It appears to be a straightforward proposition. Crushed grapes plus time and a bottle and a cork equal wine. Simple enough. Grapes are on the vegan food chain. There seems little to hinder the average vegetarian, or even vegan, from imbibing with Baccus.
Before you break out the wine key and remove the cork on a bottle of your favorite pinot noir to serve alongside an exquisite quinoa, tempeh and yam creation, you need to know that your wine may contain animal products.
Yes. That's right. Animal products. In wine.
Many wines (although not all) go through a process called "fining" by which impurities in either the fresh grape juice, also known as the "must," or in the fermented wine, are removed and the wine is clarified.1
Freshly pressed grape juice has a good deal more in it that simply juice. Stems, skin and seeds can all end up in the wine-to-be.2 Modern filtration systems have greatly improved removal of those elements that cause sediment and even unwanted flavors in the wines. However, even modern filters cannot remove the smallest molecules of foreign matter that remain in the juice/wine. Some winemakers then turn to fining to draw them out.3
In the process of fining a wine, the fresh juice (must), or later the fermented wine, is augmented with a fining agent. Most fining agents are one of several kinds of animal proteins: egg whites, gelatin, casein (a milk derivative), isinglass (fish bladders), and fiber from crustacean shells (also known as chitin).4 The molecules of protein, tannins and sediment collect around the fining agent and form larger particles that can then be filtered out of the wine, leaving it clearer and its taste smoother.5
The good news is that there are alternatives to animal-based fining agents. The most common, and favored, among natural winemakers are bentonite clay, diatomaceous earth, and carbon.6 Even better news is that some wineries do not fine their wine at all, with practices varying among wineries and being at the inclination of the winemaker.7 An increasing number of wine producers around the world are choosing not to fine or filter their wines, which allows them to self-clarify and self-stabilize.8 The use of more natural winemaking methods and non-animal-based fining agents increases the number of vegan-friendly wines.9
But then, how to find a vegan-friendly wine? Most people in the vegan population, or those who serve the vegan population, do not think along the lines of wine being vegan or not. They presume wine is vegan.10 Not many wine labels go beyond a label mention of "not fined" and/or "not filtered" to give a detailed ingredient list.11 A Google© search will yield around eight million hits.12 Barnivore.com and PETA.org. have also published considerable lists of vegan-friendly wines for those desiring an expert opinion.
Armed with this information, the wine world becomes a little safer to navigate, both for vegans and for animals. A little research can go a long way toward maintaining the animal-free convictions of the wine-drinking vegan population.