We’re picking up where Sauced left off a while ago with our “stupid question for a sommelier” series and adding “Stupid Question for a Winemaker.” The queries in these series aren’t really stupid, but the whole wine thing can be so (unnecessarily) intimidating. Luckily, I have no shame.
This week, the guys at Sparkman Cellars answer the question “aren’t all wines vegan?”
“Technically, unless you fine it with isenglass—which is fish guts—or egg whites, it’s vegan,” says Christian Sparkman, founder and winemaker. “Not everything is fined, certainly. If it’s not fined, it’s pretty much vegan.”
Fining is the process of adding an agent, which absorbs or sticks to microscopic particles such as tannins, phenolics and proteins, which are then filtered out of the wine. The aim of fining is to clarify or stabilize the wine.
Linn Scott, Sparkman’s assistant winemaker, weighs in:
“If you’re using egg whites to fine out tannins, theoretically the egg whites combine with tannins and they fall out, so technically they’re not in the wine.” Technically, then, there isn’t any animal byproduct left in the wine following an egg white fining, though that doesn’t mean animal byproducts weren’t used in making a wine.
Common nonvegan fining agents include isenglass (fish bladders), casein from milk, gelatin (from pigs and cows) or egg whites, for example. Then, there are Old World techniques, such as using ox blood to fine wine. Luckily, those techniques are long extinct.
“In theory there shouldn’t be any animal byproducts left in the wine, although, if you’re a vegan for moral reasons I don’t think it matters,” says Scott.
Some wineries are known to use betonite clay products for fining, which would make a wine vegan. Then, says Scott, your moral dilemma is how fine is too fine?
“All that fining is not to mention all the helpless insects that were on the grapes. And the fruit flies!”
So, how do you know if a wine is vegan and hasn’t be fined with animal products?
Unless your winemaker has gone out of his or her way to add that information to the label, you don’t.
Most wine is fined, but lots isn't, says Sparkman, who bottled an unfined chardonnay on Tuesday.
“There is no labeling requirement for wine,” says Scott, “partly because wine isn’t considered a food. If it was, then you’d have a recommended daily allowance.” And a recommended daily allowance for alcohol, and, well, you get the idea.
So, how can you increase your chances of getting a vegan wine? Go white, for starters. Whites often need less fining products or tend to use betonite, which is positively charged and attracts negatively charged proteins. Egg whites and such are negatively charged and attract positively charged tannins, making them a better fining agent for reds which are often fined not just for clarity, but also to remove harsh tannins.
Finally, if your wine is labeled "unfined" or "unfined and unfiltered" you're safe. Then again, if your wine is cloudy, you can also likely bet it hasn't seen a fining agent.
Got a stupid question for a winemaker or sommelier that you're too timid to ask? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.