This blog was originally written by ex-Roberson employee Mags Janjo
The vegan community is on the rise, with more than half a million vegans living in the UK at the last count. Does the decision to go vegan mean giving up your favourite tipple? Certainly not! There are a huge selection of wines that are suitable for vegans. But both vegans and non-vegans alike may wonder why animal products might be involved in wine production at all. After all, isn't wine just made of grapes?
Of course, the raw ingredient of wine is grapes. If these grapes were left to grow wildly and the fermentation process allowed to happen spontaneously and totally uninterrupted, the product would certainly be vegan. However, the taste would be nothing like what we’re used to drinking, since winemakers typically intervene in the process to improve the quality of their wine – and these interventions may sometimes involve products derived from animal sources.
A basic understanding of the winemaking process will shed some light into vegan-friendly wines.
The process goes as follows:
The Winemaking Process:
Harvesting - Crushing - Pressing - Fermentation - Clarification and Fining - Stabilisation - Bottling
At the crush, the winemaker can add enzymes such as pectinase to aid in the extraction of flavour aromas. These enzymes can be naturally extracted (from mushrooms), or synthetically produced in a lab. The choice boils down to price points sought, the grape variety and suitability to the winemaker’s preference.
Then there’s the clarification and fining stage, performed because most drinkers don’t want “bits” floating around in their wines. After fermentation, the alcoholic liquid isn’t the clear and bright elixir we see on our shelves; it is more akin to a cloudy cider than a glass of wine.
Simply filtering the wine isn’t as easy as it sounds, since the lees is so fine that you’d need specialized membrane filters, which come at a cost and may harm the wine’s flavour. The answer is to use fining agents such as Bentonite, Casein, Gelatine, Isinglass, or Kieselsol, which can be natural, synthetic, plant or animal based.
The reason that animal products might be used at this stage may be due to cost, but also because some fining agents are more suitable to certain styles of wine. For example, Albumin from egg whites gives a smoother mouthfeel and softer tannin profile to fine red wines, hence its widespread use in Bordeaux.
It’s important to note that, whatever fining agent is used, it doesn’t remain in the wine – the process of fining removes both fermentation particles and the fining agent itself. However, vegans will still wish to avoid drinking wines which have been fined using an animal-derivative product.
There is good news however. As winemaking science continues to make great strides, winemakers are finding increasingly clever ways to achieve stable, clear wines with minimal intervention.