The use of animal products in winemaking is more common than you might think.
By Mel Priestley | August 29, 2019
The green movement has not overlooked the wine industry. You may notice wine labels advertising their “vegan friendly” statuses. It might seem strange at first, since it’s easy to assume that wine is just fermented grape juice, and therefore it should all be vegan — right?
While wine is made from just grapes, animal products are commonly used to process wine. They are usually used to fine (clarify) and stabilize wine. Common fining agents include gelatin, isinglass (a protein derived from freshwater fish bladders), egg whites and casein (milk protein).
These agents are used for different purposes. Gelatin and isinglass bind with excess tannins in red wine, which can then be filtered out — useful for improving a wine’s texture and smoothing out a rough mouthfeel. Egg whites absorb harsh tannins in red wine and leave softer ones behind. Casein removes brown colours from white wine.
Technically, these agents are only used during processing and not left in the wine, so one could argue that the finished wine is still vegan. However, there’s no guarantee that the finished wine will be completely free of their residue; a little bit might be left behind, albeit in tiny amounts. Plus, many vegans feel that something processed using animal products — even if nothing remains in the finished product — contradicts the principles of veganism.
So, vegetarians and, especially, vegans need to choose their wines carefully. There are relatively few wines guaranteed to be vegan-friendly; if it doesn’t say so on the label, don’t assume it is. Vegan-friendly wines are commonly made using bentonite clay as an alternative fining agent to those derived from animal products. Wines made using bentonite clay usually advertise this on the label.
Unfined and unfiltered wines also usually qualify as vegan. Many winemakers choose not to do any filtering or fining of their wine for reasons of quality, as opposed to animal welfare — they feel that wines more naturally express their terroir when they aren’t put through those processes. It’s an added bonus for those seeking vegetarian and vegan options.
The first vegan wines arrived in Alberta about a decade ago — the ones that were specifically marketed as vegan, that is. (Wines that happen to be vegan, like those that are unfined or unfiltered, have been around forever.) Many wine shops have a small selection of vegan-friendly wines set aside from their regular products, often alongside other green options like organic or biodynamic wines.