What the label doesn’t say
Google wine label and you get plenty of hits on what should be on a wine label. Most of it is pretty obvious stuff on what, who, where. The additional pregnant woman warning is praiseworthy but feels like telling a Formula-1 driver that he’s into a dangerous sport (when will there finally be a she?). Same for the government warning on wine bottles in the USA.
What’s more interesting to know is what the label doesn’t say.
Contains sulfites (or sulphites, depending on your American or British spelling preference). Two words, causing waves of misunderstanding. It makes you sick, it’s only in cheap wine, organic wines go without, new world wines contain more, etc. Newsflash: all wine contains sulfite! But also fruit juice, pizza, potato chips and plenty of other food that you consume regularly. In fact, a handful of dried apricots contains 10 times more sulfite than wine! So, what’s the deal with wine then?
All wine contains sulfite
During the fermentation process of sugar to alcohol there is always a bit of sulfite released as by-product, making it a naturally present compound of wine. The real question to ask is how much sulfite has been added? I’ll get to that in a minute, first let’s see why sulfite is added by most winemakers.
Sulfite, or sulfur dioxide (SO2) is an essential preservative for any winemaker. It prevents oxidation of the wine and serves as anti-bacterial agent at the same time. Would you want to risk your carefully treated harvest smelling like horse manure or vinegar once opened at the dinner table? You won’t get away with ‘goût de terroir’ on that one, trust me.
Some winemakers purposely don’t add sulfite, these wines go as natural wines. In other words, wine with little as possible additives and manipulation by the winemaker. Until a formal certification system comes into place, this seems to remain a niche, albeit a growing one for people who look for wines that are as natural as possible.
That leaves us with the question how much sulfite is normally added. Some producers put the information online on the wine’s fiche technique, but in most cases you simply cannot tell. It is reassuring to know that smarter winemakers and improved wine making techniques and equipment have led to sulfite levels that are way under what is legally permitted in the EU: 160 mg/liter for red wine and 210 mg/liter for white & rosé wine.
In short, the message “Contains sulfites” is superfluous until actual figures are mandatory on the label. Less is always better when it comes to preservatives, but don’t let the sulfite myths stand in your way of enjoying wine.
Quite a few people seem to select a wine in the shop on alcohol level (abbreviated as ABV = alcohol by volume). That might account for the worldwide trend going towards lighter wines with less alcohol. No more Amarone or Zinfandel? I guess there will always be a contemplative moment for the 15%+ alcoholic blockbusters from Veneto or a scrumptious summer BBQ screaming for a glass of Zin.
The alcohol % on the label is often not 100% correct
If the alcohol level is guiding people in their purchasing decisions, with a trend towards lighter wines, it sounds logical wine producers are really careful about the % they put on the label. Huh? Isn’t it just a matter of correctly measuring and mentioning on the bottle? Nope, believe it or not, the number on the label is often not exactly the ABV that is in the bottle!
While you think you’re buying a relatively light American Cabernet with 13% on the label, this potent Californian could actually have up to 14% alcohol. Before you start tweeting your outrage, this practice of varying percentages is 100% legal (no pun intended). Yep, the official tolerance margin for the alcohol label statement is actually quite large, depending on where you drink: +/- 1,5% for USA (due to tax reasons the cut-off point here is 14%, wines above 14% have max 1% tolerance) & Australia and 0,8% for the EU, for example.
So, don’t put too much trust in the ABV levels next time you’re comparing bottles for alcohol.