What makes a wine vegan? Isn't it just...grapes?
Yes - and no. One of the great anomalies of wine is that despite being a food or beverage, it has never had to submit itself to plebeian burden of ingredient labelling. But this is all due to change soon.
The murkiness comes in with the difference between what constitutes an 'ingredient' versus a mere 'processing agent' which in theory, doesn't remain in the wine. This has typically been the party line amongst winemakers who have enjoyed not having to go through this additional administrative hoop - after all, with appellation laws and alcohol taxes and duty they have enough red tape to deal with!
But this seems a rather disingenuous approach. If you are a strict vegan to the point where you don't wear leather, for example, you would want to know if animal products have come anywhere near what you're drinking. This has been an own-goal masterfully capitalised upon by the 'clean wine' movement, most famously by Cameron Diaz an her organic, clean, uber millennial wine brand Aveline, which made a virtue out of transparency and in the process throwing shade across the rest of the wine industry.
Currently in the UK, labels are only required to state if specific allergens remain above the following levels:
wines with sulphur dioxide exceeding 10 mg/litre
wines which are fined with milk or egg products (detectable limits in the finished product at levels above 0.25 mg/litre) should be clearly labelled.
Since sulphur is a natural by-product of the fermentation process, you will essentially always see 'Contains sulfites/sulphites' on a wine label - whether the winemaker has added any more as a preservative or not.
But this will change soon when the EU will require not only ingredient but also nutritional information to be made available, albeit this can be digitally via a QR code, rather than printed on the usually already rather over-crowded back label.
So what animal products are turning up in my wine - and why?
Mainly, this is because winemakers want to 'filter' or 'fine' a wine. Filtering is typically about hygiene and microbial stability. Fining is usually about reducing harsh tannins or making a wine crystal clear, where it would otherwise look a little hazy (many natural wine makers will happily bottle a hazy wine) or require months for gravity to work its magic to naturally settle any fine particles (with the clear wine then carefully racked off) but this is often not commercially viable. Time is money after all.
A time-honoured technique originating in Bordeaux. Winemakers would add egg whites to a barrel of maturing red wine which would do a beautiful job of gently binding with only the harsher unwanted tannins, without stripping away flavour or colour (as some other fining agents do). After a few weeks the precipitated egg white (albumin) would have dropped to the bottom of the barrel, and the freshly-fined wine can be racked off.
This also rather dispels the Cameron Diaz-ish thinking that non-vegan automatically means cheap, over processed and nasty since this has been the preferred method for Bordeaux's finest estates. Also eggs would be considered vegetarian, if not vegan-friendly.
FUN FACT: Tannins LOVE protein, which is why when you drink a tannic red wine it feels grippy in your mouth. Those tannin compounds have bound to the 'mucins', protein molecules in your saliva that help lubricate your mouth. For the same reason, a bold, tannic red wine tastes extra wonderful with a juicy steak, because those tannins have ample protein to party with, before they start attacking the mucins on your unsuspecting gums.
FUN FACT 2: Necessity is the mother of invention, so it should be no supposed that an egg yolky delicacy would materialise in Bordeaux - 'canelés', an egg-yolk rich patisserie treat were the local nuns contribution to reducing food waste, since between 3-8 egg whites would be needed per barrel of wine, keeping the local chickens very busy!
Canelé: A cork-shaped little cake with a soft, squidgy interior and a caramelised crunchy outer. Devised by Bordelaise nun's to deal with all those left-over egg yolks!
A protein derived from milk, Casein, is great for making white wines and rosés clear and bright, thanks to the same protein-binding action. Using it means you could call your wine vegetarian, but not vegan.
Isinglass, not a town in Lord of the Rings but a very pure form of collagen derived from the swim bladders of certain types of fish. Yummy. It is also used as a clarifying agent.
Gelatin - derived from boiled pig's skin, also works as an excellent clarifing agent.
Hang on.... what about Biodynamics?
If you're taking a purist vegan approach, then your traditionally horse drawn ploughs, and the ubiquitous cow horns used in biodynamic winemaking (cow horns are filled with manure and buried overwinter in the vineyard in one of the stranger biodynamic preparations) would also raise an eyebrow. So far, no-one seems to be asking this question too insistently... and probably wisely!
So what are the alternatives?
Thankfully, there are alternatives available for winemakers who would rather avoid the question entirely. These include:
PVPP - a water-soluble polymer
In 2023, whether boiled pig's skin or fish swim bladders were used as a processing agent or ingredient seems rather beside the point. I'd rather these animal products were not relied upon at all.