Joe Wadsack asks whether it’s time the making of wine doesn’t involve animal products.
Isn’t it reasonable to expect wine to be vegan? Vegetarian at the very least. I mean, grapes come from a bloody plant, after all. The reality is, most wine is neither.
Where to start? Well, the beginning of the winemaking process: machine picking. Grapes aren’t picked by robots yet. They are sorted by them once they make it to the most hi-tech of wineries, but for now, the machine harvesters just give the vines a good ol’ well-calculated shake, until the (mostly) ripe bunches fall off on to a conveyer up to the grape bins on top.
Well it might be nit-picking, but vegans – hardliners anyway – can’t drink anything that’s not hand-picked, what with all the spiders, lizards and the odd mouse that accidentally get tipped into the press. It may be inadvertent, but when you’ve sifted through grapes from a press at a small, ill-equipped winery, only to find a whole songbird’s nest, complete with eggshells and hatchlings, I think it’s a valid point. Out of sight is not out of mind, or so every vegan has told me.
Next, presuming the wine has made it through the many complex steps to fruition, the vast majority of other reasons that a wine may be in contact with animal products lie in the process of fining. This is the final, largely cosmetic step of ensuring that the wine arrives bright and crystal clear. Let’s look at the various available agents and then look at how important, if at all, the process of fining is.
The most commonly used in the wine world by far is gelatine. The type of gelatine most effective for the purpose of cleaning up wine is harvested from boiled pig skin, the same gelatine used by Haribo, and, ironically, in Percy Pig sweets before they switched to vegetarian gelatine. Perhaps that’s the joke.
However, gelatine is a very efficient fining agent, too effective for fine wine applications as it removes some tannin, acid and subtle layers of flavour. Great for cleaning up dodgy wines from less-than-special vineyards, but counter-productive in, say, fine Bordeaux. Here, a much subtler fining agent is required. Enter egg albumen. In Bordeaux, fresh egg whites are whipped and poured into barrels, when the time comes.
It won’t escape your notice how many restaurants serve omelette aux fines herbes and offer you Cannelés cakes with your coffee throughout Bordeaux at certain times of the year. They have to get rid of the thousands of litres of leftover egg yolks somehow. This is becoming less and less common, due to cost and the fact that fine wine, if left long enough in refrigerated storage, will settle clear eventually. If you want to keep the texture of your wine intact, all that is required is a little patience.
There are other agents used such as isinglass, made from fish bladders, although this is much more commonly used in the fining of lager. The most extreme animal fining agent perhaps is the diminishing use of albumen from blood. A very cheap sauce of albumen was cow’s blood until the CJD scare in the mid ’90s, when the mass culling of cow livestock suspected of having Mad Cow Disease forced the European Union to ban blood albumen in wine production, at least for AOC (France), DO (Spain) and DOC (Italy) quality wines upward in 1997.
There are, of course, non-biological alternatives: bentonite, a common and less-brutal fining agent which is a fine, unfired porcelain clay powder; and PVPP, a plastic synthetic that is so strong it can even remove some of the colour, and certainly undesirable favours, from wine (along with quite a lot of the desirable ones). So, whether you’re a pescatarian, a vegetarian, a vegan, or even just somebody who doesn’t eat red meat, some wines are okay for you, and some aren’t.
This is pretty much the end of wine’s Grimm (sic) fairytale. It certainly goes some way to explaining the huge popularity of and increasing customer loyalty to natural and organic wine bars across this and other countries.
In a time when eco-sustainability, the huge and wasteful use of glass, and political plight of hard-working vine growers in countries such as South Africa and Lebanon are subjects that are finally beginning to touch the heart and mind of the everyday wine drinker, it seems odd that we still need to check the label of our chosen recreational bottle for the weekend to see if animal life contributed to the process.