It's flowering in the vineyards.

It's flowering in the vineyards.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Guess What's In Your Wine!

I have in a previous article offered my fanciful interpretation of wine’s origins—how it was discovered by ancient, cave-dwelling, soon-to-be-oenophiles (click here). In that set-up, wine appeared spontaneously because of the natural yeasts on the grapes. In fact, some writers note that each grape is a self-contained winery. It contains all that is needed—sugar, moisture, yeasts. That wine was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” is without question. However, once the process was more fully understood, mankind quickly developed and formalized the following basic routine: Pick the grapes when ripe, crush them, let natural yeasts ferment the sugars into alcohol, remove precipitates and—start drinking!


The above “flashcard” approach assumes that nature will take its course and the finished wine will be clear, bright, aromatic, balanced, well structured, and, overall, taste just great. However, in a non-interventionist mode, that is not always the case, and winemakers now utilize any number of numerous legally approved additives and supplements to adjust the wine to their desired stylistic goal. Some consider this an artistic “crafting” effort, while others relate it to what the French call elevage—literally raising or otherwise elevating the wine from its rather base, untamed state to something far more civilized and refined.

The winemaker’s range of options now includes a wide variety of fifty or more materials and additives that are legally “approved as being consistent with good commercial practice in the production, cellar treatment, or finishing of wine.” Along the way, to facilitate the final product and achieve their intended wine style, winemakers can, for example, increase or reduce inherent acidities, augment or diminish natural tannins, raise or lower usual alcohol levels, and deepen or lighten colors and flavors. Additionally, they can (and should) fine, filter, clarify and purify, while they also stabilize, deodorize and preserve. And, of course, they can also sweeten, smooth and enrich—all intended to deliver the perfect, critically-approved wine. Whew!

In addition to the obligatory statement that alcohol consumption could be harmful to your health, wine labels typically only mention the alcohol level and the presence of sulfites. Some wine journalists argue for inclusion of all additives and materials that have been utilized in wine’s production. I’m conflicted on that one, and you might be as well. What do you or I conclude from the use of these unpronounceables: acetaldehyde, alumino-silicates, dimethylpoly-siloxane, dimethyl dicarbonate, ethyl maltol, ferrocyanide compounds, granular cork, polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone, or lysozyme? They are all legally approved to produce some of the salutary effects noted above, and they apparently have no known side effects.

However, I’m not nearly as confident about the following wine additive that seized my attention while researching this topic: sodium carboxymethyl cellulose (SCC). California Watch, founded by The Center for Investigative Reporting, reported on December 6, 2011 that “Australia OKs laxative agent as wine additive.” SCC apparently is a chemical contained in laxatives that is “prized by the medical world for its anti-bulking and laxative properties.” In addition to that it is used in small doses “to stabilize and thicken beverages and food.”

What the crap is that all about? That stuff’s in my wine? Are they telling me those enticing, viscous “legs” oozing down the insides of my stemware are attributable to sodium carboxymethyl cellulose and not to the inherent nature of the grapes or their unique terroir provenance? Is that voluptuous, full-bodied summer white nothing more than an airbrushed, anorexic lightweight with a padded bra? And does that mean it could take 12 to 24 hours to experience its long, crisp “finish?” Dare I go on? OK, one more: It seems that SCC gives a whole new meaning to the wine tasting descriptor commonly referred to as “barnyard.”

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that wine label warnings for the 50+ AARP crowd might be in order when SCC is added to the wine. At a minimum, they should be advised to reduce the serving size of their morning, high-fiber cereal, and/or possibly forego their twice or thrice-daily routine of Metamucil, Citrucel and other fiber-laden products that promote regularity, intestinal bliss and a cheery disposition. On the other hand, while it’s not exactly homeopathic or holistic, I wonder if two or three glasses a day of Aussie wine—a sort of vinous stool softener—could well take the place of those two intestinal aids.

Of course, my concerns are nonsensical. I really don’t expect any wide spread movement with regard to the increased used of SCC. The General Counsel of The Wine Institute, the trade organization for California’s wine industry assures us that he “doesn’t think” that the approved levels will trigger any laxative effect. Stay tuned for any late-breaking news.


















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