overlooked. On a chemical level, fining agents work by creating an electrical charge that attracts particulates in the wine, binding them together so that they can be removed to clarify the wine. Classically, this was accomplished with egg whites, which contain a binding protein called albumen. In modern wine-making, more obscure chemicals are used to fine — many of which can strip the wine of flavor and color. Bentonite, a type of volcanic clay, is probably the most common. It doesn’t stop there though. Isinglass (extracted from the bladders of fish) and Chitosan (a polysaccharide created from the exoskeleton of shellfish) are also commonplace in the cellar. Yes, that bottle of Chardonnay may contain animal products.

Swim bladder from a fish, eventually made into a fining agent. WikiCommons

I am not suggesting that these chemicals are dangerous — but shouldn’t we be privy of what goes into our wine? Why are these not listed on the label? If sulfites present a potential for an allergic reaction, surely compounds derived from fish, eggs and milk are of similar risk. At the very least, these fining agents should be listed on the label for those who have made an ethical choice not to consume animal products.

“It’s ironic that wine makers eager to embrace the concept of terroir are often equally inclined to purchase yeast from some company’s catalog.”

Another frightening and overlooked additive in wine-making is yeast. Grapes, due to their waxy skin, contain wild yeasts capable of fermentation. However, in large scale wine production, cultured yeasts are added to quicken fermentation or add specific flavors to the wine. It’s ironic that wine makers eager to embrace the concept of terroir are often equally inclined to purchase yeast from some company’s catalogue. In mass production facilities, inoculation is a requirement as all of the wild yeast is killed off by the time the juice is ready for fermentation. The problem of commercialized yeast strains will only intensify. This very year, scientists were able to build a synthetic yeast strain, capable of advanced mutations, from scratch. Want your Cabernet to taste like strawberries? Forget actual winemaking, just modify the yeast!

However, it may not even be as complicated as that. If your juice has been stripped of flavor from excessive filtering and fining, then it makes sense that those flavors must somehow be added back into the wine. Enter acidification: the process of adding chemicals to achieve balance and desired flavor. It’s not surprising that this technique is banned across most of France; but most of us have probably had an inexpensive, zesty Sauvignon Blanc drenched with citric acid.

Delicious looking right? Image from natural wine proponent, Jamie Goode’s website

While genetically modified yeast strains and acidified flavor may seem like science fiction, we already have the modern day horror known as “mega purple”. MegaPurple, UltraRed or whatever trademark it goes by now, is a grape-based extract used to add color and flavor to inexpensive wine. There is little information on how much wine uses this extract but it is reportedly quite high. It’s no surprise that this concoction is produced by Constellation, whose portfolio includes some of the most widely distributed bulk brands.

I have often wondered how these wineries are able to produce wine that, not only tastes the same vintage to vintage, but tastes just like one another. Well, the answer now seems obvious. They are all made from the same extracts, acids and yeasts.

“If winemaking is an art, it is a minimalist art. The use of these chemicals is less an artful expression of terroir and vintage, and more akin to the industrial production of CocaCola or some other mass produced beverage.”

Acidification and use of extracts are perhaps the most anti-terroir, inauthentic trend in winemaking. Through the employment of these unnatural methods of production, the sense of terroir is lost and the overall quality and uniqueness is trivialized. If winemaking is an art, it is a minimalist art. The use of these chemicals is less an artful expression of terroir and vintage, and more akin to the industrial production of CocaCola or some other mass produced beverage. As consumers it is important that we make this distinction. Otherwise we may be facing an homogenized market, full of wine that looks and tastes the same. For the same reasons that a reproduction of a Pollock painting is not an authentic work of art, so too is manipulated wine not authentic wine.