Monday, January 16, 2012

What’s in your wine?

(A version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian A Plus section on 31 December 2011)

photo: Adrian Lander
Poor old wine. As we slosh our way through the festive season, our favourite Coonawarra cabernet is no doubt copping more than its fair share of blame for the headaches and hangovers we are currently enduring.

Some people identify the wine’s alcohol - specifically the alcohol in that fifth glass of Coonawarra cabernet - as the cause of our predicament. But many accuse the ‘other stuff’ in wine of making us feel bad: it must have been the preservatives/the additives/the sulphur dioxide - that’s why my head hurts this morning.

There is a widespread view out there among the wine-drinking community that the additives and processing aids routinely used in wine production have a detrimental effect on the drinker. There is also growing anxiety about what exactly is being added to Australian wine in the first place, and the detrimental effect this is having on wine’s image.

Consumer concern couldn’t have been expressed any more alarmingly than in a recent news headline in The Australian: ‘Nod for laxative chemical to be used in winemaking’. The chemical in question is sodium carboxymethylcellulose, or CMC, a thickener, already used in a huge range of products from toothpaste to ice cream (and, yes, laxatives) which has also just been approved as a wine additive by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Despite wine industry assurances that CMC is harmless, the headline underlines that niggling worry; I mean, sodium carboxymethylcellulose ... it just sounds so unnatural.

One of the reasons people are worried about what’s in their wine is the fact that very little information about what’s in their wine appears on the label. Other than listing mandatory information such as alcohol content and the presence or even possible presence of widely-recognised allergens - sulphur dioxide (added as a preservative) and milk, eggs or nuts (used as clarifying agents) - the winemaker is not required to declare any of the dozens of approved additives or processing aids allowed by FSANZ.

A few months ago, when I wrote about the possible approval of CMC and whether such additives should be listed on wine labels, I asked readers for feedback. I was inundated with emails: it appears the vast majority of you would indeed like to see ingredients labelling on wine.

Two areas of concern emerged: health issues associated with drinking wine ‘laden’ with chemicals, and the perception of winemaking as an increasingly industrialized process.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the amount of chemicals in wine impacts on my health,” said one reader, echoing many. “There are times I can drink three glasses of wine from a bottle and wake up fine, and then other nights when I have three from another wine I wake up with a splitting headache. I feel very strongly that the Government has been criminally negligent in not legislating to have every single additive displayed on the label of all food [because] wine is a food as far as I am concerned - it goes into my digestive system!”

Creina Stockley, health and regulatory information manager for the Australian Wine Research Institute, hears similar concerns all the time. She points out that, while a few people are genuinely allergic to some wine additives (primarily sulphur dioxide), by far the primary cause of adverse reactions is - ahem - the alcohol, present in far higher concentration than any other component in wine. In other words, she says, it is highly unlikely that processing aids or additives are the wicked culprits they’re often made out to be.

But health isn’t the only thing you’re concerned about. The perceived over-manipulation of wine also threatens its image as a natural product.

One veteran winemaker wrote in to voice his contempt at the approval of CMC as a wine additive. “The search for more and more processing aids [like this] is driven by the commercial need to make an acceptable wine from fruit that has been either grown in an inappropriate climate, harvested too early or too late or converted to wine by incompetent winemaking,” he harrumphed. “Grapes harvested at physiological ripeness and handled by a competent winemaker should not need that many additives or enhancements to ‘improve’ quality. The addition of [CMC to the list] will further strengthen the perception (particularly overseas) that Australian wine is too ‘manufactured’.”

Many readers agreed, advocating labeling. “I think it’s only fair that we wine drinkers should be able to easily tell which winemakers are brave enough to let the grapes speak for themselves, rather than manipulate the juice to fit their ideal through the use of a cocktail of chemicals,” wrote one. “I travel to many wine producing regions,” wrote another “and if a winery promoted that it was limiting what additives it used I would make sure I visited there before less additive-friendly wineries”.

Katrina Birchmeier of Hobart’s Garagistes restaurant, which prides itself on its list of natural, additive-free wine, is adamant: “I definitely think that wines should be required to state on their labels all the ingredients used in the wine making process. I'm sure it would cause great uproar across the Australian winemaking industry. But if producers are willing to put this stuff into their wine (and drink it themselves), then why should they be scared to put it on a label? Consumers need to be able to make an informed choice.”

Some readers, however, felt that full disclosure is not the best way to address consumer concerns - and could even make matters worse.

“No, wine makers should not list all the ingredients and processing aids,” wrote one reader, an industrial chemist. “Take diammonium phosphate. That sounds like a ‘chemical’, so it must be bad for you, right? In fact it’s a yeast nutrient and there’s none left in the wine by the end of the fermentation process. I'm sure that the more these additives are referred to in 'chemical' terms, the more the public will view the product as synthetic rather than natural. To reduce a wine to a list of its component ingredients is to reduce it to a science, not to elevate the art. As some great salesman once said, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the steak.’”

Winemaker Frank van de Loo from Mount Majura vineyard in Canberra has a similar if slightly different view: while he doesn’t think ingredients labeling is necessary, he’s all for transparency - and has even done something about it.

“I think if we winemakers are going to bandy big chemical names about,” he says, “we need to help people know what they are and what they are there for.”  So he has set up What’s In Wine, a blog that acts as a “plain-English (and slightly opinionated) guide” to wine additives and processing aids.

If you are at all concerned about this topic, or if you want to learn exactly what additives are available to winemakers, van de Loo’s blog is worth reading, as is the list of health-related FAQs on the Australian Wine Research Institute’s web site. Neither will put you off your wine entirely - but they might inspire you to seek out wines that haven’t been buggered-around with too much.


Why do some wines cause me problems while I have absolutely no problem with others?

“Unfortunately,” says Creina Stockley, “there is no satisfactory answer to this question. There are very few actual allergens in wine, the main one being sulphur dioxide (and other sulphites used as preservatives). But the majority of people aren’t allergic to sulphites; there’s not even a huge number of people who are intolerant.” So we can rule out sulphites as the bad guy? Well, yes - and besides, she says, wine contains relatively low levels of sulphites: you’ll find more in supermarket sausages or burgers, and much more - ten times the amount - in dried apricots or sliced apple. Stockley suggests that different wines affecting people in different ways is more likely to be caused by compounds derived from the grapes themselves. “There are hundreds of naturally occurring compounds in wine,” she says. “It’s very hard to pinpoint how they interact - and how the food you’re eating reacts with them. And there are so many other factors to take into account: as you get older your body handles the alcohol less well; for women, hormones play an enormous part; it could even come down to lack of sleep: how tired you are when you drink the wine.”

I can drink European wine without any side-effects but Australian wine gives me a headache. Do European wines contain fewer chemicals?

No. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s just not true that European wines contain fewer additives than their Australian counterparts. “It’s a myth,” confirms Stockley. “Australia’s standards are aligned with European standards: they can add the same things we can.” In other words, cheap industrial wine is cheap industrial wine, regardless of where it’s from. Indeed, says Stockley, the recent approval by FSANZ of carboxymethylcellulose was in part to bring our standards in line with the rest of the world: CMC is already an allowed wine additive in many other countries. Instead, Stockley suspects people’s different experiences drinking Australian and European wines may again be down to varying natural constituents in the wine derived from different soils and the use of different grape varieties.

If a wine is labeled ‘organic’ does that mean it contains no added chemicals?

Not necessarily. Just fewer added chemicals. Australian organic certifying organisations do allow some additives such as sulphur dioxide but in lower doses than in ‘conventional’ winemaking: according to the AWRI web site, “the amount of sulphur dioxide which can be added to ‘organic’ wines is approximately 50 per cent less than that which can be added to ‘non-organic’ wines.” And, to be fair, conscientious, quality-minded ‘conventional’ wine producers also try to limit the additions to a fraction of what’s allowed by FSANZ.

So ‘organic wines’ aren’t the same as ‘preservative-free’ wines?

No. You can find many organic wines that do contain low levels of sulphites - and you can find wines labelled ‘preservative-free’ that are made from conventionally-grown grapes. However, in my experience the best preservative-free wines are made by certified organic producers: Botobolar and Lowe in Mudgee; Temple Bruer in Langhorne Creek and Battle of Bosworth in McLaren Vale. 


  1. An enlightening read, thanks for raising and then answering these questions in such an erudite manner. Plenty of rhetoric and anecdotal evidence of the pros / cons of natural wine, it is great to read an informed article setting the record straight, or at least back on track.

  2. I was interested to read the detail, but surprised that there is no difference in the additives used in Australia and Europe. Australian red wine leaves me feeling the next morning as though I have not slept. I have travelled a fair bit in Europe and drunk a lot of wine there and have never experienced these symptoms

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