It seems like a pretty stupid question on the face of it; wine is essentially fermented grape juice, grapes are fruit, ergo wine must be vegetarian. Red wine is often described as meaty but surely that’s poetic license…isn’t it? It may not be so black and white.
Most winemakers clarify and stabilize their wines before bottling. It’s known as fining – the process of introducing a tiny amount of protein into the top of the wine vat to attract any loose particles (tiny bits of organic matter like grape skin or stems, naturally occurring yeasts etc.) which are held in suspension and help them settle to the bottom of the barrel. Fining helps to smooth out a wine, ultimately giving it a silkier, more consistent feel. It also helps to make a wine look clear and lowers the risk of it acquiring unwanted flavours and aromas in the bottle before it is opened.
But it’s the products used in the fining process that create a potential problem area for vegetarians and vegans as animal-derived products are frequently used as fining agents: gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes), chitosan (fibre from crustacean shells), casein (milk protein) and egg albumen (derived from egg whites). Bull’s blood was a traditional fining agent in some Mediterranean countries but after the BSC crisis it isn’t allowed in the US or Europe.
These agents are added to the wine and then removed again, so technically speaking the fining agent should not be considered as an ‘ingredient’ and currently winemakers are not legally required to include on their label which clarifier is used. But many vegetarians and vegans feel it is a matter of principle and, if animal products are being used in the process of making wine, they would like to know.
There are options for fining agents which are suitable for making vegan wine. Carbon, bentonite clay, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, silica gel, and vegetable plaques are all suitable alternatives but can be hard on the wine and may strip it of flavour and colour. Bentonite clay is a popular ‘animal free’ alternative but the downside is that it is environmentally problematic to dispose of. Some wine makers forgo fining agents entirely and let the wine’s sediments settle naturally, a very time-consuming process. They will often make note of this on their label as some connoisseurs prefer unfiltered wine, which either has to be decanted or stored upright and poured really carefully.
It seems then that there isn’t an obvious answer to the fining agent question and winemakers are left to choose the product which is least likely to affect the quality of their wine. For strict vegans or vegetarian who are concerned about the fining agent used in their favourite tipple some wines do opt to include a for a ‘suitable for vegan and vegetarians’ label on the bottle or you could check online at website like this one.