With social distancing, we're not at the mercy of a small wine list at a local pub. So should we start our virtual happy hour with something vegan? But how is that even an option, given that grapes are an inherently vegan product? Turns out, animal products have a role in the later stages of wine production, and vegan consumers should be able to select the wine that best meets their standards.
With COVID-19, we have a “new normal”, where socializing now requires a phone or laptop and a quiet corner in our homes. Many of us have even dined with family and friends, enjoying our dinner and drinks right alongside them. Certainly not the same as in-person, but not a bad hack.
An added benefit of preparing our meals at home? We know every ingredient that goes into them – something that poses a challenge for those adhering to a specific diet, like vegans, when dining out. And as we use this time to be more mindful of what we put into our bodies to keep us healthy, many of us are turning to a vegetarian or “flexitarian” diet and, sometimes, coupling our dinners with a vegan wine.
Wait…vegan wine? Yes, Nancy, there is a vegan wine. But if wine is produced from grapes, and grapes are definitely fruits, how can wine be anything but a vegan product? Well, it turns out that to many in the vegan community, our friend wine is no less subject to the debate over the mix of animals and plants in our food supply.
A Grape Is a Grape Is a Grape. Isn’t It?
Any discussion of vegan wine needs to begin with one simple fact: the key issue in the debate isn’t the grape. It’s the process used to produce wine.
Producing wine is a simple process, really. Crush some grapes, mix in some yeast, and wait for the fermentation process to work its magic. That simple formula has worked successfully for a long, long time – more than 9,000 years, in fact. Need a brief history lesson? Check this out.
The vegan question begins to emerge in what is sometimes thought of as the final stage of wine production, called clarification.
As the grape juices ferment, organic materials begin to emerge, and chemical changes take effect. Until these organic materials settle out of the wine, it will have a cloudy appearance. And that’s where the question of vegan wine begins.
Wine consumers can just learn to love the wine, clouds and all, and accept that dregs are a natural part of the process. But consumers typically don’t want cloudy wine – especially when a clear product is available.
Vintners can simply take the time needed to allow the organic materials – referred to as “particulates” — to settle out. But that takes time, and as is true in many, many commercial enterprises, time is money.
Waiting for organic materials to settle out delays the next production cycle, adds storage and handling costs, slows the time to market for the product, and makes the product that much more expensive for the customer.
Not Fine with Fining
To speed the process along, vintners use certain agents to accelerate clarification. This practice is called “fining.”
Fining involves the addition of one or more of a number of products that attract the organic particulates and make it easier to filter the product to an acceptable level of clarity. Fining agents also are used to deal with certain chemical properties of the wine that affect its taste, odor, and character. To the dismay of true vegans, some of these fining ingredients are derived from animals or come from what some critics contend is “exploitation” of animals.
What kind of fining ingredients are we talking about? High school chemistry would divide fining ingredients into two categories: organic and solid/mineral materials.
Common organic materials for fining include:
- Gelatin – made from boiled cow or pig body parts. It clarifies and helps make wine less astringent or bitter.
- Isinglass – a form of collagen derived from the dried swim bladders of fish, especially sturgeon. It acts to help filter out organic particulates that affect wine odor, especially in white wines. It is also used in making jellies, glues and clarification of other beverages.
- Albumin – you know, egg whites. It helps reduce the harsh tannins – the bitter, bark-like taste — sometimes present in red wines.
- Casein – animal milk protein. It also helps take out offensive odors in white wines.
Vegan options may be found in the solid/mineral materials category. The most notable solid or mineral fining agent is bentonite clay, which currently is most commonly used with white wines rather than reds. It has the added benefit of helping filter out certain bacteria and absorbing specific proteins. Another mineral, called sparkolloid, further clarifies the wine by neutralizing the particle charge. It is the last step in the fining process. Some activated carbons from charcoal, as well as synthetic compounds, are used to reduce undesirable odors and cut tannin levels.
Still think a grape is a grape is a grape? That glass of wine involves a lot more than grape juice and some yeast.
Which Wine is Which?
Fining is a widely used practice not just for wine-making but also production of beers and ales. But so far, the clamor for vegan wine seems to be drowning out any comparable concern from the beer-drinking community.
The discussion regarding vegan wine seems to grow most animated over the question of how wine consumers are to know what fining agents were used. Some wine-makers apparently have subscriptions to help consumers better navigate this minefield.
Some vintners have recognized the passion felt by many vegans and moved to accommodate it. For those concerned about animal products in their wine, look for the BevVeg certification, which indicates the product uses no animal ingredients of any kind in the production process. We’ve also developed a list of vegan wines, too.
The roster of wines claiming to be “vegan” or “vegan friendly” is expanding, either through a willingness to take the necessary time for the wine to clarify naturally or by using only fining agents that satisfy the demands of the vegan community. While some vegan advocates clamor for a very stringent vegan standard for wine, the mainstream participants seem to focus on the “vegan friendly” categorization as a valuable step toward their objective.
At the same time, some critics of the fining practice argue for more and better information on wine labels regarding the fining agents used in production. As the animated debates surrounding the appropriate labeling of various food products suggest, this demand is likely to generate spirited discussion in the months – and perhaps years – ahead.
For those who don’t drink wine, all the hubbub over vegan or non-vegan wine may seem a small and insignificant tempest in a wine bottle. But remember: wine sales in the United States exceed $71 billion in 2018. That’s is a sizeable market for someone to capture. And if wine consumers embrace vegan wine – as the rising number of “vegan friendly” wines seems to indicate is the case – expect to see and hear even more about vegan wines in 2020.
The Bottom Line
Don’t be surprised if, while visiting your local wine store, the owner asks not just “red or white?” but “vegan or non-vegan?”. If this is important to you, conduct research on your favorite wines to see what fining products they use, and look for the “BevVeg” logo.