The earliest traces of winemaking dates all the way back to 7,000 BC. In the ruins of the ancient civilization of Jiahu, archaeologists were able to uncover grape seeds and pots containing tartaric acid, the main acid in wine grapes.
A few thousand years later, wine additives were discovered. In 4100 BC, Persians began using pine resin to prevent their wine from spoiling. Around this time, the ancient Greeks were also mixing their wine with perfumes, herbs, brines, and seawater for flavor. It is reported that even the ancient Romans were adding sulfites to their wine.
Why wine additives get a bad rep
For some reason, though, there is a considerable negative stigma surrounding wine additives. Many people mistakenly believe that additives are dangerous or take away from the flavor of wines.
Though there have been incidents in which wine additives have harmed people, most of those situations happened decades ago when winemaking protocols were loosely enforced. For instance, over thirty years ago, there was a group of incidents in Italy and Austria where industrial chemicals were used to sweeten low-quality wines.
Consumers were essentially poisoned. Fortunately, there were no deaths or serious injuries. Since then, authorities have taken ample measures to regulate the use of chemical ingredients in wine. Nowadays, it is practically unheard of for a wine brand to use harmful additives in its products.
Most wine additives today are completely harmless when used properly. They can be used to improve the taste and aroma of the wine and its color and depth. They can even speed up the fermentation process.
Still, you may find that some wine aficionados are adamant in their belief that additives are a cheap shortcut to create good wine. Today, we aim to dispel that myth.
Types of wine additives
So what kind of additives do you normally find in wine? Well, there are a ton. But the most commonly seen ones are sulfites, lactic acid bacteria, isinglass or fish bladder, sugar, tartaric acid, and copper sulfate.
Sulfites are used to protect wines from bacteria and oxidation. The wines with the highest levels of sulfites are sweet wines and white/rosé wines.
Lactic Acid Bacteria
Lactic acid bacteria is the same acid found in milk. It’s used for malolactic fermentation, which helps reduce the strong-tasting malic acidity in wine. This additive can be found in most red wines and some full-bodied white wines like chardonnay.
Isinglass or fish bladder is a clarifying agent used in several white wines. Without this additive, white wine would be cloudy instead of clear. This ingredient is not vegetarian-friendly, so if you don’t eat meat, make sure to check your wine bottles before indulging.
Sugar, as you may have guessed already, is used to sweeten some wines. The process of adding sugar to unfermented grapes is called chaptalization. In colder regions like France, Germany, and northeast America, the grapes aren’t naturally sweet enough, so using sugar in the wines is basically required.
However, you’ll still see some wine enthusiasts criticize brands that use chaptalization. To some people, this additive is cheating the winemaking process.
On the other hand, tartaric acid is used to add acidity to wine grapes. In overly hot regions, grapes can become too ripe, lacking any fizz.
Copper sulfate, not to be confused with sulfites, helps improve the scent of certain wines. Some wines, due to sulfide faults, end up smelling like spoiled eggs. To compensate, producers add a dash of copper. Only a very small amount of copper can be used, as it is toxic in large amounts.
Corrective vs. common additives
Another way to categorize wine additives is by differentiating corrective and common additives.
A corrective additive is exactly what it sounds like. It is used to fix or correct a flaw in the wine, whether its taste, aroma, color or something else. For instance, copper sulfate is a corrective additive because it is used to solve wine smelling bad.
If a wine requires many corrective additives, there is likely something off about its grape quality, the region the wine is produced in, or the production process.
Generally, high-quality wines require few corrective additives when made. However, there are scenarios in which corrective additives are necessary, regardless of the quality of ingredients or purity of the production process.
In contrast, a common additive is essentially any other additive used to improve a wine. An example of a common additive is sulfites, which don’t address any specific issue in the wine but rather prevent harm.
For centuries, wine producers in Italy and France would use egg whites to purify their products. The proteins in the egg white would cling to loose proteins floating around in the wine. After a while, the egg white and proteins would flow out of the wine and sink to the bottom of the barrel.
Finally, the winemaker would strain the clean wine from the top of the vessel and discard the sludge at the bottom. The result is a clear, fully purified liquid. This process is known as fining and racking.
This practice was passed down for generations. Yet as the world begins to trend toward a future void of animal products, many wine companies have begun to use alternative techniques to clean their wines.
Recently, many vegetarian wine fining methods have been introduced. Some wine producers use gelatin as a fining agent in their products. Others use potassium salt.
As more and more wine companies improve sustainability, we will probably be seeing many more vegetarian wine additives in the future market.
Why use wine additives?
Ultimately, wine additives make the mass production of wine possible. Without these supplemental ingredients, it could take years for wine producers to achieve the same effects.
Think about it. Would you really prefer a market in which only natural wines were allowed?
Imagine this. You’re browsing the shelves of your local liquor store. But instead of seeing hundreds of different wine brands stacked on top of each other, you only see a few dozen. There’s a limited section of white wines. There are only a few reds. There’s hardly anything special.
This is the industry we would live in if wine additives weren’t used. Tied to the past’s old production methods and recipes, it would have been impossible for the market to expand how it has today. Additives eliminate the need for certain resources and processes in winemaking.
In a matter of minutes, fining agents can get rid of haziness and bitterness in wine. In the same vein, colorants give many of the wines we’ve come to know their beautiful colors. Defoaming agents can reduce excess bubbling. Fermentation enhancers rapidly ramp up the fermentation process.
Are you starting to get the picture? Wine additives have greatly contributed to the blossoming of this worldwide business and culture. If you are a fan of wine, you should be appreciative of wine additives as well.
In addition, many of the wines that consider themselves natural still use sulfites. It is frequently debated whether or not sulfites should be labeled as additives. So, how practical is it really to expect your wine to be fully natural?
Unlike most food and drink products, alcohol brands are not required to disclose all of the ingredients they use. For this reason, it’s wise to shop with a brand that is fully transparent about its winemaking process.
There are a ton of cheap, poorly-made wines out there. Be smart and choose products that are as committed to providing quality as you are in seeking it.
However, you should also inquire why a wine uses particular additives before disregarding it as bad quality. It’s very possible that the additives used actually complement the profile of the wine. Not all additives are used to mask cheapness.
As useful as wine additives can be, there are still many producers that create completely natural wine. Natural wines make up a very small portion of the market, but they gradually grow in popularity. If you really are committed to drinking only natural wine, you can still find what you’re looking for.
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