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Lumen Winter 2007 Issue
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Australian Plonky: a guest column

Fish with your wine, sir?

A distant relation has been told that if he ever eats fish again, he could die. A recent wine labelling regulation change has resulted in some seemingly obscure information being printed on the labels of wines: words like, "May contain traces of fish products", are startling to say the least.

Really, some winemakers have been rather caught in a time warp, which is far more chronic than for other industries, just because theirs is the second oldest profession.

Current consumers do not know just how difficult it was for past generations to clarify wine, nor do they appreciate that the appearance of young wine can be likened to pea soup. In fact, converting it from that condition to the clear beverage that customers demand encapsulates a winemaker's job for 11 months of the year-after completion of the vintage.

There are no fish in wine bottles, just as there is no milk, often a new concern conjured from reading words like, "May contain casein" on current wine labels. Indeed fish and milk products may have been added to such wines, but they are no longer present.

Wines of near "pea soup" condition were the bane of early oenologists. I can remember taking nine days to filter one tank of wine around 1948. Nowadays, such a wine would have had its pH adjusted closer to an optimum of around 3.6, so the colloidal materials that cause the near cloudy condition would have been eliminated naturally during the vinifying or soon afterwards.

The ancients added many everyday "chemicals" to their wines. Milk (especially for sherries), gypsum, gelatine and eggs were common. Gypsum is said to have been discarded after 400 French school boys all had diarrhoea at the same time! (Gypsum is a sulphate and the most common form is Epsom Salts.)

Eight egg whites per barrique (225 litres) is still a current formula and the Bordelais eat an inordinate number of custards year-end, as only the egg whites are added to the wine. I saw blood used once. It certainly clarified the white wine, removing excessive colour at the same time. China is said to have recently banned importation of French wines on the grounds that if dried blood was used during its making it could carry Mad Cow Disease!

Mention of fish on wine labels harks back to the use of isinglass obtained from the swim bladder of the sturgeon fish, the source of rather romantic caviar. It has long been used to clarify Champagne, an exacting role, for which it has been ideal. Wine lore required it was prepared in a copper bowl, in the manner that French chefs dictate about beating egg whites. An extension has been its use in infinitesimal quantities for clarifying the most delicate white wines.

But before we get excited with indignant thoughts, it should be admitted that people who are allergic to such additives are entitled to know they have been used. However, these "fining" agents, as they are defined in the trade, do not remain in the wine, but coagulate with their captured suspended colloidal particles and settle to the bottom of the particular vessel, leaving clear wine above. Analysis of treated wines discloses complete absence of traces of any fining agent, especially as the fining is normally followed by filtering.

So we may well ponder what all the fuss is about. But here's the rub: methods of analysis are continuously being improved and though the foregoing assertion may be true today, winemakers worry that it may not be so in 20 years' time (wine is not like milk or any other food in this regard) when a coveted bottle is opened and found to contain one quadrillionth of a part of fish. To make the point, when I was an apprentice we could not analyse to ascertain the amounts of natural tartaric and malic acids in our wines, only the combined acidity.

So words like "May contain...." printed on a label can be construed as legalistic protection for future oenologists from the current well-meaning label regulations.■


Ian Hickinbotham

Ian Hickinbotham
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