by Laura Carlton
In general, when people move to a meat and animal product-free diet, they focus on the big things first: eliminating beef, pork, chicken, and other animal flesh, then eliminating eggs, dairy, and honey to ensure that their diet contains nothing that comes directly from an animal source. Many people, however, are unaware that animal byproducts are used in a host of places in the food and beverage industry, often hidden in products that you might never suspect. A key area in which animal products are often unexpectedly present? Wine.
But wait, you ask. Wine is made from grapes. How is it anything other than vegan, simply by default? The answer lies not in the juicing of grapes or in the fermentation process, but in the process used to finish the wine prior to bottling. Once the wine is fermented, it is generally filtered in order to remove sediments and impurities that are suspended in the wine, in a process called fining. Fining agents are added to the vat of fermented wine, and the suspended impurities bond with the fining agents and sink to the bottom of the vat. The newly clarified wine is siphoned off the top of the vat, leaving the fining agents and attached impurities behind. None of the fining agent actually remains in the wine itself, and the fining process leaves the wine smoother, more mellow, and more flavorful than it otherwise would be. The problem, for the ardent vegetarian or vegan, is that many of these fining agents are derived from animals, and even though these animal byproducts do not remain in the finished wine, their use in the fining process is problematic. Gelatin, egg albumen, casein (milk protein) and isinglass (derived from fish) are all common fining agents.
Fortunately, more and more winemakers are beginning to object to these traditional, animal-based fining agents. There is a growing movement to use bentonite clay for fining — it is equally effective as the animal-based fining agents, without contributing to the meat industry or to animal cruelty. Other emerging cruelty-free fining agents include limestone, kaolin clay, and silica gel. Most vintners who employ these methods of fining will proudly state on their label that their wines are made without animal byproducts. If you’re curious about your favorite bottle of wine, feel free to call the winery to ask what fining agents they use and encourage them to go cruelty-free. If you’re having trouble finding vegan wine near you, just ask at your favorite wine store or organic market — odds are good that they’ll be more than happy to order it for you, and they may find that it disappears off the shelves quickly enough to be added to the regular stock!
This year, make it your resolution to avoid all wines made with animal byproducts and drink vegan wine instead. You’ll be able to continue drinking delicious wines, and you’ll have a clear conscience knowing that your choices are making the world perpetually more vegan-friendly and cruelty-free.
Laura Carlton is a vegetarian international traveler and wine enthusiast. She is a freelance writer for Vintage Cellars, an expert in wine cellar design and construction that has been featured in Wine Spectator.