Wine & Chemicals

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A recent study by Beverage Grades revealed excessive contents of Arsenic (a poison for the human body) in some well-known bottles on the US market such as Korbel, Cupcake, Menage a Trois, Sutter Home and more…

Here is the link: http://www.taintedwine.com/test-results

A lot of things could be said about the vast subject of wine and chemicals, and I have noticed that plenty of wine drinkers are curious about it. In this article, I will voluntarily only talk about the use of chemicals (and other practices) during the wine-making process, in other words what happens after the grapes have been harvested. Agriculture and vine-growing will be discussed in a future article.

All facts mentioned in this article come from reliable sources, conversations with winemakers and official documents.

“Why are there sulfites in wine and are they dangerous for you?” I often hear this question in tastings and it seems to be a very interesting one to consumers.

The answer is simple: there is no wine without sulfite.

Some bottles contain more sulfites (=sulfur dioxide) than others. The amount used depends on various factors such as the type of wine (what grape?, what soils?…), the sanitary quality of the crop, the facilities’ cleanliness, the winemaker’s philosophy etc…

Where do they come from? Sulfites, those molecules that might cause headaches to certain people, occur naturally as they are produced during the alcoholic fermentation through the action of  yeasts. The rest is added by winemakers, in order to sterilize and preserve the wine.

Sulfites act as a preservative agent, as an antiseptic, and as an antioxidant. They’re used at different stages of winemaking with various purposes. Sulfur dioxide protects wine against oxidation, against bacteria, and also helps stopping the fermentation. Without sulfites, wine would turn into vinegar very fast.

You can easily understand why they are so useful when it comes to producing quality wine. Some wines available out there are sulfite free but from my experience, nine times out of ten you’ll get a flawed bottle with abnormal smells and taste.  Also, they’re very unstable, won’t take a long travel, and will die prematurely.

That being said, a lot of bottles still display excessive levels of sulfites today. The best thing to do to avoid those is to find a reasonable winegrower, unfortunately it’s never written on the label!

For your information, a red wine produced in the USA can contain up to 350 mg/L of sulfite, while a bottle from the EU is limited to 150 mg/L.

“What are the differences between France and new world countries?” is another question I’ve been asked before.

For the most part, legislation allows the use of the same products in most countries even though the new world goes further into “modern” practices. Here are some differences:

– Acidification: Adding tartric acid to wine is permitted everywhere in the world. However, adding malic acid (a pretty strong acid bringing freshness) and lactic acid (less agressive but more stable) is not allowed in Europe while it’s possible in the USA. Very helpful when you harvest overripe grapes because of a very hot summer (vintage 2003 in France). Also, Chile, Canada and the USA resort to fumaric acid.

– Dealcoholization: Canada, South Africa, Australia and the USA all utilize a forbidden method in France, which consists in partially removing alcohol from wine, using this machine:

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That process allows the vine-growers to leave the grapes mature more and more without thinking about the  potential alcohol content.

Dye, preservatives, water, chemicals… : South Africa, Canada and Australia permit adding dye to wine. The United States tolerate the addition of water in order to decrease the alcohol content. Benzoic acid, a preservative, is added to Chilean wines. Finally, a chemical called “polyvinyl imidazole/polyvinyl pyrolidone” was authorized in the USA around 10 years ago but was refused in Europe. Studies are currently being conducted about it.

GMO yeast addition: Most wineries and estates in the world use yeast addition (yeasts that aren’t naturally present on the grape’ skin) in order to make wine and it makes sense because fermentation is a complicated process. However, some researchers in Canada developed a genetically modified yeast that allows the winemaker to determine in advance the future taste of the wine, acidity level, alcohol content, color etc… Another surprising fact, this yeast is responsible for simultaneous alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, which is in theory, naturally impossible. At this point, it’s not winemaking anymore but pure chemistry!

This yeast has been used in Canada and in the USA since 2003 and unfortunately, it is not mentioned on the label either.

I’m not trying to claim in this article that France or Europe are perfect when it comes to chemicals. Actually, France has been warned by the European Union about its use of pesticides for agriculture more than once. However, with new generations taking over, more and more organic vineyards, political actions, and an increased global awareness about these issues, I believe that within 10 years, we’ll be back to much more respectful methods.

Furthermore, the French AOC system (appellation d’origine contrôlée) and its pretty strict rules guarantees that our wines are not being elaborated using industrial methods such as the Canadian GMO yeast and maintains ancestral techniques in order to produce a wine faithful to its land.

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