Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Truth in Labeling?

We all know what goes into wine, right? Grapes, yeast, oak (well, the wine goes into the last one). All the videos of winemaking show grapes being crushed and wine being magically created in a vat or barrel. What they don't show you is the "adjustments" that take place.
France sometimes allows chaptalization - adding sugar to bring the alcohol level up to a more normal level. You can add powdered tannin, you can acidify and you can use oak barrels, staves, chips, sawdust or even liquid smoke without having to tell anyone. Ever see anyone dump a bag of something into a vat in one of those romantic montages? Me either.
Today, word is out that Fireball has been recalled in some of Europe because it contains too much propylene glycol - an ingredient in anti-freeze. Apparently there was a shipping error. Sazerac, who produces Fireball, knows the Euro Zone countries have a lower threshold for levels of that substance. The U.S. allows more and the domestic version mistakenly was exported to Europe. You can read more about that here (Daily Meal) and here (Daily Beast). Pretty sure Fireball's label doesn't divulge the presence of propylene glycol, much less the specific amount. This is a known toxin that can kill you - although you would die of alcohol poisoning way before the anti-freeze ingredient would be an issue.
Lots of attention (too much?) has been paid to sulfites which occur naturally in grapes (and oranges, for example) and help stabilize the wine from oxidation. Some people get worked up about these, claiming allergic reactions. If sulfites have been added (almost every wine on a retail shelf) there will be a small statement to that effect on the label.
For a more in depth presentation of additions, check out this Washington State University link.
Many wineries tell you what they remove from the wines - fining and filtering - but very few disclose what goes in. We demand truth in labeling for food and medicines, why not wine? Ridge Vineyards has come to the rescue and voluntarily decided to show what they are putting in the bottle. This short video from Ridge explains the process and shows an example label. They have been doing this for a while so this is not breaking news but I thought it worth acknowledging.

While I don't view the additions to wine as health risks I would like be able to see if a wine has been adjusted. Generally, more expensive wines are coddled from grape to bottle. Because they are well-tended they do not need to be "fixed" as often. You should assume most cheap bottles of wine are more of a chemistry experiment. It is the bottles in between that need the disclosures. If there are two similarly priced wines on a shelf and one reads like Ridge's label and the other looks more like the back of a Cheetos bag, I am going to choose the more natural one, every time. And my palate will thank me. I can sometimes taste acidified wines. I can sometimes tastes wines that have powdered tannin added. If I can't taste the manipulation then I don't care. But the only way to know, for now, is to buy the bottle and open it. Sure would be nice to take a quick glance at a label and know one more thing about the wine you're considering.

Next post: A continuation of this them addressing grape percentages, alcohol level and organic declaration.





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