Why are wine additives considered unacceptable?

To give a bit of exposition, a couple of weeks ago I went to a beer tasting of Stone’s Vertical Epic with the 2004 to 2012 ‘vintages’ of this bottling. The styles and ingredients varied widely from year to year, but there was an interesting parallel to wine. The older vintages were integrated, a bit more mellow, like a wine with a few years in bottle. The most recent vintages were complex, effusive, and showing all of their individual ingredients (spices, fruits, chocolate, peppers, etc.) much like a young, primary wine showing barrel character and fermentation aromas.

Now, to get to the point. If it’s acceptable to make beer as complex as desired by adding as many compatible ingredients as you like (as well as inoculating with the desired isolated yeast strains), why can’t one do this with wine? I’m not talking about oak dust, Mega Purple or Velcorin here. Rather, why would judicious use of spices, fruits and herbs simply be forbidden? Oak is used as an additive, so why is it the only permissible additive?

As much as preservation of terroir is used as justification, it is no secret that the greatest of all greats DRC uses a consistent program of high quality new oak across its various terroirs. The terroir differences are still preserved across Crus because the winemaking style is a sort of ‘experimental control’ in their production. (Interestingly, the more superior the terroir, the more new oak is often used.) But oak changes a wine’s character; it imparts flavors and aromas, even texture, to the wine.

Oak does have a clear purpose in terms of the gentle, natural micro-oxidative maturation of wine. But the only reason it seems to be acceptable to use it as an additive is because it’s historically established. And in wines that aren’t aging for decades–most new world wines–it’s the additive qualities of oak that seem to be most highly prized.

Oak is nice in moderation. Once non-French producers started using new oak like the French, the gap in perceived wine quality closed markedly. It’s a great equalizer in some sense. But why limit the palette to only a narrow set of additives? While oak is complex and can be treated by coopers in a variety of ways, one cannot isolate desired characteristics completely. There are many, many degrees of freedom as concerns potential wine additives, yet tradition dictates only a few dimensions are viewed as non-alduterative.

Well, Greg…they are not forbidden. Think of BaroloChinato. Or Vermouth. It is well known that all Porto producers
add some kind of berries to their wine in producing Porto to darken the color. And think SeanThackery’s wines. He adds eucalyptus oil…
though not in a controlled fashion. And think of Umbrian Visciola…which has cherries added.

You can make all of that you want, you just can’t call it “wine”, you have to call it “wine with additional natural flavors”.

I can’t disagree with any of these. But they certainly aren’t mainstream or viewed as ‘regular’ wine. They are all pigeonholed or viewed as niche wines. Port is as close as it gets to wide popularity, and that is viewed as its own category or more broadly as a fortified wine. And still there seems to be a push towards dry ‘international’ reds in Portugal.

Forbidden was a poor word choice, I think. It is not a law of nature that wine must only be grapes and oak, but there seems to a significant barrier for entry of any wine with non-oak additives to the broader consciousness. If grape stems can be interesting in moderation, why not sage, mint, ‘asian five spice’ or lavender? These are all aromas that can be found in wine intrinsically or even picked up from the environment. Rhone garrigue is a less extreme version of Thackery’s ‘ambient eucalyptus’, I think.

Heck, very few of oak’s flavors are intrinsic to fermented grapes. In principle, there are many natural things that could be tossed in with fermenting grapes and not seem out of place, varietal character and terroir expression not withstanding.

But doesn’t this also describe toasted oak staves’ contribution to wine? There is some legal definition of a wine additive, it is what it is. But wine stored in concrete, glass, or even very old botti is different from wine aged in new barriques. The difference is ‘additional natural flavors.’

If I buy beer, as far as I know there is no requirement that an ale with more than barley, hops, malt and yeast must be called ‘beer with additional flavors.’ The brewer probably wants to highlight the additions to differentiate from mega-brewery swill, though they probably will use a proprietary name.

What is it about wine and oak that is fundamentally different? Most wines with ‘stuff’ added end up as caricatures like Chocovino or extremes like mulled wine. But I suspect there are ways to augment wine in moderation with additives other than oak.

There’s a long history of the kind of additions you mention - much longer than there has been the kind of minimalism demanded by the natural wine movement. Salt water was a common addition to wines of the biblical era, and Retsina is a relic of how wine used to be made. These additions were made either to make an unpalatable wine into something drinkable or to preserve it for a little while longer - until the next harvest.

The counterargument to this, and “natural wine” would be at the extreme, is that we’ve finally hit a point in our understanding of viticulture and winemaking that we no longer need to add these things to make an excellent product. Or, we need to add a minimum of things.

One big difference between wine and beer is that grapes varieties are highly adapted to particular soil and climates, and there is a long history of privileging the raw material of various regions. In my experience, while beer has regional styles, the re-creation of those styles elsewhere doesn’t present much of a challenge. Tom Hill may love Nebbiolo, but it will be far more difficult for a West Coast vintner to make a Barolo lookalike than it would be for a Wisconsin brewer to turn out a respectable Helles beer.

Remember that sugar, acid, and SO2 can legally be added, although in some areas not all in the same year.

Some of my old wine books refer to elderberries being a common coloring agent as recently as 50 years ago. Historically, all sorts of things have been added. Maybe the best answer is maybe other than oak, most of these things that improved poor wines would be a detriment to higher quality wines, so they were sorted out of the process.

Note that if you look at various wine laws across different regions, what they hold in common is outlawing things that aren’t used and allowing what is necessary. Of course they are a snapshot in time - when they were written.

Another factor is expectation. If you add an outside-the-box character to a wine, how much could you sell it for? It would be a huge marketing challenge to surpass a bottom shelf price. As far as inside-the-wheelhouse character, how do we really know no one is fudging? Grapes pick up volatile oils from nearby plants that happen to be there. Why not intentionally plant something nearby or as a cover crop that will impart volatile oils? Would that even be controversial? And if that’s okay, what’s so different from actually tossing some of that type of plant matter in to a ferment? Or doing a little steep at some point?

I think a lot of it has to do with decades of boring beer being produced in this country and the craft beer revolution that has occurred in the last decade or so. Quality wine has a longer tradition and it was desired for it to be more “pure”. Craft beer comes along and they want to make interesting variations. Some of that comes from the mixture of the hops, malt, etc. and some comes from adding odd things to it (coffee, bourbon, pumpkin). Wine is still wine and they try to make it natural and emphasize the terroir.

Wine is seen as a stodgy, proper drink while beer is experimental.


Pretty sure Tom is kidding here… newhere

Exactly the direction I was going from the start. It’s purely a market-driven issue. Oak is OK, but virtually anything else is viewed with suspicion, even water, sugar, SO2 and tartaric, all of which are naturally in wine. The market won’t support any flavorant except one traditionally favored choice, and other additions have a negative connotation.

Steeping is exactly something I had in mind. What if you have some fruity, structured wine without complexity. Instead of dipping in oak chips, why not add tea bags of natural plant products. Could be hibiscus, roses, anise, black tea, and all of these would not seem out of place in moderation, much like oak.

Just only sorta kidding here, Mel. He doesn’t explicitly add it. But the trees around his wnry are continually spewing their oils into the air and it often
gets into his wine via that route.

When we see the word wine, it has come to mean wine made from grapes. Otherwise, as noted, it can be called wine with added flavors.

One reason is, I think, that the grape is uniquely suited to making wine all by itself. In the right location, it easily reaches high sugar content. Plus, it can, under the right growing conditions and the right fermentation and aging conditions produce a multitude of naturally formed aromas that are also found in fruit, plants, earth and petrol, among others.

Since all of these aromas CAN be produced from just the grape, it has been considered cheating to add them.

In beer, a large but significantly narrower range of aroma are found without adding other ingredients.

Best story I have heard to this point anyway.

Really? Do tell.

Actually there is a requirement that the beer must be labelled for the additional ingredients (besides water, malt, yeast and hops), and the formula has to be filed with the TTB. For example, the description of the 2012 Deschutes Abyss reads “Malt beverage brewed with black strap molasses, licorice with cherry bark and vanilla added”.

If you drink much beer, you need to try a few more different varieties. I would submit that the range of aromas in regular, no additional ingredients beers far exceeds that found in wine. Even within the constraints of using only water, malt, hops, and yeast, we brewers have a much broader palette to work from. Malt can take on many different aromas/flavors from smoky to grassy to coffee, Hops can add floral, herbal, and fruity (from grapefruit to passion fruit) flavors and aromas. We brewers use a broader array of yeasts and other beasties that wine makers abhor that once again broaden the array of flavors and aromas we can produce.

While we brewers can produce a broader array of aromas and flavors, we can’t match the complexity that can be derived from wine. This is what sets wine apart from all other beverages - it can have the most complex flavor of all beverages.

Have some glögg 'tis the season for it.

Well, Robert…it’s long been alleged that Porto producers added elderberries in days goneby during the
fermentation to increase color. To my knowledge, there was never any evidence brought forward that
this actually occured. It’s probably a test for elderberries that could be easily done…but I doubt it’s
worth the effort.
Just a bit of a troll, Robert. As you know, I’ve been occasionally known to [stirthepothal.gif]

I agree that I could taste more beer. What do you mean by complex? To me it means has small amounts of lots of different aromas.