Does Wine Kill Bacteria?

Have you been wondering, “does wine kill bacteria?” It’s a fair question. After all, we’re constantly reassured that wine, beer, and liquor are safe for us to consume. And it’s true. They are, in moderation, of course. But why? What makes them safe? It’s a topic worth exploring.

How Wine Is Made

The first step in exploring this topic is to understand how wine is made. When we begin at the beginning, we can follow the process to see what is killing bacteria, if anything.

Thousands of years ago, early humans encountered a version of wine they realized quite quickly they could reproduce.

Some archeologists say wine was an accidental discovery, and that certainly seems the most likely explanation, as no one had any concept of yeast and fermentation until the last couple of centuries.

What most likely happened is that humans have always had some concept of ripening fruit, honey, and other sugary substances ripening on the vine or the forest floor and fermenting to the point of becoming alcoholic.

We have evidence that apes, monkeys, and other animals have been known to wait for fruit to ferment before eating it, or to collect palm sap and leave it out to ferment.

It is not a far stretch to imagine that the animal kingdom has long had this knowledge and that our apelike ancestors handed it down to us as we branched off and became Neanderthals and early humans.

As we began to settle and domesticate, we of course grew crops of grain, vegetables, and fruits.

Grapes are a fruit that grows naturally around regions of early humans, in Northern Africa and the Middle East, and so would have been an easy fruit to domesticate, hybridize, and cultivate.

From there, it was only a matter of time before grape juice was left out long enough to become wine.

You see, that’s all it takes, for a sugary substance to be left alone long enough for the wild local yeast to be attracted to it and to begin the fermentation process.

Yeast, a single celled living organism, is the only element on earth that can produce alcohol. Fortunately, it exists virtually everywhere, in the air, on surfaces, and even in our bodies.

The only function of yeast cells is to find sugar, consume it, and then convert the waste to alcohol and carbon dioxide. They reproduce asexually, with a mother cell producing a daughter cell, and the process begins again.

Such is the case with the production of wine.

Grape juice is left out, rich in sugars and nutrients, yeast encounters the juice, settles in, and feeds actively and ferociously, cleaning up all the sugars and converting them to a wine with a nice high ABV, usually between 11% and 15%.

The Role of Bacteria in Wine

What does any of this have to do with bacteria? A lot, actually.

You see, as much yeast as there is in the environment, there is even more bacteria.

Another living organism, bacteria exist in much the same way as yeast, except that bacterial cells don’t require sugar. They can feed on virtually any other living or dead organic matter.

So, bacteria, too, are excited to get into wine to feed. Fortunately for humans, yeast are more competitive than bacteria, and will typically outcompete any nasty invaders.

Furthermore, we often think bacteria is only negative, which is far from the truth.

The reality is that our bodies harbor millions of microscopic beneficial bacteria, primarily in our guts, where the heart of most of our health lies. And, again, fortunately for humans, good bacteria almost always defeat bad bacteria.

And yeast will not defeat all the good bacteria. Instead, the good bacteria settle into the wine after the yeast has finished fermenting. This bacterium is called lactic acid bacteria, and it causes malolactic fermentation.

Though it’s technically called fermentation, MLF is actually better described as decarboxylation, which is a process during which the bacteria take the malic acid in wine, which is tart and bitter, and converts it to lactic acid, which is creamier and softer.

Malolactic fermentation also contributes a plethora of beneficial probiotics to wine, which help create a healthier environment in the human gut.

As you can see, good bacteria in wine play a critical role. It kills bad bacteria and aids in human health.

Does Wine Kill Bacteria?

In the end, the answer to the question about wine killing bacteria is no. Wine does not kill bacteria. And at the same time, yes, the properties in wine do kill bacteria.

Yeast outcompetes bad bacteria, good bacteria kill bad bacteria, and the alcohol will kill a ton of any bad bacteria that remains.

Still, rather than simply leave the entire process up to nature, you still want to ensure a clean environment in terms of bad bacteria to avoid any unwanted off flavors and aromas.

While bad bacteria will not harm the drinker, it has been known to render an otherwise delicious batch of wine undrinkable.

And that would just be a waste.

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