Waiter, there’s a fish in my wine

A long, thoughtful email from a reader, Maureen Hickman, raised many interesting wine points including the role of additives in wine.

Maureen wrote of a much-enjoyed tipple, “… looking at the label recently I was shocked to see that it contains ‘egg, milk and fish products’ along with sulphites. I wonder, is it really wine I am drinking — or a liquid lunch? What is the reason for adding this assortment of funny stuff”?

The short answer is that it means cleaner, brighter, fresher, fruitier and more stable wines; that little trace of the additives remain in the wine we drink; that wine continues to be the fermented juice of the grape; and that these additives have been around almost as long as wine itself and are used worldwide.

What’s new is the mandated listing of additive on labels. Without explanatory notes the list might sound alarming. Indeed, we’d have reason to be alarmed if our winemakers tipped eggs, milk and fish into wine. But they don’t.

Let’s start with eggs. Any chef appreciates the power of egg whites in clarifying cloudy stock. Similarly, winemakers use egg white as a fining agent in red wine. The albumen naturally and effectively absorbs hard, bitter tannins. The egg and colloids that they collect descend to the bottom of the barrel or tank and little trace remains in the wine after racking and filtering.

Casein, a milk derived protein, is another natural fining agent that leaves few traces. It’s most effective at brightening white wine by removing brown colours.

And fish? If fish didn’t have bladders winemakers wouldn’t be interested in them. No, it’s not what fish do in wine that matters, but what winemakers extract from the bladders of sturgeon and other freshwater fish: isinglass.

It’s a form of protein, albeit expensive, that’s particularly effective at bonding with and thus removing excess red wine tannin. UK author Jancis Robinson reports in her Oxford Companion to Wine that Charles II regulated its use by vintners in 1660 (but not to the extent of declaring its use on labels).

Similarly, gelatin, another animal derived protein is used in red-wine fining.

Of these products, Professor A. Dinsmoor Webb, consulting oenologist, writes, “insignificant traces, at most, of the fining agent remain in the treated wine”. So, unless we’re sensitive to trace amounts of these products, there’s no cause for concern.

Sulphites and sulphur dioxide (preservative 220) are also added to wine pretty well universally. A couple of winemakers produce sulphur-dioxide-free wine but these constitute a fraction of one percent of all the wine made in the world.

The use is ancient and wines made without sulphur, in my experience, are generally flat, dull and lacking fresh fruit flavour. Without the disinfectant and anti-oxidative effect of sulphur dioxide we couldn’t enjoy clean fresh wines.

Winemaking countries specify maximum usage levels in parts per million. The vast majority of humans are not effected by its presence but some are strongly reactive to it – hence the labelling.

Usage tends to be carefully measured and shaped individually for different wine styles, the highest doses being reserved for very sweet wines as a measure against re-fermentation.

In Australia, winemakers have access to a long list of permitted additives, not all used in any one wine. They play an important role in delivering fresh, clean, potable wine. Winemakers in other countries use pretty much the same box of tools as ours do.

WINE REVIEWS

Terrace Vale Hunter Valley Old Vine Semillon 2005 $19.95
Young Hunter semillon can be a little austere. But this one tracks a fine course between austerity and over fruitiness. One young drinker at the Chateau Shanahan tasting hit the nail on the head when he said it didn’t have too much flavour, favouring it over the young riesling served alongside it. How can a wine have too much flavour? Well, sometimes, to my taste anyway, structure, savouriness and subtle fruit seem better company for food. What Terrace Vale offers is low alcohol, attractive, subtle lemon-like varietal flavour and crisp, fresh, persistent acidity It’s available from the cellar door, phone 02 4998 7517,

Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Pinot Gris 2006 $22
Like the difficult pinot noir variety, of which it is a long-civilised mutant, pinot gris prefers a cool climate to produce its best flavours. New world winemakers — using the opulent, sometimes sweet wines of Alsace, France, and the contrasting, more austere versions from north eastern Italy as models — tend to use the French ‘pinot gris’ or Italian ‘pinot grigio’ on the label as shorthand for their attempted style — but not, it has to be said, with great consistency. This outstanding version, from Yalumba’s Pewsey Vale vineyard, is pristine, dry has a rich texture reminiscent of the Alsacian style.

Cimicky Barossa Valley Trumps Shiraz 2005 $18
There’s a tonne of pure Barossa flavour in this modestly priced red made by Charles Cimicky in the southern end of the Valley. It’s deep and purple and rich and ripe and tender. But it’s not over ripe or over oaked or over alcoholic as Barossa reds can be. It’s all a matter of balance, of course. And when Barossa shiraz makers nail it — as Charles Cimicky does — you get pure drinking pleasure in a wine that bears the unique Barossa thumbprint. One bottle won’t be enough; twelve won’t be too many. Available at the cellar door, phone 08 8524 4025.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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