It can often be a surprise for vegetarians to discover that once seemingly innocent, utterly un-animal products do in fact contain traces of animals. Wine is a classic example. Why on earth would fermented grape juice contain any sort of animal protein? Fining agents, is the answer.
Fining agents are used to remove flavonoids, tannins and other particulates (pieces of grape skin, stalk, seeds or botrytis) from the wine, clarifying the liquid and removing the haziness that many consumers consider to be unattractive. A fining agent is a substance with an opposite electrostatic charge to that of the particle or molecule it is trying to remove. These oppositely charged molecules attract each other and ‘clump together’, forming a large enough solid that can then either be left to precipitate out of suspension and settle at the bottom of the tank (the wine can then be pumped off this deposit in a process known as ‘racking’) or removed with further filtration methods. It just so happens that many of the most effective fining agents are substances made of animal protein – egg whites, isinglass, casein – and they have been used in the winemaking process for centuries.
These animal derived agents tend to have a rather gentle action, fining the unstable colloids without stripping the wine excessively, and thus removing the all-important colour, textural, and flavour particles. They are still used widely in the industry for this reason, often in conjunction with non-animal products, but there are some wineries that do solely fine using these vegan alternatives – substances such as Bentonite (mined from a form of clay), Silica sol and a plastic material called PVPP being the most popular.
Most fining agents in use today – with the exception of isinglass (derived from the swim bladder of the sturgeon fish) – tend to be vegetarian. Ox blood was once a popular fining agent, and in Rioja was historically used alongside animal fat to plug barrels, but it has been banned in European winemaking since 1987, and the effective protein, known as albumen, is now sourced from egg white instead. Many wineries are now labelling themselves as vegetarian on the bottle when appropriate, but unfortunately for vegans, the same labels don’t actually specify their fining agent of choice. A wine could therefore be vegetarian but not vegan.
This can be a problem when shopping for vegan wines, and the best solution is to look up the producers online. Many of the larger wineries will state whether they are vegan-friendly. Barnivore.com is a useful website that catalogues vegan products and producers across the drinks industry, although naturally perhaps it tends to be somewhat U.S-centric.
For the more curious vegan consumer, there are producers out there with philosophies and methods far more likely to be conducive to veganism than those of more conventional winemakers. Those with a focus on making minimal intervention wines are, purely by deficit, less likely to use animal products, because in general they are less likely to fine their wines full stop. There is an argument in natural winemaking circles that fining is an unnecessary procedure for a well-crafted wine, and that it strips out important phenolic and flavour molecules, reducing its ability to showcase terroir or site expression – a concept much prized in natural winemaking.
This should not be confused with organic – and in particular, biodynamic – producers. Although the two often go hand in hand, and a minimal approach in the winery accompanies a minimal approach in the vineyard, the nature of biodynamic viticulture is not necessarily vegan. Chemical fertilisers and sprays disallowed, producers turn instead at times to mixtures produced from animal products, such as ground bones and horn to fertilise their vines. Clearly, research is needed on the part of the consumer to clarify exactly what is and isn’t vegan, although there are an increasing number of sustainability and ethical conscious wine retailers that specialise in sourcing vegan and vegetarian wines for the UK market.
But perhaps the most important question: do vegan wines compromise on quality? No, is the answer. Quality is obviously a highly subjective concept, especially in regard to wine, and comparative quality can be found across all winemaking fields, practitioners and philosophies. Producers using purely non-animal-derived fining agents are however likely to be newer, more modern producers. If you are a fan of traditional styles from old-school producers and regions therefore, say, traditional Rioja, top Bordeaux or Chateauneuf du Pape for example, then it is generally more likely that these producers will still be using animal finings. The simple fact is that these substances are extremely effective at what they do, and a winemaker can fine subtly with different agents to manipulate or remove certain characteristics in their wine.
General consumer awareness about the ethics of vegetarianism and veganism has increased considerably over the last decade, and the subsequent demand for conforming wines will no doubt translate into greater supply in the years ahead. Older producers – particularly in Bordeaux – are increasingly adapting their methods to keep abreast of advancing consumer trends, and it is likely that some of them too will soon evolve to be vegan friendly. Regardless of winemaking practice, one thing vegans can be sure of in the coming years is probably the most useful; as the confusion increases, labels will begin to clearly convey their veganism to the consumer.
Until then, the best thing a vegan can do is arm themselves with research, and try as many vegan friendly wines as they can. For now, purchasing power is their greatest tool – but more, and there will be more.