We all know that wine is made from grapes – but what happens between the time they are crushed and before they splash into your glass?
For vegans and vegetarians, this is becoming a much-asked question. “Are wines suitable for vegans/vegetarians?”
The reason that all wines are not vegan or even vegetarian-friendly has to do with how wine is clarified and a process called ‘fining’. All young wines are hazy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. These are all natural, and in no way harmful. However, wine-drinkers like wines to be clear and bright.
Most wines, if left long enough, will self-stabilise and self-fine. However, traditionally producers have used a variety of aids called ‘fining agents’ to help the process along. Fining agents help precipitate out these haze-inducing molecules. Essentially, the fining agent acts like a magnet – attracting the molecules around it. They coagulate around the fining agent, creating fewer but larger particles, which can then be more easily removed.
Traditionally the most commonly used fining agents were casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) and isinglass (fish bladder protein). These fining agents are processing aids. They are not additives to the wine, as they are precipitated out along with the haze molecules.
Fining with casein and albumin is usually acceptable by most vegetarians but all four are off limits for vegans because tiny traces of the fining agent may be absorbed into the wine during the fining process.
But there is good news. Today many winemakers use clay-based fining agents such as bentonite, which are excellent for fining out unwanted proteins. Activated charcoal is another vegan and vegetarian-friendly agent that is also used.
n addition, the move to more natural winemaking methods, allowing nature to take its course, means more vegan and vegetarian-friendly wines. There was a move some years ago when winemakers chose not to fine or filter wines, leaving them to self-clarify and self-stabilise. Such wines usually mention on the label ‘unfiltered’.
Apart from mentioning whether it has been fined or filtered, wine labels typically do not indicate whether the wine is suitable for vegans or vegetarians, or what fining agents were used.
This creates a problem for vegans who like their wines. Always ask the question when buying a wine or visiting a cellar door.
There are definitely more choices available and more producers who now label their wines as “suitable for vegans.”