As we all know wine is made from grapes. Essentially wine is fermented grape juice: Yeasts, either natural or cultured, convert the grape juice sugars into alcohol. So far this all seems to be vegan-friendly.
The reason that all wines are not vegan or even vegetarian-friendly has to do with how the wine is clarified and a process called ‘fining’. All young wines are hazy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannin’s and phenolics. These are all natural, and in no way harmful. However, we wine-drinkers like our 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 known as 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 particularly efficient at fining out unwanted proteins. Activated charcoal is another vegan and vegetarian-friendly agent that is also used.
In addition, the move to more natural wine making methods, allowing nature to take its course, means more vegan and
vegetarian-friendly wines. An increasing number of wine producers around the globe are electing not to fine or filter their wines, leaving them to self-clarify and self-stabilise. Such wines usually mention on the label ‘not fined and/or not filtered’.
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.
So when presented with a bottle of wine how does one know whether the wine is Vegan friendly — unless it says so on the bottle. Unless you are ordering from a highly professional and knowledgeable Sommelier I wouldn’t bother asking the waiters as I doubt that they will know — or care!