The above is a question I get asked a lot, especially now that we are seeing the term ‘vegan’ more and more on wine labels and on restaurant wine lists.
Why, wine-lovers ask me, is it necessary to specify that a wine is vegan? Isn’t it made from grapes?
The full answer is a bit technical so I’ll do my best to make it non-nerdy! If you’re short on time, you can watch my one-minute video below, giving you the bare bones of the answer. If you’re in a slightly geeky mood, read on below the video!
Video credit: Nicole Tanzabel
So the full answer is yes – wine is of course made from grapes. And traditionally, back in the day before winemakers had a really solid scientific understanding of the process, wine was ‘made’ simply by letting natural yeasts turn the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol during the fermentation process, and no other substances were needed. You could almost say it was ‘allowed to happen’ rather than made. So all wine used to be vegan.
It’s important to realise, though, that this kind of traditional wine would have ended up looking and tasting a bit bizarre to our modern palates. For example, there could have been some harsh, bitter-tasting substances if a little too much stuff was extracted out of the skins of the grapes. In white wines, this might have meant that the colour would also have been a bit orangey. There could also have been a slight cloudiness to the wines, caused by natural proteins from the grapes.
These days, though, most of us expect our wines not to taste bitter and to look totally clear and bright, particularly if they’re white wines. This is why a process called ‘fining’ was invented, to clarify wines and make them taste better.
Essentially in fining you add a substance to the wine which has the opposite electrostatic charge of what you want to remove, and then they’ll be kind of magnetised together or ‘coagulate’. They’ll then form a sediment which will sink to the bottom of the tank, and that sediment will be filtered out before bottling.
If you want to remove harsh-tasting substances which come from grape skins, known as ‘phenolic compounds’ which also include tannin, that drying substance that you find in red wines, then these have a negative charge so you need to add something with a positive charge – usually a protein. And of course we know that proteins are most easily found in animals.
You will find, therefore, that substances like milk, egg white and gelatine are frequently used in winemaking. Because these bind with the negatively charged particles and form a sediment which is then filtered out, as I mentioned before, they do not actually remain in the wine – so if you’re vegan and you’re concerned about consuming some of these, I would say you don’t need to worry – but of course if you’re concerned about their use in the winemaking process, then you should look out for wines which are marked vegan.
Hope that helps explain it. Boy, can wine be confusing!