As you pull the cork from a freshly opened bottle of wine and pour yourself a large glass, you close your eyes and take a sip. You begin to wonder: Are there strawberries in this wine? How about flowers? How did they incorporate all these flavors? A glass of wine is not just a glass of grape juice, but let’s get one thing clear: No strawberries or flowers are ever used as wine ingredients.
Wineries make it difficult to know every ingredient used in their wines. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “Nutrition information on labels of alcohol beverages is unnecessary and unwarranted.” You won’t find much information on the bottle other than the type of grapes, whether they’re organic, or if sulfites are used.
So how can you ever know what’s actually in the wines you’re drinking? Let’s break it down.
Grape must (skin and seeds)
First things first: To make wine, you need grape must. That’s freshly crushed grape juice with solids containing the skins and seeds.
Two types of yeast are used in wine making. The first is wild yeast, which is exactly as it sounds: from the wild. Naturally existing yeast in the air clings to surfaces in the vineyard, and eventually, the grapes ferment while the yeast eats the natural sugar in the wine must.
The second is cultured yeast that is added to the grape must. It produces consistent and reliable results, but it’s generally not preferred by winemakers. This is used more often to keep a desired characteristic in the wine consistent.
Yes, sugar is a common wine ingredient — but most of it is converted into alcohol, so there’s no unnecessary or unwanted sweetness. As the amount of alcohol rises in wine, the level of sugar drops. If you’re worried about sugar, go for a dry wine.
Certain acids are added to a wine for various reasons. For example, tartaric acid lowers the pH to a level at which many bacteria cannot live, and it acts as a preservative after fermentation. Naturally occurring in fruit and sometimes added, it occasionally causes crystals to form on the cork.
Malic acid in wine turns into lactic acid — yes, think milk — in a process called malolactic fermentation, producing the creamy flavor and texture in your favorite buttery Chardonnay.
Sulfur isn’t a bad thing in wine; it’s used to kill unwanted bacteria and yeast. This ultimately stabilizes and allows the wine to last longer. Some people are sensitive to sulfur, but this really only affects about 1 percent of the population.
Mythbuster coming at you: Sulfur does not cause headaches; dehydration does. Wines with more than 20 ppm (parts per million) must be labeled with “contains sulfites.” Steer clear of those if you really are concerned about or sensitive to sulfur, but keep in mind that the dried fruits you buy from the grocery store have four to 10 times more sulfites than wine.
Another few tips to keep in mind if you are sulfite-conscious:
A USDA organic seal of approval means the wine is made with 100 percent certified organic ingredients, meaning all yeast and sulfur dioxide are naturally occurring in wine, not added. No sulfite statement is required on the label, because the levels are so low.
If a label says “made with organic grapes,” the winemaking process isn’t necessarily organic. It still might contain sulfites but at a level less than 100 ppm.
The cheaper the wine, the more likely it is that the wine uses additional ingredients to keep the wine consistent and tasting good.
Keep in mind: Every country has its own rules. If you do have a sensitivity, contact the winery directly.
This is the process of polishing or finishing the wine before it’s bottled, sometimes using egg whites. Crazy, right? The proteins in the egg whites bind to proteins suspended in the wine, ultimately making the wine easy to strain. Unfortunately for vegans, there’s no way to know if this process is used unless you look for a wine specifically advertised as vegan.
Wine labels don’t list every product used to make their wine, but now you’ll know a few things to look for when choosing a bottle.