Food,  Research

To convert White Wine into Red

Hi all! Huzzah, this is my first post as an official Risky! I am so happy to be here. 😀

The hero of my current WIP Listen to the Moon (readers of Sweet Disorder may remember him as Nick’s pun-hating valet Toogood) has recently taken a job as butler in a vicarage. Now, one of the tasks of a butler is to oversee the wine cellar. As The Complete Servant (published in 1825 by husband-and-wife butler/housekeeper duo Samuel and Sarah Adams) puts it:

The keys of the wine and ale cellars are specially kept by him, and the management of the wine, the keeping of the stock book, and also of ale in stock, or in brewing, are in his particular charge. This duty he generally performs in the morning before he is dressed to receive company, and he then brings out such wine as is wanted for the day’s use. It is his duty to fine* wine as it comes in the pipe**, and to superintend the bottling, sealing it himself, and disposing it in bins so as to know its age and character. While these duties and those of brewing are in hand, he leaves the parlour and waiting duties to the under butler and footman.

* Fining is the process of adding stuff to wine that attaches itself to unwanted particles in the wine; they can then be removed together or allowed to sink to the bottom of the keg or cask. It ensures your wine doesn’t look like this:

640px-Sediment_in_winePhoto Credit: Monica Yichoy via Wikimedia Commons.

** A pipe is a traditional English wine cask size, equal to about a hundred and twenty-five gallons, or half a tun.

I wanted to write a scene set in the wine cellar, but I know almost nothing about wine except that I like to drink it. So I checked out some of the helpful tips and recipes in The Complete Servant.

I loved the long list of equipment “To Fit up a Cellar of Wines and Spirits.” Then I tried reading some methods of fining wine.

To fine Port Wine

Take the whites and shells of eight fresh eggs, beat them in a wooden can or pail, with a whisk, till it becomes a thick froth; then add a little wine to it, and whisk it again[…]If the weather be warmish, add a pint of fresh-water sand to the finings. Stir it well about; after which put in the finings, stirring it for five minutes; put in the can of wine, leaving the bung out for a few hours, that the froth may fall: then bung it up, and in eight or ten days it will be fine and fit for bottling.


To improve White Wines

If the wine have an unpleasant taste, rack off one half; and to the remainder add a gallon of new milk, a handful of bay-salt, and as much rice; after which take a staff, beat them well together for half an hour, and fill up the cask, and when rolled well about, stillage it, and in a few days it will be much improved.

If the white wine is foul and has lost its colour, for a butt or pipe take a gallon of new milk, put it into the cask, and stir it well about with a staff; and when it has settled, put in three ounces of isinglass made into a jelly, with a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar scraped fine, and stir it well about. On the day following, bung it up, and in a few days it will be fine and have a good color.

Well. Now I was well and truly grossed out! Truly, the past is another country, I thought.

Shows what I know. While inorganic finings are also widely used these days, Wikipedia says: “The most common organic compounds used include egg whites, casein derived from milk, gelatin and isinglass obtained from the bladders of fish.”

Yes indeed. Even dried oxblood powder (a popular traditional fining for red wine) is not entirely a thing of the past. Yes, it had already mostly gone out of fashion when it was banned by the EEC in 1997 due to concerns about mad cow disease–but even after that some wineries were caught breaking the ban!

In theory, only trace amounts of finings remain in the final bottled wine. But although I could find no anecdotal evidence of folks allergic to milk having a reaction to drinking white wine, in 2007 the Scientific Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies of the European Food Safety Agency published their finding “that milk and milk products used in winemaking may trigger allergic responses”! (A helpful blog post on the subject is here.)

I think the tip that horrified me the most, though, was this one:

To convert White Wine into Red

Pour four ounces of turnesole rags* into an earthen vessel, and pour upon them a pint of boiling water; cover the vessel close, and leave it to cool; strain off the liquor, which will be of a fine deep red inclining to purple. A small portion of this colours a large quantity of wine. This tincture may either be made in brandy, or mixed with it, or else made into a syrup, with sugar, for keeping.

* “A violet-blue or purple colouring matter, obtained from the plant Crozophora tinctoria, formerly much used for colouring jellies, confectionery, wines, etc., and later as a pigment[…]Coarse linen rags are steeped in the juice, and then dried and exposed in vats over an ammoniacal mixture; hence the designation turnsole in rags.” –The Oxford English Dictionary

In those countries which do not produce the tingeing grape which affords a blood-red juice, wherewith the wines of France are often stained, in defect of this, the juice of elderberries is used, and sometimes log-wood is used at Oporto.

Now that’s just cheating.

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ki pha
ki pha
7 years ago

I am going to have second thoughts now about my glasses of wine.

And welcome to the party Rose!!!

7 years ago

Adds a whole new meaning to “fine wines”! Welcome, Rose.

Rose Lerner
7 years ago
Reply to  HJ

Thanks! I know, right? So many puns waiting to be made…

Janet Mullany
7 years ago

Welcome, Rose! I love The Complete Servant although the trouble with that sort of book as research is that it’s an expression of how things should be rather than how things actually were. I agree, the white to red is appalling!

Rose Lerner
7 years ago
Reply to  Janet Mullany

That’s an interesting point! I guess I feel like anything other than firsthand experience is problematic for research because there’s always a layer between reality and its expression! Writing history, you are never not making compromises about what’s possible to know.

I feel pretty comfortable using the book as a resource because the writers are obviously very experienced in their field, you know? And they equally obviously care about servants having a good work environment and reasonable expectations of them. So in that sense I trust that while of course it’s aspirational, it’s probably not lying or ignorant or like, totally over-demanding. I find it believable as the sort of thing that a contemporary household might have actually had as a goal, whether or not it was possible to achieve it 100%. God knows looking at the to-do list I wrote this morning doesn’t tell you what I got done today–but it does tell you something useful.

Elena Greene
7 years ago

I was going to say thanks for the fascinating post, but I don’t know, maybe I’ll just go have a beer! And please no one tell me anything gross they did with that. 🙂

Rose Lerner
7 years ago
Reply to  Elena Greene

lol! My lips are sealed. 😐


[…] the Risky Regencies blog! I will be posting there on fourth Mondays. My first post went up Monday, about a butler’s duties in the wine cellar (and some pretty disgusting recipes for fining wines…some of which are still in […]

Diane Gaston
7 years ago

great information, Rose! So glad to have you here as an official Risky!

7 years ago

Great post! Yes, isinglass and egg whites are still commonly used – and many vegans will eschew wines fined with those materials. But, yikes, that “turning white wine into red” item!

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