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November 2003
The Cup Floweth: An Introduction to Vegan Wine

By Catherine Clyne

As we all know, wine is made from grapes. So why would there even be a question about animal products?

Here’s the burning question vegan and vegetarian wine-drinkers want to know: Is wine vegetarian—vegan even? If not, which ones aren’t and why—and how do I find out?

Wine is made from fermented grapes. With red wine, whole grapes are used, including the skins. A “fining” process is often used to clear out yeast and other debris clouding the wine. A common misperception is that most white wines are vegan. In fact, many are fined even more than reds because people expect their whites to be clear.

During production, wine is passed from one container to the next a few times before it is either bottled or put in barrels and stored to mature. Since gravity naturally draws silt down, debris is removed throughout the process as the sludge settles to the bottom and is left behind. Many wines—French, for instance, especially reds—are not fined at all. A touch of cloudiness may in fact indicate a fine unrefined wine, not some cheap, sludgy moonshine.

But not everyone likes their wine cloudy. Therefore, a host of non-grape fining agents may be added, some of which are derived from animals.

What’s in the Mix?
The most common fining agent in wine production is albumen, from egg whites, which acts as a binding element, and is passed through vats of wine and attracts yeast and debris, then sinks to the bottom. The clear wine is then removed in a process called “racking,” which leaves the fining agent and solids behind; it does not normally remain in the product you end up drinking. So, wines cleared with albumen are suitable for vegetarians; for vegans, the line may be less clear because the wine is touched by egg whites but they do not remain in the beverage.

Also used is isinglass, which is derived from the air bladders of fish, commonly sturgeon. Like albumen, this additive attracts debris and sinks to the bottom, and is also removed in the racking process. So, normally, the wine you drink will not have isinglass remnants in it, but will have been touched by it.

Bentonite, a natural clay powder, is a common fining agent that also settles to the bottom and is removed, allowing for perfectly vegan wine. There are also synthetic fining agents, such as polymers, that are also vegan; please note, however, synthetic fining agents are not allowed in organic wines.

Animal blood, commonly bulls’ blood, has also been used to fine wine—but this practice has fallen out of fashion, and is now outlawed in Europe due to concern over the potential transmission of mad cow disease, the human version of which—new variant Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD)—is understood to be transferred through tainted animal products. (I can’t help wondering if a handful of prized vintages aged to perfection might still have the disease-causing prion lurking within the wine.)

A process known as malo-lactic fermentation is also used. Bacteria converts malic acid, a plant-based compound, to lactic acid, leaving the wine tasting “softer.” It’s a natural chemical reaction that does not involve animal products.

Another animal additive that is used in winemaking is gelatin, which removes bitterness.

A common misunderstanding is that organic wines are vegetarian or vegan. This is not necessarily true—many will use organic animal by-products for fining. Wine varies from batch to batch, meaning, some batches may need more fining than others. So even within a certain brand, there may be some wines that are vegan and some that are not.

Some winemakers make a point to indicate their wines are vegan, like Frey Vineyards of California, which produces only organic vegan wines [see interview with Jonathan Frey]. Another California organic winemaker, Organic Wine Works, also produces all-vegan wines. More and more distributors are selling vegan wines online, like the Organic Wine Company [see interview with Veronique Raskin on p. 14]. This is currently more common in the UK (one company, Oddbins, even lists which wine bottles use animal-derived glue for the labels—how’s that for “purity”!), but change is happening in the U.S.

Winemakers—both organic and conventional—are not required to list ingredients used in processing on the label, and fining agents generally are removed by the time the wine ends up on your table. But for those who want to avoid anything that has been touched by animal products, the surest way is to ask the winemaker directly whether or not a wine is vegan. You can also ask your local wine shop to stock specifically vegan wines and indicate them with a sticker or special section. Not everyone knows there’s even a vegetarian/vegan issue with wine, but as demand grows, the selections will expand.


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