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Waiter, there's a fish in my wine Add to ...

Here, in case you needed it, is one more reason not to become a vegan: the wine.

Extreme-vegetarian wine -- as in 100 per cent animal-friendly -- is harder to find than you might think. And I'm not referring to stray deer that might have slobbered on a grape cluster or the mice that often get trapped in machine harvesters (and become known euphemistically in the fermentation room as NVOs, or non-vinous objects).

I'm talking about the intentional use of animal products in winemaking. Like egg whites, milk and fish bladders.

These are used in fining, a common practice in the industry designed to clarify wine of large, solid protein particles that can bind together and turn the liquid cloudy. It's distinct from filtration, a much more aggressive procedure that strips wine of finer particles that can contribute flavour and bestow longevity.

Quality winemakers, in particular, often like to fine wines without filtering. The process is simple. You just pour the fining agent into the barrel and wait. Because the stuff has an opposite polarity to the protein, it bonds with it and coagulates into a clump that eventually drops to the bottom.

Among the other fining agents used around the world: gelatin, blood and bentonite, a type of clay.

Gelatin, one of the most popular, is made from the connective tissue of large mammals, such as cows and pigs. As for fish bladders, they contain a substance called isinglass, which, for obvious reasons, is the preferred term in the industry. You may have noticed the occasional back-label qualification that a wine "contains fish products." Some countries with big vegan lobbies, such as New Zealand, have passed laws making such warnings obligatory. There's no parallel requirement in Canada. Blood, however, has drastically declined in use and been outlawed by many wine-producing countries, including the United States and France.

Bentonite and gelatin are particularly popular in lower-priced wines. But eggs remain popular with many high-end producers, notably in Burgundy, where they have plenty of use for the leftover yolks in all those cholesterol-rich foods. Two or three eggs can do a whole 225-litre barrel.

Grossed out yet? There's good news. The likelihood of finding traces of egg or fish in a wine is minuscule. The stuff generally doesn't show up on lab tests.

But if your concern is ethical rather than nutritional, and you don't want to sponsor the use of animal products at all, then you should check with the winery itself. Or you can save yourself the trouble and pick up a very nice red in today's Vintages release at Ontario liquor stores, Albet I Noya Lignum 2003 ($15.95, product No. 001313). It comes from one of Spain's leading organic wineries, located in the northeastern Penedes region, and is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and grenache. It was lightly filtered, but, as the winery likes to boast, completely unclarified. So you can be sure no fish were harmed in its production.

And, yes, it's organic, as are 17 other wines in the special organic spotlight in today's Vintages release. This one happens to be fully organic (yes, there are degrees of organic in the wine business).

While all wines carrying the organic designation were made with grapes grown free of chemical pesticides and weed killers, this one is also relatively free of chemical additives in the production process. Namely, it contains negligible levels of sulphur dioxide, widely used in wineries as an antiseptic and antioxidant. Sulphur dioxide, which is smelly but harmless in small concentrations to the vast majority of people, can be dangerous to a small percentage of asthma sufferers, which is why many countries insist on sulphite warnings on wine labels.

It must be said that some wineries that go the extra distance to cut sulphur use, while laudable, produce flabby-tasting wines. Grapes rot when the skin is pierced and the inside flesh becomes exposed to air. That's one reason producers resort to spraying it with a blanket of sulphur dioxide gas at certain stages of production -- to keep the oxygen away.

But you're not likely to find off flavours in the clean, fresh Albet I Noya. Medium full-bodied and silky, it offers up hints of black cherry and old wood, finishing with lively acidity and a kick of spicy oak.

Another nice organic wine from the release is Vinedos Organicos Emiliana Novas Sauvignon Blanc 2005 from Chile ($15.95, No. 685784). Light and tangy, it's slightly herbal and reminiscent of marginally under-ripe peach. A nice summer sipper.

My top pick of the rest of the release, for its combination of excellent quality and not-outrageous price, is Sensi Mantello Sangiovese Syrah 2000 ($25.95, No. 683706). This inspired Italian blend of traditional Tuscan sangiovese (70 per cent) with the more classically French grape syrah (30 per cent) is full-bodied, earthy and firm, showing hints of licorice, leather, bitter chocolate and well-integrated, chewy tannins. It should improve with five years of age.

Also excellent is Annvers Shiraz 2002 ($27.95, No. 598862). Here's a luscious, thick and dark-coloured Australian, velvety and caressing, with big flavours of plum, cocoa, vanilla and black pepper: a nice choice for grilled meats.

More affordable still is the well-made red from France's Côtes du Rhône Villages district, Domain des Coteaux des Travers Cairanne 2004 ($17.95, No. 626648). Classic hints of herbs, spices and licorice give a nice savoury edge to this full-bodied, 14.5-per-cent-alcohol bruiser.

On the bargain front, there's the always popular Terra d'Aligi Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2003 from Italy ($12.95, No. 981399). This vintage, from the hot 2003 harvest, shows bigger body than in years passed, with a liqueur-like richness to the cherry flavour, hints of vanilla and spice and a firm acid grip on the finish. It would also be nice for grilled meats.

On the lighter side is the impressive Stoney Ridge Pinot Noir Founders Signature Selection 2004 ($25.95, No. 000588). Smooth and slightly jammy, this medium-bodied Niagara red shows impressive concentration and textbook berry-like pinot flavour and an earthy-woodsy edge.

Turning to whites but sticking with Ontario, there's excellent value in Château des Charmes Estate Riesling 2005 ($15.95, No. 2777228). Quite German in style, but technically dry, it's brimming with ripe peach and lychee notes, crisp, balancing acidity and has an impressively long finish.

Also well worth a detour are Cono Sur Single Vineyard Vision Sauvignon Blanc 2005 from Chile ($14.95, No. 684522), a zippy, deliciously herbal New Zealand-styled sauvignon blanc perfect for summer sipping, and Goat Door Chardonnay 2005 ($14.95, No. 684506), a terrific, medium-bodied South African with flavours of apple, minerals and creamy vanillin oak.

Pick of the week

Sensi Mantello Sangiovese Syrah 2000 ($25.95, No. 683706). This inspired blend is full-bodied, earthy and firm, showing hints of licorice, leather, bitter chocolate and chewy tannins.

 

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