It may sound like a bit of a wine trade joke: “do you have any gluten free wines?” This is definitely something that we have been asked in Great Grog. Unlike beer (made from grains) wine is generally naturally gluten free (it being made from grapes, one would have thought so). The reason I’m mentioning gluten is because there has been a move in winemaking to make wines more vegetarian and vegan friendly.
Modern wines are normally clear and bright when you pour them into your glass. This is not a natural state for wines as anyone who has made home-brew will testify. “Natural” wines are quite a cloudy bunch, on the whole. If you finish your fermentation and then bottle your wine without a few adjustments it is a very hazy beverage indeed. With the advent of posh wine glasses a few centuries ago there was a trend to making wines that had a degree of clarity that looked the part for your posh stem-ware to show off.
Gradually, as we stopped drinking pints of wine out of pewter tankards we all got used to drinking this clearer wine and it has become the norm. If a wine looks hazy or has sediment, we automatically assume it is off. This is not the case though. Modern wines are processed to be that clear. They are treated by adding “fining agents”. There is a plethora of additives that play this role in keeping our wines bright and cheery looking. Anything that has a bit of an electric charge when dissolved or mixed into wine will do the trick.
Originally the first fining agents used were simple products kicking around a farm, vineyards after all are farms. Milk is a good fining agent, as is a milk derivative casein. A wine fined with milk then is vegetarian but not vegan. Other animal proteins can also be used, for example fish extracts (Isinglass fining agent is made from fish hence would not be vegetarian but possibly pescatarian?). A common agent used is Bentonite (also utilised in the Oil Industry as a drill lubricant aka “Mud”) which is clay derived from volcanic ash deposits. It makes wines vegan and vegetarian but can’t be used in red wines because it strips colour out of them whilst clarifying the wine.
A relatively recent addition to the gamut of fining agents available is those derived from legumes and soya. There is a move towards pea proteins by some larger wineries (e.g. Prosecco Riondo, who Great Grog are agents for in Scotland use peas). This is driven by customers being aware of fining as an additive and a reluctance to have animal derived proteins in their wines. People still want their Prosecco to be clear, bubbly and bright looking and if there is no compromise on quality, why should we be using animal derivative fining agents these days? Well, the answer is that we shouldn’t.
Fining agents are the invisible animal (no elephants involved) in the room. Decent, well judged vegan fining agents are a good idea, however, I am not advocating going all natural though. “Natural” wines aren’t treated at all by fining. I have tried innumerable “natural”and cloudy wines and they are a very hard sell – think along the lines of the“Emperor and his new clothes” story. I am absolutely behind any producer that is making wine in a sustainable fashion. I am also absolutely behind anyone making wine that tastes great. It doesn’t have to be the clearest looking wine on the planet, that isn’t the point, particularly with red wines. But it does have to be tasty and not smell like dubious scumpy cider from the shed round the back.