At first pass it would seem that wine is vegan-friendly, until you look past the final product to the production. Wine is a beverage that arrives to you in a bottle containing nothing but the end product of fermentation and manipulation of grape juice. That sounds vegan to most of us.
Unfortunately, it is in the manipulation of the juice that you find products and procedures that are antithetical to vegan philosophy. The complication comes in the filtering process. Wine is generally filtered in the same way anything else is – by passing the liquid through very fine mesh to capture solid particles.
Fining is the second “round” of filtering. This is where protein is introduced into the liquid. Chemically, this protein will attach itself to whatever particles remain. Then the protein mix settles to the bottom of the barrel, and the clear liquid can be racked off or poured out of the barrel. This is thought to make the wine smoother on the palate.
One of the earliest proteins used for fining was bull’s blood (sangre del toro), but this has been outlawed in both the European Union and the United States. The most common fining agents are isinglass (also known as fish guts but technically sturgeon bladder), egg white albumen, casein (milk protein), chitosan (made from shell-fish shells) and gelatin. Some of these are fine for different types of vegetarians, but none are OK for strict vegans.
In order for a wine to be theoretically vegan, it must either be unfined or fined with a non-animal-based product. Two of the best sources for this are diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) and a natural clay called bentonite.
Unfined wines are developing a certain amount of popularity among wine-savvy consumers, who feel that the fining process takes some of the wine’s personality with it. Some wineries are moving away from animal proteins because of that and/or because of the cost. Unfortunately, waiting for the wine particles to settle themselves to the bottom of the barrel is a time-consuming, and therefore costly, process as well.
So, how do consumers figure out if wine is vegan friendly or not? That’s where it gets complicated. Because the fining agent is removed from the wine before bottling, wineries are not required to indicate the process/product they use.
If you live in New York City, one way to try a really good and wide variety of vegan-friendly wines is to visit V-Note, a vegan restaurant located at 522 First Avenue (79th/80th Streets); 212.249.5009. They assure me that ALL of their wine (and food) is vegan and organic. The food is also kosher and some of the wines are as well.
Some of the producers they carry include:
- Barkan (Israel)
- Ceago (California)
- Cuma (Argentina)
- Magister Bibendi (Rioja)
- Nuevo Mondo (Chile)
- Parallel 45 (Rhone)
- Pizzolato (Italy)
- Pullus (Slovenia)
- Solena (Oregon)
- Tortoise Creek (France)
Vegans interested in finding other appropriate wines can also check out these two Websites. Please note, though, that these are very incomplete listings.