Are our wines vegan or vegetarian? Are they filtered or fined?
This apparent hodgepodge of topics is no mistake—these topics are related. It may never have occurred to you that a wine might not qualify as vegan or vegetarian. Wine is made from grapes, after all. But sometimes the resulting wine needs a little tweaking to meet the maker’s expectations. That’s where fining and, to a lesser extent, filtration come into play, and some of these techniques involve animal products.
Our wines are vegan-friendly
For those of you who wish to have no part in the exploitation of animals, take heart that we do not use any animal products in the production of our wines. You can sip easy, my friends. Whether that is a concern or not, read on to learn how, when and why animal products can be used in wine production, and why we eschew them (gesundheit!).
Fining is subtraction by addition. If a wine has something undesirable, or an excess of something desirable, the addition of a fining agent can remove or reduce that something. In most cases, the fining agent binds to what it is removing and precipitates out of the solution, leaving no trace of itself in the wine.
Fining in red wines
There is one main reason why a red wine might be fined: excessive tannin. All red wines contain tannins, which come from the grape skins and seeds and, in some cases, from oak barrels as well. Tannins are compounds that, by definition, bind with proteins. In your mouth, the wine tannins bind to your salivary proteins, which lubricate the mouth. They therefore have a drying or astringent effect. Too much tannin can make a wine rough, coarse or austere. The solution is to fine out the excess tannin.
Since tannins bind to protein, adding a protein to a red wine will reduce the amount of tannin in that wine. The traditional protein used is albumin, from egg whites. Albumin in its pure form, derived from egg whites, can be purchased, but most winemakers just add egg whites themselves, since they are almost pure albumin. Other proteins that can be useed include casein, which is derived from milk, and gelatin, which is derived from animal hooves, etc.
Vegetables do not contain as much protein as animal parts, but that has not stopped one company from bringing to market a fining agent derived from potato protein. Tannin reduction by fining can, therefore, be done in a vegan manner, but most winemakers continue to use albumin or other animal-derived proteins.
We prefer to manage our tannins in the fermentor. Of course all winemakers do that. I guess we are just happier with the results than others who fine before bottling. Again, we do not fine our red wines with any fining agents—animal-derived or otherwise.
Fining in white wines
White wines are principally fined for the opposite reason as red wines—too much protein. Protein in white wines does not affect the flavor and is present in quantities too small to affect the wine’s nutritional value. However, if a white is exposed to excessive heat, which can happen during transportation, for example, the heat can denature the protein. Instead of remaining invisibly in the wine, the protein is said to throw a haze, which can look like wavy bands of stuff or solid chunks. Whatever it looks like, the customer is going to recognize that something is wrong with the wine. White wines are fined to avoid this problem.
But the real problem remains unsolved. A fined white wine exposed to excessive heat will not throw a haze, but it will still be damaged if not ruined by the heat. The customer simply won’t know that this has happened. That is why we do not fine our white wines and instead work with our storage facilities and our shipping windows to ensure that the wines are not overly heated before they reach you, our customer.
Based on the red wine tannin-protein interactions described above, you might imagine that white wines are fined by adding tannin to remove the protein. Although that is done sometimes, it is actually trickier than it sounds. Any tannin left over after the protein precipitates out will add unexpected qualities to the wine that most winemakers would wish to avoid. Instead a kaolin clay known as Bentonite is added to the wine. The clay has numerous charged sites that attract the charged protein particles. The clay-bound protein then settles to the bottom, and the clean, protein-free wine is racked off the sediment.
All well and good, and all vegan. But there is another agent used to clarify white wines (beer, too): isinglass. Isinglass is used to remove yeast (which are fungi, not animals), living or dead, from a wine to clarify it. Isinglass is a collagen-type protein derived from fish bladders, so a no-no for vegetarians and vegans. Very little of the material remains in the wine post-fining, so vegetarians who are more concerned with what they actually consume than with what was used in its productions may be okay with isinglass, but no vegan would. Again, we do not use Isinglass or any other fining agent in our wines.
“Unfiltered” and “unfined” are often seen on wine labels together. There is really not much of a link, however, nor is there much legal meaning for the terms. The TTB—the agency that regulates wines and their labels in the US—requires that statements on labels be true, but does not have much of an enforcement mechanism for these terms. For other items on the label, such as the origin of the grape or the grape variety, the validation and enforcement methods are more rigorous. It is unclear if there is even a legal definition of the terms. Take them with a grain of salt when you see them on a label.
We do not fine our wines, but we do filter them. The filtration cleans them up in the visual sense, and also ensures that no microbes are left behind. The microbes that can survive in wine are harmless to humans, but they can produce off flavors in wines if left unchecked. Filtration means we don’t have to worry about that.
If you would like to know more about filtration, why we do it, and how it may affect the wines, I’ll be happy to write about that in a future posting. I think this current post has grown long enough for now! Feel free to ask for more information or clarification on any of the points above, and remember to let all your vegan buddies know that our wines are safe for them to consume.