What's in your wine?

wine grapes processed by different methods yield very different wines
CC BY 2.0 Stefano Lublana

At a dinner party the other day, we opened a bottle of wine with a label that once would have been understood to command a fine price. But this bottle was purchased relatively cheaply. "How is it possible?", we thought.

The wine had a good nose, rich color, and was pleasant to drink. The topic of conversation turned to whether whatever the wine makers do to produce such a good beverage cheaply can be justified by such ends. Purists gape in dismay at talk of micro-oxidation, mega purple, and wood chips instead of barrel aging. Bon vivants blame the added sulfites for a rash of post-consumption problems.

Should we be concerned about how our wine is made, what baddies are added, what goodies may not be favored by modern food processing?

Elsevier/Promo image

Studies indicate that drinking wine in moderation provides health benefits. It is still not entirely clear whether the link is due to a bit of relaxation at the end of a hard day, or to the many bioactive plant chemicals available in the wine -- maybe both. But many more studies credit compounds like anthocyanins and reservatrol with antioxidant and other properties beneficial to health.

This leads one to believe that a wine rich in anthocyanins should be preferred over one with less of this healthy source of a rich red color in wines. The modern wine consumer cannot judge anthocyanine levels by color or texture, though, if the wine maker has added a dose of controversial food color Megapurple to fake the effect (or as the industry would put it, to ensure a consistent wine experience).

Thankfully, a new study on what's in our wine offers some insight into how wines differ depending on process, and on how such testing can be done effectively to further underpin our consumer choice between quality and cost.

The first result of interest, shown in the table above, considers the variation in sweetness of the wines. We did note that our cheap king of wines had a sweeter note than the expensive varieties in our experience. The wine sample 5 pops off the sweetness chart relative to other samples -- it is the one credited with the most modern production techniques, including micro-oxidation and aging in stainless steel with wood chips mixed in instead of in barrels.

Wine 5 also showed only average anthocyanins. The study authors note: "It was surprising that the new wine processing method, micro-oxygenation (MOX), produced only average amounts of anthocyanins (Wine 5). Most probably, the reason was oxidation of some anthocyanins." On the other hand wine 3, from biodynamically cultivated grapes, contained more than the average amount of these cancer fighting, inflammation-reducing, life-extending natural compounds.

The number and extent of wine variations studied boggles the mind a bit, and without clear evidence for which tendencies are healthier or tastier, the results can be data overload rather than useful decision-making factors. Further studies will certainly try to relate the various characteristics to beneficial or detrimental effects, helping to clarify which differences in wine are important and which can be ignored. But it seems to me that more sugars and less antioxidants doesn't speak well for the modern methods. And if biodynamic is better, then labeling that would be good.

Wine makers would be well served to embrace the methods introduced by this study to steer their wines towards those properties they believe their consumers want. And consumers would benefit from knowing a bit more about what is really in their wine when standing in the market making their choice.

Tags: Chemicals | Food Safety | Organic Agriculture | Wine

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