We live in an age of convenience where having rapid access to resources and essentials like food and drink takes precedence over the content. As a result, most of what Americans consume is rife with preservatives to make it last far beyond a natural expiration or additives to increase flavor and improve color.
Unfortunately, one victim of this rush includes the elegant beverage known as wine. For enthusiasts, the idea of drinking wine loaded with these unnatural ingredients is probably an unpleasant thought. However, even the most coveted bottles might contain preservatives of some sort.
Finding ways around preservative or additive-laced products is becoming more and more of a challenge in the modern world. With this article, we hope to provide a little clarity on navigating the wine world and avoiding the preservatives and additives so prevalent in the world today.
Preservatives Are More Common in Wine Than You Think
We first need to establish that preservatives and additives were part of winemaking long before they became commonplace. The reason is that wine is a volatile product that needs to be balanced out, or the batch will simply come out wrong. Wine goes through an arduous creation involving fermentation to cultivate the flavor. However, this process requires certain additives to facilitate successful fermentation. To an extent, preservatives are not 100% avoidable in most wines. At best, you can find wines with low concentrations of preservatives.
The fermentation process also risks bacterial growth within the wine while it matures. Most of the preservatives found in wine can fight off bacterial growth, rendering them essential to the process. That said, certain preservatives are good and necessary for wine and others are highly unnecessary and even toxic. These different preservative types can be avoided by verifying certain information on the bottle’s label or researching the maker’s background.
Wine preservatives can be broken down into two categories: natural and chemical. The natural preservatives are the good sort that you can safely disregard as an essential wine component that is generally unavoidable or harmless. On the other hand, chemical preservatives vary from necessary byproducts to unnecessary additions.
Understanding the differences between these preservatives can be essential to your wine drinking experience. It can help you avoid wines loaded with preservatives that do more harm than good. However, avoiding preservatives in wine altogether might not be possible.
The Label Issue
When you are trying to avoid preservatives, you will run into a rather frustrating issue. While wine labels offer disclaimers about avoiding wine when pregnant or dealing with other medical issues, they offer little insight into the contents. Generally, you will find that wine labels only provide insight into whether there are sulfites in the wine and the alcohol concentration percentage. Aside from this, you will be given no information as to what other preservatives and additives might have been used.
Some vineyards will provide more information on their website, and a select few might even put the information on the label. However, this is a little too rare for its own good. This lack of labeling is permitted because many legal policies exempt label information so long as the analysis of the wine puts certain ingredients within a certain threshold.
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, only the following information is mandatory:
- Alcohol content
- Color ingredient disclosures
- Country of origin
- Health warning statement
- Name and address
- Net contents
- Sulfite declaration
While some of this information is useful in avoiding unwanted content in your wine, it is limited in its scope. Other, less common additives will not even be mentioned on the bottle’s label because there is no legal obligation for the vineyard to provide that information.
Wine Will Always Have Sulfites
One of the significant preservatives you will find in wine is sulfites. Sulfites are a chemical preservative that refers to anything with a sulfite ion related to sulfur. Now, we know hearing that there is a relative of sulfur in wine might put you off, but rest assured the sulfites in wine are generally harmless.
In fact, sulfites naturally occur in many foods and beverages like wine. The sulfites found in wine naturally manifest during the fermentation process, which is the critical process in the production of wine. So, it is impossible to have a sulfite-free wine as a result. Any glass you have had will have had some concentration of sulfates in it.
These sulfites play a vital role in the winemaking process and can be the key to making sure the wine turns out properly. Sulfites protect the wine against oxidation. Oxygen is known to interfere with the fermentation process and can butcher the quality of the wine or even render it unpotable. Sulfites help increase the wine’s resistance to the effects of oxygen and preserve the color and flavor expected of the batch.
Additionally, sulfites prevent microorganisms from propagating themselves within the batch and instead increase the release of the compounds from the grapes that are desired. Sulfites are more beneficial than detrimental when being a part of the wine. However, that is not to say that sulfites are entirely safe for everyone. There are people out there who have asthma induced or exacerbated by sulfites. While these reactions are certainly a terrible occurrence, there is a silver lining.
While it is not fully clear how many people are sensitive to sulfites, studies indicate that only around 1% of people suffer from respiratory issues brought about by sulfites. In addition, 5% of this demographic has asthma, while the remaining members simply suffer from some latent sensitivity to the compound. So ultimately, the odds of suffering a reaction to the sulfites in your wine are minimal at worst. That said, we understand that you might want to minimize the intake of sulfites in your wine altogether.
How to Minimize the Concentration of Sulfites in Wine
While sulfites are an inescapable part of wine, specific brands and bottles will attempt to keep the overall concentration to a minimum. The way to check the sulfite concentration of wine in the United States of America is a law forcing all winemakers whose products contain more than ten parts per million of sulfites to mark as much on the label. Any wines made domestically or imported are subject to this requirement and will enable you to verify the concentration of sulfites in any bottle where they might prove to be in abundance.
In some rare cases, you might find a bottle that claims to be “sulfite-free.” However, that means that the analysis of the wine found the concentration of sulfites to be too low for active detection. There will always be some concentration of sulfites in the wine, but the extremely low end of that scale is nearly impossible to detect. However, there are ways to ensure that the wine you purchase is always on the low end. Of course, sulfites are not the only preservative you will find in wine.
Other Preservatives and Additives
There are several preservatives and additives associated with wine besides the sulfite concentration. While most are naturally occurring and nearly inescapable, some are added after the fact that might cause concern.
For example, one common additive used after the wine has been fermented is copper sulfate. While a sulfite compound, this particular version is not meant to be a part of anything we consume due to the toxicity of copper. However, in small enough concentrations, copper sulfate is not directly a threat to your health. As a result, there is a legal concentration of copper sulfate that can correct a hydrogen sulfide imbalance in the wine.
Avoiding copper sulfate can be a challenge since no regulations force the winemaker to list its use. The same could be said of other preservative methods used to correct the wine post-fermentation. For example, vegetarians might be shocked to learn that there might be fish bladder in your white wine. The process of using isinglass to improve the clarity of white wine is a more common issue than you might realize. Granted, the isinglass will precipitate out of the final product, but it was involved in creating the batch.
Another significant additive found in many wines is sugar or salt. These are generally added to wines in regions that are generally cooler, where the flavor of the grapes used in the process can suffer. While other additives are used to manage the quality of the wine, sugar and salt are used to adjust the flavor profile. While, in and of themselves, these are not too harmful, excess sugar or salt can lead to health complications.
In the wake of these additives and preservatives, finding a wine that is as pure as it can be is proving to be a challenge. However, a modern winemaking practice might be able to offer the solution you need.
Recently, the creation of biodynamic wines has been on the rise as an answer to the preservatives found in more common examples of the beverage. Biodynamic winemaking involves organic farming practices to minimize the number of chemicals produced in the wine and eliminate any chemicals added after the fact. In addition, biodynamic vineyards will employ compost as fertilizer to avoid pesticides and take advantage of the surrounding ecology to create a great-tasting wine with as few byproducts as possible.
Biodynamic agriculture uses practices deemed “esoteric” by many, but the results speak for themselves. By 2020, over 250,000 hectares across 55 different countries began employing biodynamic practices in winemaking. The most notable biodynamic leaders are Germany, Australia, and France. While Germany accounts for 41.8% of this shift, cues should definitely be taken from France, a country renowned for elegant and delectable wines.
While biodynamic farming practices for wine are not all-encompassing, it is widespread enough to warrant the vending of biodynamic wines across the world. Given biodynamic vineyards’ preference for natural processes, biodynamic wines are your best bet for avoiding the lion’s share of preservatives found in more common products. This includes minimized sulfite levels as applicable. If you manage to find a bottle of wine like this, it might be worth finding a spot in a more refined storage option.
Raise a Glass With Us
Wine is meant to be more than just a drink; it is a reminder of the elegance and refinement we have accomplished. It is not unreasonable to want the contents of your bottle to reflect that same elegance by forgoing the modern preservatives that litter more contemporary food and drink. Where once upon a time only the vintage was of note, now we must see that the modern practices of the food industry do not impair winemaking. With biodynamic wine on the rise, among other organic alternatives, it will be an easier feat to find bottles that are not overloaded with additives. However, some of them, like sulfites, are simply byproducts of the actual fermentation process and cannot be avoided.
We at the Wine Diarist work tirelessly to keep you informed about the world of wine so that you never have to worry about buyers’ remorse. Be it a bottle from France or the United States, you can find wines that will have fewer preservatives and will allow you to enjoy your beverage with little concern.
If you have more questions about wine, feel free to peruse our repertoire of information and tales alike about our experiences and research into wine and its many facets. If, by chance, you have a question not answered in our repertoire of information, please feel free to leave a comment down below and let us know what we can do to help. The world of wine has an abundance of information, so much, in fact, that we very well may have missed what you were looking for. We would be honored and more than happy to help you out by answering any of those potential questions that you may have. As always, we at the Wine Diarist toast to your health. Cheers to you.