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The Shocking Ingredients In Wine, From Pig Skin to Fish Bladders

Newsweek 1/28/2023 Melissa Fleur Afshar

The end of Dry January is nigh, and after enduring four long weeks without a sip of wine, many people will be looking forward to popping open a bottle and enjoying a glass of the good stuff on February 1. But, after the January health kick, you may start to wonder, what's actually in wine? And, is it even healthy to drink?

Newsweek sought out the insight of some world-leading wine experts to get to the bottom of what's really in wine, how many calories does it contain and is red wine actually good for you?

What Is In Wine?

Wine is made through the process of fermenting grapes. A small amount of natural yeast is often added to the grapes and then filtered out, all of which prompts the conversion of the grape sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide—thus producing alcohol.

However, other elements and products are always at play, and wine is much more than just an aged mix of grapes, yeast, and glycerin.

In colder climates where wine is widely produced, like in England, sugar is often added to increase the alcohol level. Aside from smaller amounts of sugars like cellobiose and galactose, a more generous amount of sucrose can be found in the admixture of most wines, which generates sweet wines.

Sulfites like sulfur dioxide (SO2) are commonly added to wines to boost the consistency of the finished product. Sulfur dioxide is a safe preservative when added to wine in small doses but can become problematic when other products have already been used for the wine's fining process—which is when unwanted materials are extracted from the wine-in-making.

These riskier additions are usually products that have been derived from fish or eggs, like isinglass, also known as fish bladders or egg whites. Even gelatin, which is derived from the boiling of a pig's skin, has been applied to the fining of both red and white wine.

The inclusion of these products has led to a growth in the popularity of vegan wines or wines that cut out these elements.

In a nutshell, wine, while developed off the back of grapes, yeast, glycerin, and all the properties within those products like sulfites, is usually bound together through an additional concoction of acid, amino acids, minerals, phenols, and acetaldehyde.

'The More Chemicals And Additives In Wine, The Lower The Quality'

After being crowned by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) as 'Best Sommelier of the World' in 2019, Marc Almert has cemented his position as one of the world's best wine waiters.

"Qualitative wine is made from fermented grape juice with only very limited additives, such as sulfites," Almert told Newsweek.

Almert argues that the quantity of added chemicals and additives in a particular wine impacts its quality.

Marc Almert has been crowned the world's best wine waiter. Almert argues that the quantity of added chemicals and additives in a particular wine impacts its quality. Wine + Partners © Wine + Partners Marc Almert has been crowned the world's best wine waiter. Almert argues that the quantity of added chemicals and additives in a particular wine impacts its quality. Wine + Partners

"Imbalance—in the worst case, in the form of wine faults like Trichloroanisole, which is what we call cork taint, or very high levels of Brettanomyces (a yeast) or volatile acidity can negatively alter a wine," Almert added.

Oxney Organic Estate's Kristin Syltevik seconded Almert's on the importance of creating wine in an environment where all products and settings are as balanced and as natural as possible.

The U.K.-based wine estate's spokesperson told Newsweek that making 'expensive' wine starts in the vineyard. "Grapes need to be suited to the climate they are being grown in, plants need to be properly cared for and pressed immediately. A huge amount of work goes into the winery. It's a complicated and complex blending of regimes," she said.

Newsweek answers some common questions and debunks myths about the process of wine-making.

What Ingredients Can Be Found in the Best and Worst Wines?

Jonathan Kleeman is the acting executive sommelier and wine buyer at the Restaurant Story, a fine dining establishment in London, U.K. with two Michelin stars.

Kleeman told Newsweek: "The thing that makes expensive wine better quality is the level of attention to detail in the vineyard and the wine cellar. When a winemaker is working with low-quality grapes, they often have to add in things like sugar, acid, and tannin to their wine to make up for the quality of the grapes."

The sommelier explained that all wineries that aspire to be at the top of their game need to enter the wine-making process with high-quality grapes and let them do their thing, with as little human intervention as possible.

"When a winery makes errors or favors high yield over concentration in a vineyard, work needs to be done in the cellar to fix the wine. These fixes often have a snowball effect—when you fix one thing, you have to fix multiple things," Kleeman said.

Oxney Organic Estate in Rye is the largest single-estate producer of English organic wine. The vineyard's spokesperson said grapes used for wine-making need to be suited to the climate they are being grown in. Oxney Organic Estate © Oxney Organic Estate Oxney Organic Estate in Rye is the largest single-estate producer of English organic wine. The vineyard's spokesperson said grapes used for wine-making need to be suited to the climate they are being grown in. Oxney Organic Estate

"It is mainly all about the growing of the grapes and the fostering of high-quality fruit packed with flavor. This is then complimented with high-quality wine-making and appropriate aging where needed," said Kleeman.

Almert agrees, telling Newsweek: "When done right, more expensive wines often have more complexity, age-worthiness and a stronger sense of origin."

When questioned why some wines are just "better" than others, Oxney's Syltevik said: "The best wines are super complex because they are often blends that increase in complexity. The producer lets the wine progress naturally and take its time and doesn't force it by using processing products."

Federica Zanghirella, the vice president of the U.K. Sommelier Association, concurred that wine is deemed "good" quality when it's made in a "good" or natural way.

"Good quality wines and cheap wines are different not only because of the component, [but also] because of the process and how the process is made. Every part of the process is made in a different way, but quality wines are made with more care and attention using better products and technology," she told Newsweek.

Zanghirella said added chemicals and poor vineyard maintenance (allowing pesticides into the grape-growing environment, for example) can really dampen the quality of the wine-in-making.

Instead, she champions using natural products and learning how to care for a vineyard throughout the year, as the environment's needs will vary by season.

"The way you look after the type of harvest is also important," she noted.

"Manual harvests are more selective, but if you want something fast, there is the mechanized harvest that can harvest everything. Then you have a huge amount of grapes, but not all will be the best quality," Zanghirella said.

The wine expert it's crucial to maintain a healthy and bacteria-free vineyard and use good-quality grapes in order to produce good wine.

How Many Calories Are There in a Glass Of Wine?

While every wine varies, Zanghirella estimated that most glasses of wine will be around 130 calories.

However, she said that increasing the amount of sugar and then the level of alcohol in a particular wine will also raise the number of calories in it.

"Let's say that a sweet wine with a little bit more sugar or red wine with higher alcohol will be between 180 and 200 calories, let's say, roughly," she told Newsweek.

Is Red Wine Actually Good for You?

While her Italian dad raised her on the belief that a glass of red wine a day would be good for her bloodstream, Zanghirella slams the myth that red wine is "healthy."

While there is truth to the health benefits of red wine, there is also a negative side—the alcohol within the wine quickly wipes out any good that the oxidants in the drink create.

"Red wine contains two very important antioxidants. One is called resveratrol, and it is found only in good-quality red wine because [wines] made with very harsh chemicals will kill that type of antioxidant," she said.

"Then there's another substance called quercetin, again a very powerful antioxidant, which is very good for your health. Those are in very good-quality red wines made with care, but the problem is that alcohol is still there as well. The alcohol kills a little bit of the good antioxidant benefits," Zanghirella continued.

She said: "Alcohol is a poison. On one side, you get the good side of resveratrol but unfortunately, you have to deal with alcohol anyway."

Does Wine Really Get Better With Age?

"This depends on the type and style of wine," said Kleeman.

"Many wines are made to be drunk within a year or two, like vintage champagne or fine Bordeaux, and Barolo will always be better with some time aging," he added.

Almert agreed, arguing that there is a distinction between the quality and type of the wine.

"For high-quality wines, yes. Many good wines are made with the intent to be consumed during their youth. Others are deliberately produced in a way that favors cellar aging. Usually, these are wines that either have high tannin and/or alcohol levels," he said.

The Zanghirella said that for a wine to have a longer lifespan, it needs to be given more structure to age better. Some grape varieties are better for aging and will be selected for long-life wines.

Myth Debunked: Cheaper Wines Don't Get You Drunker Faster

"No, the alcohol by volume (ABV) level is what gets you drunk. Nothing else and no sulfates have anything to do with your hangover," Kleeman said.

"The more you avoid wines with added harsh chemicals, the better you will feel afterward," Zanghirella suggested.

"Natural wine, biodynamic wine, they can be tricky because they're not always good. Maybe it's not that all the natural wines are good, but that you will feel less of a hangover the next day because you don't have the addition of other substances that will go heavy on your liver and then make the digestion of the poisons a lot more difficult."

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