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What are you really drinking when you knock back a glass of wine??

Most people assume that wine is made up of grapes and yeast. Maybe a little sulfure dioxide — both a natural product in wine and added to prevent microbes from having a party. But there are plenty of other ingredients added to wines that never make it on to the label.

Why? Because unlike with other foods, the FDA is not the main regulatory agency in charge of wine. The TTB, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, is the one who regulates the alcohol industry, and thanks to a landmark case (See Lehrman Beverage Law for more info), wineries do not have to declare what is inside the bottle.

So what could be lurking inside? Let’s take a look:

1. Water

A little known fact is that many, many Californian wines have water added to them during fermentation to bring down the alcohol levels. It is perfectly legal to do this in the United States, although it is illegal in France. In Australia, winemakers are only allowed to add up to 3% water by volume.

The term is called “watering back,” and the crazy thing is, although no one wants to talk about it, many wineries do it.

Does it change the flavors? Many winemakers would say that because water takes part in a complex chemical reaction during fermentation, it doesn’t really “water down” the wine. Winemakers in California tend to pick grapes when they are very ripe in order to get rich, concentrated flavors. The downside is that alcohol levels can get very high, making the wine taste “hot,” a term used to describe wine that burns as it goes down your throat, or the high alcohol can even obscure other flavors.

2. Egg white proteins (albumin), cheese proteins (casein), dried fish bladders (isinglass) and other fun stuff…

These proteins are added during a process called “fining.” They are added by the winemakers in small amounts so that the proteins bind to unwanted flavor or aroma components, precipitate, and then drop to the bottom of the barrel, where they can be removed.

Do they add any flavors of their own? Not really, since they precipitate out, but there are some concerns that people with severe allergies could be affected by these fining agents. Molecular amounts could end up in your wine, which could be an problem.

3. Acid

When the acid balance isn’t right, a wine will taste “flabby.” To prevent this, winemakers might add acids such as citric or malic to correct the balance. Is it right? Well, it’s not naturally in the wine, so some see it as over-manipulation or “cheating,” but because they don’t have to declare what’s in your glass, you’ll never know.

4. Copper

Now why, you ask, would winemakers add copper to wine?? The reason? Stinky rotten eggs. Sometimes, when you stress yeast out, they produce hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct. This can give wine aromas of rotten eggs, cabbage, burnt garlic. Yeah, not so great. So winemakers add copper, which immediately binds to the hydrogen sulfide to produce copper sulfide, which forms a black compound that sinks to the bottom.

But sometimes, winemakers can add too much and the levels of copper may be unacceptable. In 2007, a wine from New Zealand was rejected by the European Union because the levels of copper in the wine were too high. For the majority of us, copper toxicity is rare, but there are people who have a genetic mutation where copper can accumulate in the body and cause toxic effects.

Do you care? Would you like to know what’s in your wine?

For more excellent coverage on the issue, check out “What’s In Your Wine — and Should They Tell You?”

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Posted by on March 5, 2010 in Wine


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