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What’s with the wine label saying it contains fish?

The question

I purchased a bottle of Hardys Stamp of Australia Cabernet Merlot 2011. When I read the label at home I noticed it said "Contains: Milk, Egg, Fish." I have a shellfish allergy and have never heard of these contents in wine. Is this a printing error?

The answer

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It's no error; it's for real. But, speaking personally, if I were allergic to shellfish, I would not be worried. Sturgeon is another matter.

I am no doctor, so take this as a mere talking point for you and your physician. In August, Health Canada introduced new food and beverage regulations to protect allergy sufferers and people with food intolerance. They're important, but they apply in an odd way to wine.

Bizarre as it may seem, animal-derived products have been used in wine production for a long time. They're not added to wine, per se, merely used to clarify it. Suspended particles in the fermenting vat clump around these so-called fining agents and fall to the bottom where they can be easily removed.

Milk proteins, egg whites and isinglass, a derivative of sturgeon bladders, are a few common agents. Others include bentonite, a form of clay, and gelatin. Because Health Canada requires plain-language descriptors, isinglass must be categorized as "fish."

If used properly, fining agents don't make their way into finished wine. But the concentrations are difficult to measure and are generally very low – if they are present at all. Rather than risk running afoul of the regulations, some wineries may choose to be on the safe side and carry the warning regardless.

For the record, here's a statement from Health Canada's website: "After conducting a thorough review of the current available scientific information, Health Canada scientists have concluded that the use of allergen-derived fining agents does not normally result in any appreciable amount of protein from food allergens remaining in the wine, particularly when usual manufacturing practices such as filtration steps are employed. As such, the use of food allergen-derived fining agents in wine production, following good manufacturing practices, is not expected to produce wine that would pose a risk to egg, milk or fish allergic consumers."

But if you want to be on the safe side, avoid wines that carry a warning label.

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E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear on The Globe and Mail website.

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