Monday, January 7, 2013

Milk and Fish in Wine? Bleck!

I'm writing this post in response to a number of questions I've had from various friends over the past little while.  Whether they were vegan or on various restricted diets (no eggs, no milk, no gluten), I've been asked about strange little warning labels that appear on some bottles of wine.  For example, one friend was avoiding the Sauvignon Blanc in her refrigerator because this particular bottle of Kim Crawford said "contains: milk, fish" on the back.  She told me she wasn't drinking it, and pointed to the label, at which I furrowed my brow, and said "but it doesn't actually have milk *in* it".  This was not enough to reassure her.

Perhaps this post will not be either, and for anyone who has a milk allergy, my instinct tells me they should certainly avoid such wines that say "contains: milk" on the label.  However, I thought that I would dig into it, and finding an answer, explain it here, with the help of an excellent blog post over at Wine Folly.

So why are there strange animal products listed as being *in* wine sometimes?  After wine has fermented it looks very much like real grape juice, or real apple cider, or a white beer - it's cloudy, murky, and full of bits.  The wine that we buy does not look like this (usually; see Hawk Wakawaka's posts on Orange Wines for the Grand List of Exceptions), and the general public doesn't want it to look like this.  In order to make wine clear and sparkly, winemakers put the wine through processes called fining and clarifying.

It turns out that besides a host of microbial products that are completely vegetarian/vegan, there are egg, milk, and fish products that can be used - and sometimes are - for fining or clarifying the wine.  In response to two specific questions from friends:  egg whites can be used during the fining process to attract and bind suspended particles, and then the entire clump falls to the bottom of the wine barrel; whole milk products, casein, and isinglass (dried swim bladders from fish) are used during fining or clarifying in the same way.  Once the egg, milk, or isinglass falls to the bottom of the barrel with other large hunks of debris, the clear good wine is poured off the top, leaving the sludgy left-overs behind.

There is no fish (or milk, or egg) actually *in* the wine, but it must be the case that in certain jurisdictions - New Zealand as our example - producers are required by law to list any animal products or allergens that have come into contact with their wine.  From an anaphylactic perspective, this totally makes sense.  From a lifestyle-related dietary options perspective, I'm certain that it's still OK to drink this wine.  From an ethically-driven dietary choice perspective, I would guess it's still a problem.

For more information about the wine process and various additives, check out Wine Folly's blog post here.  The part about sulfites not being the culprit of most people's red wine headaches was particularly interesting.


  1. Good post. As you mention, from a vegan perspective these wines are problematic, and the labeling is very helpful. There are websites (such as that are useful for wines that do not label their products.


  2. I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I will post a link to this page on my blog. I am sure my visitors will find that very useful. Bryan

    1. Wow, thanks Calvin, that's really good to hear. And thanks for the link, too.