Is There Fish in Your Wine?

Isinglass, a fining agent for wine

Beginning next year, in an effort to protect citizens with food allergies, some wines sold in Canada will carry a health warning label that says “Contains Eggs, Fish or Dairy.”


During the maturation process, some wines are subjected to a process known as fining. A fining agent is poured into the tank or barrel, in order to coagulate the solids left over from fermentation (mostly stems, seeds and pieces of grape skin). This debris settles to the bottom, and the wine is then racked, or poured off, into a new barrel or tank.

Egg whites are a traditional fining agent; in recent years, bentonite has become popular as well. More recently, winemakers have used a substance called isinglass—a gelatin derived from fish bladder, which has clarifying and adhesive properties. If the concept sounds strange, try to put yourself into the mind of the person who came up with the idea in the first place.

The new law, formulated by Health Canada (their Department of Health), requires wines that still contain allergens after bottling to declare the ingredients in understandable language. It applies to imports as well as domestically produced products. You might think that the regulation is a response to reported cases of severe allergic reaction, but this is not so. According to Dr. George Soleas, director of quality assurance at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, there have been no allergy-related complaints for at least ten years. It may sound extreme, but we live in an age where some airlines have stopped serving peanuts entirely because of allergy concerns.

The law will primarily apply to wines that are fined but not filtered, since filtration removes most proteins left over from fining. Filtration has been unpopular with winemakers for the past decade, however, while fining is seen as a natural process. Even if a wine is filtered, the producer must supply proof that all the potential allergens have been removed. This should be a challenging situation for wineries in the U.S. and France that export to Canada, not to mention wine-producing countries where technology and analysis is not as sophisticated as the Canadians demand.

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