The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

What’s In That Glass?

Posted on | June 3, 2013 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Spring at the biodynamic Castello dei Rampolla estate in Panzano.

Last week on his NY Times column, The Pour, wine writer Eric Asimov asks a question: What’s in Wine? It’s a question that people are increasingly asking, at least people who have a consciousness that, despite its commonplace perception, wine is rarely just grapes.

Asimov rightly observes that while wine “has been described as the perfect beverage because grapes have all they need for their transformation,” winemakers regularly add stuff to wine—and they have for thousands of years. The most notable additive is sulfur dioxide. Its role as a preservative and stabilizer for wine dates back to a couple of thousand years ago, when Romans discovered that burning a candle inside a wine barrel before filling it with wine helped to keep the wine fresh. But since Roman times, the list of things that people can, and do, add to wine has grown exponentially. Natural wine maven Alice Feiring offers a breathtaking list of approved wine additives; it’s commanding enough to engage natural wine skeptics, of which there are many.

There are many reasons why winemakers should list ingredients on their bottles. Asimov points out that in fining their wines, or removing sediment and filtering to give wines that pellucid crystalline look, producers often use egg white or isinglass, made from fish bladders, and this knowledge is something that vegetarians and vegans would be keen to know. However, as both Asimov and Feiring observe, winemakers can use additives, both chemical and natural, to manipulate a wine’s flavor, to add or decrease tannins or acidity, to even out vintage variations or to manipulate color, aroma, and even mouth-feel.

Ultimately, Asimov asks that in light to how much attention Americans now pay to the “nutritional, environmental, humanitarian, aesthetic and even political consequences of what they cook and consume. Isn’t it time to devote the same careful attention to the wine we drink?”

It’s a good question, and one that more people are asking, even if very few wineries (just three in the US, for example) are answering it. The US Treasury Department is now allowing companies to label bottles with nutritional information, and though it’s very early to tell what that will mean, it’s likely that most wine, beer and spirit makers will be reluctant to give evidence to their products’ caloric density. It’s likely that, as Asimov posits, “Just as with food manufacturers, [winemakers] will have to be dragged into some form of honest representation of their product.”

I’ve been a proponent of natural wines for as long as I’ve known that they existed. It’s a drag to have to be personally responsible for your own knowledge about the wine you drink, but it’s not impossible (I use my iPhone to Google wines before I drink them on a near fanatical basis). You can pretty much be assured that if a winemaker uses biodynamic methods to make his or her wine, that wine is going to be pretty additive free, though not necessarily vegan. Tuscan Querciabella is a vocally vegan winemaker, devoted to eschewing all animal products in growing or making its products. And fortunately, because of wine writers like Asimov and Feiring, as well as organizations like London’s RAW and Italy’s ViniVeri, more producers are seeing the benefits of coming clean in their protocol as well as on the page.

It may be a long time before we know what’s in our glass of wine, but there’s change in the air. Someday, it’ll be visible on the bottle.


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