What’s really in your wine? A list of all the legal wine additives in the US

Posted by Holly Berrigan on

Working in natural wine, we are firm believers that it’s incredibly important to fully understand what actually makes up not just the food we eat, but also what we drink or generally consume on a day to day basis.

Wine in particular is notorious for hiding potentially dozens of additives, as there is no legal requirement for listing ingredients on a bottle of wine.

As you likely know if you’re on our site, the people working in natural wine generally work to be as transparent as possible about what goes into it, informing people on what the actual ingredients were used to produce each bottle of wine. There you’d be likely to see grapes, and some small portion of sulfur, maybe a bit of copper

In contrast, in the conventional wine industry, you’ll likely never see an ingredients list. So, here we decided to list out some of the most commonly used ones (note that there are over 60 so this is just a small sampling) and what they actually do to the wine:

Dimethyl Dicarbonate Used to stabilize and sterilize wine
Acetaldehyde Used for color stabilization
Calcium Carbonate Acid reducer
Albumen
(Egg Whites)
Fining agent
Isinglass
(Dried Fish Bladders)
Used for clarification
Gelatin Used for clarification
Sugar Used to increase alcohol and potentially add sweetness (called chapitalization)
Yeast Used to kick start fermentation
Copper Sulfate Hydrogen sulfide remover
Glucose Oxidase Used to clarify and stabilize wine
Milk Products
(Whole, Slim, ½ and ½ Milk)
Fining agent

These 12 additives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the legal additives that are allowed to be used in the U.S during the winemaking process. We didn’t want to bore you to sleep with the full list which consists of over 62 items, so here’s the full list on Alice Feiring’s website! 

To not just focus on the negatives of the commercial wine industry, we can take a diplomatic approach to the situation for a moment and look at some positives for the additives argument. Basically that they’re needed to be able to do mass production.

Once the world headed towards the mass-production era during the industrial revolution, certain additives such as salt, sugar and sulfur dioxide were essential additions for food in order to ensure its stability throughout its journey from factories or industrial kitchens, during transportation to warehouses and shops, and finally to consumers.

Here’s the WHO’s ( World Health Organisation) statement explaining why the use of additives with food is important:  “Many different food additives have been developed over time to meet the needs of food production, as making food on a large scale is very different from making them on a small scale at home.”

Did you notice that in their statement the WHO uses the sentence - “making food on a large scale”?

For us, that right there is the difference between the conventional wine industry and the natural wine movement. The use of additives is only necessary when the product is being produced on a mass scale, and natural wine is something we all know is not produced on a mass scale, far from it.

What truly separates natural wine from its conventional counterpart (a.k.a commercialized wine) boils down to the methods that are practiced in the vineyard and in the cellar, allowing terroir to shine through via minimal intervention, including minimal additives at any stage in the winemaking process. That being said, it’s important to be aware of the fact that some natural winemakers will opt for the usage of sulfites in the process to ensure their wine makes it to their final destination in a safe condition. Just for context: natural wine allows for the addition of roughly 20 to 50 parts per million whereas conventional wine allows for 350 parts per million in the U.S. For more information on natural wine in general, check out our Ultimate Guide to Natural Wine. 

So apart from the adding of sulfites by some natural winemakers, additives in the natural wine world contradict everything the natural wine movement stands for. Natural wine is not mass-produced, industrial wine where the goal is a specific, consistent taste year over year, which requires additives to achieve the goal. It’s a journey from grape to cellar to bottle, and the winemaker is there to guide the grapes along and allow them to speak for themselves.

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