There is a real vogue at the moment in the UK for vegetarian, and indeed vegan, products. Restaurants now have to have a vegan option in both beer and wine. One would have thought that surely wines and beers are already vegan being made from grapes and barley? But this is not the case. It is the additives that some winemakers and brewers use that may have animal products in them.
I am a profound believer in keeping things as natural as possible when it comes to agriculture. Farmers of grapes are called viticulturalists and they are a mixed bunch when it comes to the environment (sorry for the pun). Some farmers still adhere to an intensive farming regime but others are now much more respectful of long term sustainability of vineyards and their environs. There is a trend towards more organic viticulture and even a growth in Rudolf Steiner’s Biodynamic Organic viticultural practice.
A reduction in pesticide and herbicide use is very welcome in my book. It requires more effort and care on the part of the grape growers, but I think a reduction in potential chemical residues on the grapes that go into my wine is a good thing. More beasties and bugs growing in and around the grapes is a better thing in my book.
This leads me onto the hot debate about vegan wines in the office yesterday. Consumers of wine expect their wine to be clear (particularly white wine drinkers). To achieve clarity in wine, the winemaker has to use a fining agent to strip naturally occurring protein hazes out of the wine. They do this with fining agents. It is these fining agents that cause the wine not to be vegetarian as sometimes animal products are used. Various “animal extracted” fining agents have been used over the years, including, weirdly, dried fish swim bladders to bulls blood! No commercial winery uses these things these days!
The most common fining agent in use today is Bentonite clay. Bentonite is weathered volcanic ash that has the interesting property of being a super absorbent material and a great wine and beer clarifier! Wines that are clarified with Bentonite are able to be labelled vegan and vegetarian. If I’m being super-picky, (and I do like to be super-picky!) there will surely be some animal fossils trapped in the clay from millions of years ago? The question is, “How old do animal remains have to be before they aren’t animal?” I’ll let you think on that one!
Also, there is absolutely no way to harvest bunches of grapes without a small chance of the odd ant or two falling into the fermentation vat. This is probably at the same level of animal consumption per year as inhaling small spiders in our sleep (apparently we all inhale quite a few in the course of a year!). The more organic the vineyard, the more bugs and beasties there will be living in and around the bunches of grapes, the more will end up in the wine tanks. Bizarrely then, the more organic the vineyard, the less likely your wine will be totally vegetarian! Or is that just me putting the cat amongst the pigeons, unless it is a vegetarian cat, obviously.