Wine Additives vs. No Additives

Château La Mission Haut Brion

A long-time and dear friend of mine recently sent me a link that his friend had sent him about so-called ‘natural wine’. My friend works out daily and is very into health, as his celebrity career demands it. Understandably, my friend had questions. Much of the information from the linked website was a pitch for buying lower alcohol wines with no additives, which to me, would be great if only it was feasible to make quality wines while also embracing the tenets of the natural wine contingent. Sadly, in the real world, it is not.

Still there is a very small, but vociferous, group of people that are trying to push the so-called ‘natural wine’ movement forward, with little success so far. Winemakers and marketers have been studying this for sometime now (as much as I dislike regurgitating subjects, I also have written about this sometime ago; apologies if I repeat myself) and research reveals that really only a handful of people care about whether or not the wine they drink is natural. Because there are so few people that care about it distributors and retailers have little reason to carry it, making availability challenging. Please bear with me, as this subject matter exemplifies what happens when Pandora’s Box is opened.

The website’s author makes the assertion that he can drink natural wine without getting a hangover because it has no additives. I believe him, but with most issues like this there’s always a caveat. Hangovers are created by one that consumes too much alcohol and unless there is a contributing food intolerance created by a substance that’s in the wine (very uncommon), or the wine drinker has allergies to an element that’s present in the wine (even more rare), alcohol is the only substance that will create a hangover. This scenario is completely controllable by the drinker, of course. As we know, ethyl alcohol is a toxin to the human body, which explains why people die from consuming too much for the body to metabolize in a short duration. Hangover, headache, fatigue, poor sleep, and brain fog are all symptoms of having consumed too much alcohol. Less alcohol equals less residual affect.

Another opinion by the author, and a very popular opinion at that, is that wine contributes to our health. That the media has taken to spreading rumors about the plethora of mythological healing properties of wine doesn’t make it so. In fact too often these studies that continue to appear so frequently have made outrageous claims based on extremely poor research, to the extent that some medical professionals create this misinformation just so they can say they have been published. Due to the worldwide 10-second attention span epidemic, the public fails to look into research methodology (if published at all) to see if the results are actually valid and ends up just accepting, as fact, whatever information has been reported. This has the effect of supporting the idea that drinking wine is healthy, which gives us a ‘valid’ excuse for continuing to drink it. The last major medical study that produced empirical data concerning the health benefits of wine was conducted in the 1970s to shed light on a question that later became known as the French Paradox. The question was, why are Americans doubling over in the streets with heart attacks while Europeans are eating incredibly fattening foods and living longer and healthier lives? One of the premises of the study, which was conducted scientifically with a huge number of people over a relatively long period of time, was that maybe they’re healthy because they drink wine. At the end of this very long study it was determined that there was no conclusive medical evidence that wine did (or did not) contribute to health. The results of the whole arduous study were inconclusive! No research since then has been undertaken by the medical community on such a scale, and any claim based on a four-week study of 206 college students is, with certainty, incapable of producing reliable or meaningful medical results.

So we have unqualified people or worse, marketers, promulgating the notion that drinking red wine prevents cancer, heart disease, improves memory, prevents stokes, lowers blood pressure, eradicates ED, creates super-children, turns an eighth grade dropout into a genius, can make all of us as successful as Elon Musk, part seas of any color, and increases everything good while suppressing everything bad, which is analogous to the upstanding traveling snake oil salesmen traversing this country in the 1800s. But we like to hear such things because it gives us a reason to drink wine without feeling guilty about it. It seems feasible that resveratrol, the ‘wonder’ ingredient found in red wine, might have some health benefits but: a). there is still too little known about it medically; and, b). if there are benefits, most research suggests that we would have to consume far more wine than the body could tolerate to ingest enough resveratrol to make a difference. If we need a glass or two of wine to chill out at the end of the day, I personally don’t see the harm, but like everything, all in moderation. If it turns out to be healthy too, then, good for us!

The website’s author states that people that consumed wine thousands of years ago didn’t have hangovers, alluding to the fact that they didn’t have additives in wine way back then. It’s my belief that there’s no credible evidence in existence to support his assertion so in this instance, the natural wine people are attempting to blame feeling bad the next day on commercial wines, when in fact the only probable cause is due to alcohol. Additives, GMO foods and products, pesticides, and chemicals, are certainly not likely to be good for us but for as long as we have shareholders of big-agri corporations and a population that can’t afford to buy groceries for a family of 8 at Whole Foods (perfectly understandable – have you shopped at Whole Foods lately?) means, unfortunately, there will be these foreign substances introduced to the body. I do agree with his standpoint about Americans consuming a lot of wine with what I believe are unnecessary additives because about 95% of the wines bought in the US are domestic wines. American companies and all New World wine regions are guilty of enormous intervention when it comes to winemaking. It’s surprising how many quaint-looking wine labels are owned by huge corporations like E & J Gallo and Constellation Brands, two of the largest.

Gallo alone owns more than 20,000 acres under vine. Can you imagine what that harvest must be like each year? When you have mediocre or poor quality fruit, it’s imperative to be heavy-handed and manipulate the wine to eventually be something halfway drinkable so additives are indeed used and abused, without question. Also because of all the possible junk that may be floating around in wine, including MOG (Matter Other than Grapes) it’s usually chemically treated and filtered heavily to remove those foreign substances. When you have so many acres to harvest at approximately the same time of year, forget about harvesting by hand – it’s all mechanized these days, which means a lot of stuff may get into the wine in the form of vine material, insects, bird-whatever, leafs, and so on (MOG) unless the grapes are sorted and selected meticulously by discarding the damaged or clearly poor quality grapes and, all the junk that may accompany them. On such a huge scale it’s not realistic to sort that volume very well unless the winery has invested heavily in an optical sorters, which winemakers claim does a better job than humans. Old World wine regions are far less manipulative in their winemaking practices by employing fewer and smaller quantities of additives. For many reasons, these are amongst the highest quality wines in the world and they don’t have to be thousands or even hundreds of dollars per bottle to be delicious, although the best of them are certainly not inexpensive.

My experience with ‘natural wine’ has never been positive in any sense of the word. Every one I have tried (and I go into this with an open mind because it’s an interesting subject), tastes horrible, and is replete with aromas ranging from a very funky locker room (best case), to something reminiscent of baby puke. Why? No added sulfites! Sulfites in wine are produced as a natural byproduct of fermentation but good winemakers add the least amount possible only to stabilize it. When I refer to this type of stabilization (there are other types of stabilization practices in winemaking too), adding sulfur dioxide (SO2) acts as both an anti-oxidation and an antimicrobial agent. Although there is no set formula (and this part of wine chemistry is rather complex; there are bound and free forms of SO2 in wine due to chemical reactions with other substances – I won’t get into it here) most red wines of reasonable quality will have a finished concentration of sulfites below 150 parts per million. The upshot of this is that greater amounts of MOG and poor quality fruit such as grapes that have been bruised, broken open, or have begun to rot, means that the winemaker must add greater amounts of SO2 to the wine to kill off all the microbes that will surely arise in the wine.

Wine consists of approximately 80% water (from the grapes), 14 – 15% alcohol, and 5% other compounds, including phenolics and acidity. Sulfites are a minute component of wine but without them what happens is that the moment you pour natural wine into a glass, it begins to rot at that moment. The aroma of this is not pleasant and is not even wine-borne. If it tasted okay when you first poured it, it will not taste good by the time you get to the end of the glass. There is nothing to protect the wine from oxygen and nothing to protect it from microbes floating around in the air so it will very quickly taste like a half bottle that sat open on the kitchen counter for a week or two, all in the course of a few minutes. Not my idea of good wine.

And lastly, yes, many American winemakers utilize commercial, lab-made, designer yeasts for fermentation. These are chosen based on the flavor and aroma profile the winemaker wants for the final product. Most Old World winemakers use indigenous yeast, which exists naturally on the grape skins from their vineyards, and better winemakers know that it produces the best flavors for their wine. California fruit bombs actually created a need for designer yeast that would stay alive through fermentations producing 15 ½% alcohol or more. Indigenous yeast would generally not survive fermentation after 13% or so and thus would leave too much RS in the wine to be considered a dry table wine. Unfortunately, lines have been blurring ever more in the past decade, as some Old World winemakers are adopting many New World’s winemaking practices in order to engage a larger market such as the US.

Back in the earlier years (60s and 70s), wine coming from France would be about 11 to 11 ½ % alcohol because it was colder then and grapes could barely ripen in such cool temperatures. So a jump from 11% to 15½% doesn’t sound like much but it actually calculates out to about a 41% increase in alcohol! Old World wines, actually all world wines, have also increased in alcohol content over the years due to global warming. Ripe grapes create more sugar, and in order to have a dry wine without much (or any) RS, all that sugar must be converted into alcohol, which is the job of yeast during fermentation. When there is so much alcohol in a wine, one must also have a lot of fruit and a lot of acidity if the wine is going to remain in balance, thus the fruit bomb. Picking the grapes early seems like a logical solution to the problem and in part, it could be, however, there is one other consideration. Grapes on the vine can have fruit ripeness but may not yet have phenolic ripeness (phenolics are derived from the grape skin and seeds inside). Phenolic ripeness requires long hang time on the vine with sunny days and cool evenings being ideal. When the weather cooperates, both the fruit and the phenolics mature at about the same rate. Without phenolic ripeness, the tannins in the wine will be green or herbaceous tasting and angular, not integrating into the wine well, thus reducing the quality of the wine. The fruit can be ripe but not always the phenolics, from an early harvest. Also acidity will be higher with grapes that are less ripe, which may be a good thing or not, depending on the winemaker’s desired outcome in the finished wine, but definitely some reasonable amount of acidity must be present in good quality wine.

I believe that most, but not all, US wine is much lower quality because of the additives, winemakers’ intervention, and use of technology (a whole other subject) in the winemaking process. We’ve just scratched the surface here. But natural wine is, unfortunately, more of a unicorn/tooth fairy concept and does not actually work out in real life. Nearly every winemaker I know of that has experimented with making natural wine has scrapped the idea completely.

Perhaps though, you, dear readers, should try it and see what you think about it. I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts. Your experience may be very different and it certainly wouldn’t be any less valid than mine. Generally speaking, Old World wines are lower in alcohol with fewer additives than their US counterparts so check into some of those as an alternative to natural wine if you happen to come to the same conclusions as I did.

David Boyer

Photo: The labor-intensive chai (barrel room) at Château La Mission Haut-Brion in Bordeaux – truly spectacular wines!