Is Your Red Wine Vegan?

“Grape cultivation is difficult, laborious, and not always rewarding work, dependent on a variety of factors (weather, soil conditions, insects, diseases) that are beyond a vintner’s control. The only certainty is doubt.” ~ Todd Kliman

Many people may be completely unaware of how much of a role that eggs have in the average bottle of wine. What is that you say, eggs in my wine? How could this be, what do eggs and wine have in common? All good questions, and begs another question is your wine vegan? Painfully no is the answer for some in most (exceptions noted) cases, for others, when they learn of the how and why, their concerns are mitigated by the facts that while egg whites are part of the fining process in red wines, it no more significant of a deal than their morning breakfast.

For the average consumer who pours themselves a glass of red wine after dinner, the expectation is that their wine will be bright and clear. But without a fining agent like egg whites, gelatin, Isinglass, etc. all those suspended particles floating around after fermentation is complete would still be in their glass; otherwise known as a dark hazy mess full of dead yeast cells, grape pulp, tartrate crystals, harsh tannins, proteins, and other phenolics.

But do egg whites need to be part of the equation, the straightforward answer is no. But on the other side of that blunt answer is that you'll need to be patient enough to wait for those particles to settle out of the solution on their own via good old-fashioned gravity. But in our fast-paced go-go world, we don't want to wait for the crockpot when the microwave is far more convenient. Some claim that marketing is the blame, but if we're honest, the profit motive has as much to do with the use of this and other fining agents which speed up the process dramatically; allowing producers to get their wines to market sooner rather than later.

Have you ever run into an overly tannic red wine, astringent and not so palatable? Fining highly tannic red wines is the most commonly used fining agent in use today. The process goes a bit like this, because of the active ingredient in egg whites (not the yolks) protein albumin, it attaches to tannins through a chemical reaction causing an electric charge and then falls out of the wine.

On average, depending on the size, it takes between three to eight eggs fine the average 225-liter barrique of wine or put another way about 15 eggs per 1L of water, with a pinch of salt, mixed well and poured into the wine bearing vessel and left for nearly a week. Another rule of thumb I read about in WineMaker Magazine, I'm paraphrasing here, "regarding egg white additions you're generally looking at 0.5 to 1 mL per gallon of wine, a procedure typically is done before bottling especially when dealing with astringent red wines." Of course, through trial and error, years of experience, a winemaker can dial in the amount needed or desired to soften the tannins in their red wines.

About a week later, the wine is 'racked' off of the sediments, leaving behind the proteins from the eggs, as well as deposits. In other words, the egg whites bind to the harsh tannins thus precipitating (kicking to the curb) out those rough-edged tannins (leftover from grape skins, seeds, and stems) which can be unpalatable left untreated. Egg whites leave red wines with a softer, rounder long chain tannin profile, making the wine more approachable, without removing those needed tannins, which contribute wonderfully to the mouthfeel of the wine.

Image result for eggs + wine

The history of using this egg whites as a fining agent is said to be an ancient worldwide tradition, but with roots in European winemaking. Fast forward to the present day, many winemakers still prefer this 'natural' product over other synthetic products like PVPP (polyvinylpyrrolidone) because egg whites have proven to be gentler on the wine, and less likely to strip flavors, colors and aromas winemakers have worked so hard to obtain over the course of the growing season.

But what about the waste of all the egg yolks? Well in Bordeaux, the ever-enterprising French came up with a delicious solution to the issue, by literally saying "let them eat cake' err, uh that's 'canelés' (small pastries or cakes shaped like a crown) to you and me. As I can personally attest, they're unbelievably good. Winemakers could use powdered egg whites, but the flavor profile isn't the same, besides what about those delicious (holy) 'canelés' (Batman!) which are fantastic with a cup of hot fresh brewed coffee on a cold morning.

So, let's take a look at an alternative product like PVPP (a synthetic polymer) which may have been used to deliver roughly the same results, but not as thoroughly as egg whites do. But as a winemaker, if you use this product for fining, then you could label your wine 'vegan' thereby creating a niche wine product for a consumer base interested in wines not treated with egg whites or other animal products.

Even though most of the egg essence is removed in the racking process, it's possible a remnant is left behind, and those with allergies or food preferences which don't include dairy items like eggs, it could pose an issue. Primarily since egg whites are used on red wines, and there's absolutely no need to use them on white wines for clarification, or tannin softening; so drinking white wines become an excellent option for those who to choose to abstain from dairy.

Possible solutions to the dilemma, look for wines labeled 'vegan' meaning they've likely been filtered with bentonite for clarification and or stabilization, seeing white wines have so much more protein, there is little issue with tannins typically unless they went whole cluster fermentation.

There are other filtration and or fining agents that can be used and are in use today; like Gelatin, Bentonite as mentioned earlier, Kieselsol, Silica-gel, Isinglass (great for creating brilliant white wines, but made from the swim bladder of certain fish). Another trendy choice is Casein (which is a milky protein known as potassium-caseinate) which has a long history but doesn't work so well with low pH wines.

Do I believe there will be a new wave in the future of fining red wines without using eggs? From my research it appears egg whites will continue to be used as one of the go-to fining products, because while the clamor for ‘change’ may come vociferously, it will mostly fall on deaf ears who cater to the masses of wine enthusiasts for whom it’s not an issue now, or has it ever been an issue.

On a more conciliatory note, however, there are a number of producers, while small in 'number' who are tackling this niche market by using animal-free fining agents such as bentonite clay and carbon, which have their own issues. Some are simply not using any filtering or fining method at all; but this still leaves the average niche wine consumer with a dilemma, how does one find without abundant research vegan-friendly wines? Well, good news I found a site called Barnivore which claims to have a database of vegan-friendly wines and beer options.

So yes, while there are choices for winemakers, and consumers with sensitivities to specific fining agents, most often for the winemaker the decision is a simple one, how will this change my margins? Thinking about the future of winemaking, will the selection of a fining agent mar, enhance or be meaningless in the long run? I don't pretend to know the answer to the question I posed. But what I do know is that the average consumer of wine red, white or sticky is not asking about how their wine is fined or filtered, and in fact, the vast majority wouldn't even understand the question if it were posed to them. Thus, you can expect that the vast majority of wines today and tomorrow to continue to be fined, and their tannins softened with the traditional method, good old egg whites.


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