Calories on menus and ingredients on wine labels. Where are we going with all this? Fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat, excess sugar that does that. If you look at something that’s fat-reduced or fat-free beside its wholesome counterpart you’ll notice on the nutritional breakdown that there’s usually more sugar of one kind or another in the reduced fat product to make up for the lack of flavour, not to mention a whole load more chemically sounding ingredients. I think the untouched version is probably much better for you. And research is now showing that the body treats different forms of calories in different ways, and that it’s not as simple as ‘calories in – calories out’ so this no doubt means 500 calories of chips or chocolate is a completely different beast from 500 calories of say avocado, or apple (sadly).

What about wine then? Do we need to label all the ingredients? Or just the added ingredients? Or the contents? What’s the difference?

When it comes to the ingredients, obviously there are grapes for a start. Yeast can be added but there are also wines that are produced using the naturally found yeasts in the atmosphere. And we can have inoculated yeasts – laboratory developed, these have been demonised recently in no small thanks to the ‘Natural Wine’ movement but is there really anything wrong with them? Should we stop pasteurising milk? Can we not have the choice of both pasteurised and unpasteurised, inoculated and non-inoculated without one being considered superior to the other – non-inoculated yeasts, considered more ‘natural’ can bring problems of their own; problems which can be vastly more complicated and damaging to wine, e.g. ‘stuck ferments’ – when fermentation doesn’t finish (some yeasts can’t ferment past a certain alcohol level and this is unfortunately something you cannot predict but only find out once it’s too late.)

Much has been discussed recently about putting ‘contains sulphites’ on a wine label. We need to put ‘contains sulphites’ on the wine label as some people, for example some asthmatics are allergic to sulphites. But also people think it’s important to have this on the label because they consider sulphites to be bad. What about ‘contains sugar’?  There are 2 primary sugars in wine: glucose and fructose, and around 2 – 4g of non-fermentable residual sugars are left in an average litre of dry wine. Perhaps we should add ‘contains tartaric acid/malic or lactic acid/citric acid’ all of which are bad for your teeth. But let’s go back to sulphites (and please note, in wine we are not talking about the element sulphur, as wrongly quoted by many, rather we are talking about sulphites , specifically sulphur dioxide, SO2). On a label it might say ‘contains sulphites’ but it’s important to note that sulphites are naturally produced in small quantities as a by-product of the fermentation process, so all wine contains sulphites.

However many producers, good and bad, also like to add sulphites in the form of SO2 etc. Why? Because of, among other things, its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal,  and anti-oxidative properties, and it is important to note that SO2 is in fact… wait for it… natural! Is it any worse than adding ascorbic acid, in the form of say lemon juice, to stop an apple browning? (And doesn’t ascorbic acid sound more ‘chemically’ than vitamin C or lemon juice? A lot’s in the name) Labels can be very misleading. Take ‘homemade’, let’s just say my children would not wear anything made in this home, I can hardly sew on a name-tag let alone knit a jumper, they’d far rather shop-bought, factory-made clothing and rightly so in this case. What about ‘organic’, what does really that mean? Does ‘organic’ = good, or imply a better product than a non-organic one? I’d argue that ‘organic’ is a philosophy more than a measure of standards. As we have said before, more emphasis should be placed on the artist, the person making the wine than just the techniques used. If something is organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’ as well as being made by a person who knows what they’re doing then so much the better. But please don’t get me wrong, I am not against organic and biodynamic products, quite the opposite. I just don’t believe that putting so on the label automatically means the product will be good.

Dig in! (photo: Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin)

There is a big difference between ‘contains sulphites’ and ‘sulphites added’ but neither is bad. The perception is that sulphites cause headaches and allergic reactions; however this is now being challenged. Firstly, and I may be stating the bleeding obvious here, it is important to look at the quantity of wine drunk before a headache comes on as this is more often than not THE major factor. New studies are also pointing towards biogenic amines being the culprits when it comes to headaches. And what are these? Well they are naturally occurring, produced by bacteria, chiefly pediococcus, and they cause feelings of nausea and headaches, and, funnily enough, it’s sulphites that are used to prevent these appearing in wine. Biogenic amines are generally created when wine is left unprotected by SO2. (To protect against oxidation you can use a carbon dioxide or nitrogen layer – these two inert gases are sometimes used to sit as a layer on top of the wine to protect it). So once the wine has finished fermenting if left unprotected you can have the creation of these biogenic amines with beautiful sounding names such as: Histamine – involved in allergic reations; Tyramine – linked to migraines; Putrecine and the even more delightful sounding Cadavarine – Google both of those, they’re only gorgeous. So if you’re complaining of a headache it could be that the wine you drank was too natural!

There is a misperception out there that ‘natural’ is better and when it comes to wine this also seems to be the case. But be warned, there is no official rule book for making ‘natural’ wine. ‘Natural’ wine makers are generally organic in their viticulture and don’t like to add sulphites nor use inoculated yeasts. The motives behind the ‘Natural’ wine movement are to be admired, but it has an aggressive campaign behind it, often taking the moral high ground. In fact many of the original members behind the movement have formed a splinter group. They are unhappy with the number of wine-makers who have jumped on the band-wagon and now ‘Natural Wine’ is not considered extreme enough, so make way for the ‘Vin Vivant’ producers – ‘Living Wine’ is the new black.

added on 16 October 2012:

great piece by Tyler Colman, also known as Dr Vino, wine writer and teacher, to quote one paragraph:

So if you’ve ever wondered why dried fruits that have higher levels of sulfur than wine contain no government warning, now you know why. First, they’re regulated by different agencies (TTB vs FDA). Second, there’s no anti-dried fruit lobby.