Archive - November, 2009

Would you like a dash of natamycin with that?

Chemicals
Image by stepbar via Flickr

“There could be a hint of natamycin in your wine.” Should you jump for joy, or jump away from the glass?

What if I told you there may be a trace of resveratrol? Drink up or Throw up?

What about knowing that isinglass, bentonite and copper sulphate had possibly been used in the making of your wine? Would that make you think: “Ooh! The wine maker cares that I get a fresh, clean and clear bottle every time, I’ll buy it!” or “Cripes! This wine is adulterated and manipulated. I couldn’t possibly drink this“?

There is a bit of a story brewing concerning the first item – Natamycin. This is a “fungicide and anti-microbial agent” that is allowed in some food stuffs in the EU, so at low doses is deemed to be fine for your health. Except, it is not listed as an allowable ingredient of wine, and therefore by (EU) definition is “banned”. It now appears that new testing methods, developed in Germany, are able to detect it, and they’ve identified it in several wines from Argentina, so the law says they cannot be sold.

[Poor Argentineans! Every time we think we might see more of their wines on sale, something happens to dash their hopes (I for one will continue to buy and drink Argentinean wines).]

So where does it come from and what does it mean? Who knows!?! (the source of this may be the real story)

I (personally) am going to operate on the assumption the ban is a mainly bureaucratic issue, that the substance is safe (at low levels) and that the issue will be more about wine making processes (and who might be cutting corners) rather than any real health scare.

But what about the bigger picture?

The bigger issue relates to those other items I mentioned. Which of these are good, and which are bad? Is the average consumer going to know? Or care?

There is a movement in the wine business that says that all wines should carry ingredient labelling (see what Bonny Doon are doing) just as most other food & drink products do. The question will be, will any consumer understand those ingredients, what they mean, and what the effects are? Are we defending the consumer, or simply confusing them “for their/our own good”?

Wine is a strange beast. In principle it is simple.

You take some grapes. You crush them. You let the yeast turn the sugar into alcohol. You filter the resulting alcoholic liquid and put it into bottles. You drink it.

Except the modern consumer demands certain reliable, high quality, clean wines, clear and without funny ‘floaty bits’, harmless or otherwise. Unfortunately, to achieve that, most wines go through a few processes that may leave mere ‘traces’, for which we need to invent new tests just to know they are there, of certain substances. Does the wine drinker need to know that? I’m not sure. As long as it is safe and fair (all wineries do more or less the same), is it necessary to know as long as it isn’t actually hidden?

I’m all for educating and informing consumers that want to know more, and 110% behind the idea of analysis to ensure what they drink is safe, but after that … ?

When the EU law changed and wines had to say “contains sulphites” I personally received several calls and emails from concerned consumers that their favourite tipple was now adulterated and “gave them headaches” when in fact nothing had changed, just the label.

In the near future, wine bottles will be “encouraged” (though I don’t think forced) to carry the pregnant-women-should-not-drink-alcohol symbol, a “responsible drinking” reminder, the usual legal source and content information, and the reminder that “this wine contains sulphites/sulfites”. I wonder how much further this will go, and whether, in a few years’ time, there will be any space left for the name of the wine maker and the name of the winery?

I hope that the reaction to this particular ‘event’ is not too bad for the Argentinean wine industry, and I also hope that common sense prevails. The rules in force are strong, the tests are in place and consumers are protected – let’s also hope that bureaucracy, even if well-intentioned, does not damage the wine industry for no particular gain.

What do you think? Would you like to see ALL ingredients listed on a wine label, or are you happy as things are? Do you trust the tests to keep you safe? What would you do with the information if it was provided? I look forward to hearing what you think of this issue

<end rant>

For the record:

  • resveratrol is, in theory, good – it is associated with positive effects on the heart … but there is the rest of the body to consider!
  • isinglass is used (by some) to get “bits” out of your wine, and all of it falls out of the wine (actually called ‘fining’) or is filtered out
  • bentonite is a clay that is a good filter for wine, nothing stays in the wine
  • copper sulphate is a bad substance on its own, but in tiny quantities can remove “off odours” (stinky, bad egg) from wines and is itself them removed too
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