Tim James: Calories in wine and other labeling issues

By , 14 December 2015



Do you think your wine drinking is making your fat? Ruining your Banting diet? One of Australia’s wine companies thinks it possible, and hopes that their new thing will make them seem appealingly on your side. Treasury Wine Estates (a big business rather more about brands than about estates, of course) recently announced that they are planning to provide calorie information for their bottled wine portfolio – Penfolds Grange is the most famous of their products.

This is, they proudly state, “a first for the global wine industry”. So why does it make me feel like yawning rather than righteously wanting to urge Distell to follow suit? Apart, of course, that I couldn’t afford Grange whatever its calorie count and wouldn’t, anyway, be much interested in most of what Treasury Estates has to offer.

“We recognise that consumers are increasingly interested in accessing the facts on calorie content to help them make more informed choices on alcohol consumption,” said a spokesperson. “We believe a commitment to providing calorie information on our brands is a positive step that leads the wine industry in responding to consumer interests in this important area.”

Caloric Cuvée glass

Caloric Cuvée glass.

Yes, well, whatever. Are we expected to start choosing wines on the basis of their calorie count? Of course, some people do, which must be one of the reasons why some (mostly dreadful) low-alcohol wines are available. People who seriously count their calories are already aware that alcohol carries calories – seven per gram, in fact, there’s no mystery about the figure, and there’s plenty of general info about the subject easily available. It’s not hard to do an easy rough calculation from given alcohol levels declared on a wine label – or from the semi-jokey “Caloric Cuvée” glass pictured alongside. Except, of course, there is also the matter of residual sugar. A lovely low-alcohol Mosel riesling will carry a whack of calories there too – and quite a lot of ultra-ripe Australian (and South African) wine has a good few grams of sugar too. I rather doubt if the websites carrying the info promised by Treasury Wine Estates (there won’t be details on the labels – you have to go and look it up) will indicate how much of a wine’s calories comes from sugar, and how much from alcohol.

Of course, the other cynical aspect of this bit of marketing stuff is that the hardly-secret info on offer falls very short of full disclosure of the contents of wine. If wine big-business has this overwhelming urge to be honest about what’s in their wines, let’s rather have the sort of information that is mandatory about most foodstuffs, and no more pretence that most of the stuff is “natural”.

Testalonga wines can honestly say on some of their labels, “made from grapes” (implying “and nothing else” and so can some other wines (though generally one must ignore the aid of the agro-chemical industry in the vineyards). The long list of permitted additives to wine, not just here, but everywhere, is a little depressing, however. It would be useful – and rather shockinbg to some consumers – if it was required that all the yeasts, nutrients, enzymes, fining agents, etc etc be listed on the label, and not just those universal sulphites.

This is my last 2015 blog for this website, so let me wish you a blissfully calorific holiday season; may many of those calories come, uncounted, from good wine.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

Read more about drinking options for the health conscious here.
Read more about “light wine” and the alternatives here.


2 comment(s)

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    pj | 17 December 2015

    Don’t be a douchebag, Tim. It’s perfectly reasonable for people who are dieting to want to know how many calories are in the wine they buy. I wouldn’t recommend people choose to drink one bottle of Cab over another based on a 5% difference in caloric content, but if they want to do that, that’s up to them. However, I think it is useful for people who are managing their caloric intake, and want to know how much less food to eat if they’re going to drink half a bottle of some wine. Just saying “everyone knows alcohol has calories” doesn’t help much, especially if you’re already half way through a bottle and no longer want to do too much arithmetic. Moreover, there are calories in wine besides those from ethanol — for example, sugar in dessert wines.

    Your argument is akin to an objection about people putting calorie counts on fine French cheese, with the claim that people who cheese has calories, and they shouldn’t be buying cheese based on calories.

    Marthelize | 14 December 2015

    My bugbear with labeling is usually around the sorely misunderstood and highly glorified “organic” one (which I’ve written about before) and also the idea that mandatory labeling of GMOs will change anything except drive up the price of food (ask me about this next year if you want, because right now I’m too tired from 2015 to attempt to be civil about things and I’m just going to tell people to sod off).

    Recently having had a similar discussion with someone around the consumption of wine and the calories involved, it struck me as a rather case-by-case type of thing. If you guzzle a couple of 5-litre Cardbordeaux a week (even more so the semi-sweet variety) then you should be rather more concerned about the calories than someone who enjoys a glass each night or a bottle of two every second weekend.

    One should also consider where your dietary indulgences really come from – an honesty which many a dieter, banter and whichever other food fanatic often struggles with. Sure, cut down on wine but cut down on the 2-litre coke you down with your brandy, the McKFC breakfasts you inhale to cure your hangover and the other junk you fill your cakehole with.

    But back to the topic of labeling – I know the approved list of additives in wine is rather long (and often rather weird, especially to consumers who might not understand why it’s being added) but I’m not really sure how useful labeling is when most of those things are either consumer by the yeast or filtered out. Especially in the case of nutrients. If you have to list what the yeast eats, surely you should also list what the yeast excretes – which is exactly what makes wine…well. Wine.

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