Some people assume that wine is just fermented grape juice, so of course it would be vegan. The truth is that many wines use animal products somewhere in the production process. The good news for vegans is that the trend seems to be towards other methods. So why are animal products used in winemaking? What are the animal products used? What will replace them?
The most common use of animal products in wine making is in fining wines. Fining wine has been around for hundreds of years. After fermentation & racking the wine off the lees there are substances floating in the wine that are too small to see. These molecules are called “colloids” and they carry either a positive or negative charge that keeps them from coming together, getting larger & becoming visible. Some of the naturally occurring colloids with a negative charge are tannins, pectins, dextrans, & gluecans. The positively charged colloids are colored phenolics & proteins. If they stayed charged, they would stay invisible & wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, this charge fades over time (or with fluctuating temperature) & the molecules come together in a larger, visible, form. The scientific name for this is flocculation. It can cause the wine to become cloudy or hazy after bottling. The molecules are too small to be removed with a filter. Fining is a simple method of putting something in the wine with the opposite charge to attract the colloids. The molecules will flocculate & then sink to the bottom of the tank. Then you can rack the clean wine off leaving the rest at the bottom of the tank. You can also filter after fining if you want. Fining wine removes colloids & makes the wine more stable. It can also remove small particles in the wine to make it clearer. It can also change the aroma, coloring, and/or flavor for better or worse.
There isn’t a health reason to fine wine. The colloids are generally tasteless & pose no health threat. Fining is actually less necessary than it used to be. Newer presses don’t leave as many leftovers from seeds, skins, & stems as old wooden presses (although they have a delicate touch with basket presses in Champagne). These older wines had more likelihood of off aromas & flavors & made much hazier wine. I mentioned earlier that temperature fluctuation can eliminate the charge for colloids. With temperature-controlled tanks, this problem is significantly reduced. There definitely can be an economic reason for fining though. This is particularly true of white wine. The general public doesn’t want to buy a white wine that appears to have something from a lava lamp floating around in it.
Here are the non-vegan methods of fining wine that are used (or have been used in the past).
Albumin/egg whites: Albumin is a simple protein that is soluble in water. It is found in milk, blood, & egg whites. If you have low albumin levels, you might have liver disease. If your levels are too high, you might have had a heart attack. For wine, the albumin in egg whites is just right to remove astringency & tannin from wine. Egg whites have frequently been used on some of the higher end barrel aged red wines. It has been used in Bordeaux in cooler years when the tannins might be a bit green. The process softens the wine. This comes in dry form, but the common method is to use fresh egg whites mixed with a salt water solution.
Bull’s Blood: Really! Bull’s blood was used for centuries. It was finally banned in the U.S. & the E.U. in 1997 due to fears of transmitting mad cow disease. There was a scandal in the Rhone in 1999 when authorities seized 70,000 liters (18,492 gallons) of wine that had apparently been treated with bull’s blood. They also seized 200 kilograms (440 pounds) worth of a dried concoction with bull’s blood. These days the use has almost vanished since it can’t be sold into the largest markets, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some places in Eastern Europe or Asia who still use this technique. If you have a classic Rioja from 25 years ago, there is a chance that it was fined this way. If you have concerns about that, you should feel free to send me the wine & I will properly dispose of it…along with some lamb or duck.
Casein: This is a protein component of milk. It is generally used to soften overly tannic reds, or to brighten & freshen whites that are showing oxidation. There is a dry commercial version called potassium caseinate that is mixed with cold water & added to wine, but it is possible to just use skim milk. Casein is not allowed in kosher wine.
Chitosan: This is derived from shellfish, so it isn’t kosher & it theoretically could be a problem for people with shellfish allergies despite that fact that the wine is racked off & none of the fining agent should remain. This is a gentle way to fine white wine while removing suspended solids along the way. It is used in conjunction with Kieselsol (negatively charged fining agent made from silicon dioxide which comes from quartz) so that it doesn’t strip flavor.
Gelatin: In red wines, gelatin clarifies wine & significantly reduces tannin. It is more of a sledgehammer compared to egg whites’ jeweler’s hammer.
In white wines it is mixed with Kieselsol to reduce bitter taste, generally caused by tannins. If you use it by itself, it will strip flavor from white wines. The problem here is as Mr. Burns said on the Simpson’s “It’s made from hooves you know.” There are now some vegan versions produced & PVPP generally has taken its place.
Isinglass: This is technically another gelatin, but in this case, it is prepared from the air bladders of sturgeons or similar fish. It won’t work on particularly cloudy wine. Instead it is used to give a final “polish” to wine. It can brighten up oak aged white wines. This isn’t allowed in kosher wine.
Here are some vegan friendly fining agents.
Activated carbon: Used to remove unwanted odors from wine. The trick here is not to absorb the pleasant aromas from wine. It also can remove color from wine. This isn’t a particularly common agent for fine wine making.
Bentonite: This is probably the most commonly used fining agent. There are different names for it, but it is a volcanic clay discovered near Benton Wyoming. It is distinct from traditional clay because it is made from aluminum-silicate formed from volcanic ash. There are different quality levels & different colors (pink & gray). It is primarily used for protein stability in white wine. It is tricky to use in red wine because it can reduce color. It works better with high acid/low PH wines. It is mixed with water before using. Otherwise it will just absorb all the wine into a sludge.
PVPP: Poly-vinyl-poly-pyrrolidone is a synthetic polymer. It is primarily used in white wine where it can remove browning from oxidation, or tannins caused by seeds or unwanted skin contact. As a preventative measure it can remove pinking precursor components in white wine. It isn’t used frequently in red wines, but it can reduce bitterness & possibly brighten color.
Sparkalloid: This comes with a branded name because it was developed by Scott Labs. It is made of the skeletons of algae. There are hot & a cold mix versions. It can be used by itself but is often used to remove any leftover haze from other fining agents (particularly bentonite). It is gentle & doesn’t strip aromas or color.
One more issue for vegans.
One final problem for fans of vegan wine is lysozyme. Lysozyme is an enzyme with anti-bacterial properties. It occurs widely in animals & animal products. Lysozyme is crucial to us due to its work in our tears, saliva, & mucus fighting bacterial infections. Some winemakers use lysozyme derived from egg shells. It can be used instead of SO2 to control or repress malolactic fermentation in white wines if they want a crisp green apple acidity to their wine rather than creamy or buttery notes. It can also be used to establish a healthy environment for fermentation. In the early stages of fermentation, it can kill/control the growth of spoilage bacteria & allow the use of less SO2 during this phase, thus reducing total SO2. Unlike SO2, it doesn’t inhibit the function of yeasts. Finally, lysozyme can reduce histamines in wine. Some types of bacteria produce histamines. Some people have allergies to histamines & some theorize that histamines are what cause wine headaches rather than sulfites. Currently, there isn’t a synthetic substitute for lysozyme.
There is growing talk of ingredient labeling for wine, but since fining agents are not additives, they probably would not be covered by any such requirement. The bottom line is that the vast majority of wines are vegetarian & a growing number of wines are vegan. More wineries are including this information on their labels and on their websites. For other wines, more online research may be necessary to determine whether a wine is vegan. I think that for vegans it makes sense to look for a label that assures you that the wine is vegan.
This importer has a bunch of vegan friendly wines, but there are many more out there. You just need to be an educated consumer. You can thank me by sending me your pre-1997 high end wines!