Tim James: On wine additives

By , 16 December 2014



Tartaric acid compound summary.

Tartaric acid compound summary.

Craig Hawkins has a great (and often quirky) sense of humour, but when he chose “Made from grapes” as the motto of his Testalonga wine-brand, he wasn’t joking. What he really means is “…and ONLY grapes” – though, bringing a touch of pragmatism to his idealism, he will add a judicious touch of preserving sulphur when necessary. And I wouldn’t be surprised or unduly censorious if he uses a bit of inert gas when bottling.

But just think what the tightly controlled South African liquor industry does allow winemakers to add. Some 66 items, according to my quick count in the Liquor Products Act, from Arabic gum to yeast mannoproteins. Via such tasty-sounding items as di-ammonium glycero phosphate and polyvinyl polypirollidone. I confess my winemaking knowledge is so basic that I have no idea why they, or hydrogen peroxide, would be grabbed off the shelf by winemakers less particular than Craig.

Some additives are a little easier for the reasonably informed lay-person to comprehend, such as some proteins of animal origin that may be used for fining wine: egg white, milk, and isinglass (which comes from the dried swim bladders of fish!). I wonder how many strict vegetarians and vegans know the risk they run – though they might prefer that to knowing that potassium ferrocyanide was used (legal here, though banned in many countries). Anyway, I dare say even Craig might include an inadvertent additive like a baby slug or a drunken fly, to which it would be impossible to alert such people.

I’m sure that many of these legal additives are seldom used (when last did you find gold flakes in your wine?), but very many are, and with great regularity. I’d guess, as a rule, that the more “industrial” the size of the winemaking operation, the more likely the winemaker is going to resort to additives – either to make up for shortcomings in the grapes or to streamline the winemaking process and make its outcome more predictable.

Addition of acid, for example, is widespread, however, though less so among the Cape’s serious wine-producers today than it was 20 and 30 years ago. Yeast inoculation is also common, but again there are more and more ambitious, terroir-minded producers trying to do without. And they’re just the most obvious.

It’s not, of course, only South Africa that is so liberal in tolerating additives. All jurisdictions allow for many. Comparisons between them are difficult (especially given restrictions on various processes and additives), but one was attempted a few years back by Vashti Galpin in her excellent Cape Wine Masters dissertion (available here), which looked at a range of countries. Her conclusion was that “New Zealand appears the most liberal … followed by Australia, South Africa, and then the EU and the USA”.

Leaving aside such niceties as gold flakes, she says that  the major differences are “whether (and when) sugar is permitted, the range of acids permitted, water use, antifoaming agents, addition of colouring or (grape-extracted) flavouring, use of wood, ion exchange resins and other technological processes”.

So much for this most natural-seeming of beverages. As with all aspects of wine, generalisations are impossible, with a label like Testalonga at the one end and you-guess-who at the other. The unifying factor across the world is that – apart from those damn sulphites and also various allergens in some countries – there is no requirement to list ingredients, as there widely is for other food products. There should be. We wine-lovers (not just vegans and athsmatics) are entitled to know what’s in the bottle. If the winemaker’s list stops short at grapes, how wonderful is that?


3 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Ryan | 16 December 2014

    Why has the strict rules about food labelling not hit the wine industry? It seems like a global phenomenon where no country forces their wine producers to supply nutriitonal information or what has been added to a wine. Packaged fruit juice for example has to strictly list all the proteins, sugars, carbohydrates etc as well as ingredients.
    Only reason that I could think of is that it will ruin romantic back label stories 🙂

    David C | 16 December 2014

    Had the list on hand from a t-shirt I made for last year’s Swartland Revolution.

    David C | 16 December 2014

    1. Acacia/Arabic gum
    2. Activated animal or vegetable charcoal
    3. Agar-agar
    4. Ammonia
    5. Ammonium bisulphide
    6. Ammonium phosphate
    7. Ammonium sulphate
    8. Ammonium sulphide
    9. Argon
    10. Ascorbic acid
    11. Bentonite
    12. Calcium alginate
    13. Calcium carbonate
    14. Calcium hydroxide
    15. Caramel
    16. Carbon dioxide
    17. Carboxy methyl cellulose
    18. Casein
    19. Citrates of potassium, calcium and sodium
    20. Citric acid
    21. Concentrated must
    22. Copper sulphate
    23. Di-ammonium glycero phosphate
    24. Di-ammonium phosphate
    25. Dimethyl-dicarbonate
    26. Egg albumen
    27. Enzymes
    28. Evaporated milk
    29. Filtering aids of inert material
    30. Gelatine
    31. Gold flakes
    32. Hydrogen peroxide
    33. Isinglass
    34. Lactic acid
    35. Malic acid
    36. Malolactic fermentation bacteria
    37. Meta-tartaric acid
    38. Milk
    39. Must
    40. Nitrogen gas
    41. Oxygen
    42. Phytates
    43. Pimarizin
    44. Polyvinyl polypirollidone
    45. Potassium alginate
    46. Potassium bicarbonate
    47. Potassium bitartrate
    48. Potassium carbonate
    49. Potassium ferro cyanide
    50. Potassium hydroxide
    51. Potassium meta bisulphide
    52. Potassium sorbate
    53. Silicasol
    54. Sodium alginate
    55. Sodium carbonate
    56. Sodium hydroxide
    57. Sodium meta bisulphide
    58. Sorbic acid
    59. Spirit derived from grapes
    60. Sulphur dioxide gas
    61. Sweet reserve
    62. Tannin
    63. Tartaric acid
    64. Tiamine
    65. Wood
    66. Yeasts and yeast nutrients
    67. Yeast mannoproteins


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.