Vegetarian and the Vine

By Mike Sherwood

As an unabashed carnivore and someone who waxes eloquent about the virtues of how a rustic Syrah pairs perfectly with a succulent herb-encrusted roasted lamb, I must admit to being clueless as to the entire subject of what issues vegans and vegetarians might have with the winemaking process. Mea maxima culpa. My bad.

It used to be if you said ‘vegetarian’ it brought up images of back-to-the-earth types sitting cross-legged around a communal table eating tofu and carrot sticks. Thankfully, that has changed. Nowadays even the toniest of restaurants are serving up vegetarian fare and pairing them with wines.

How Veggie Are You?

Vegetarianism spans a range of motivations and preferences. Some of my vegetarian friends eat eggs but not cheese (ovo-vegetarians); others eat dairy products but not eggs (lacto-vegetarians); and the ones who love veggies but can’t give up eggs or dairy would be classified as lacto-ovo-vegetarians.

Then there is the hard-core vegan, who eats plant-based foods only. No eggs or cheese pass their lips. No Doc Martens clad their feet. Certainly no fish or shrimp slip into their diet like some of my ‘vegetarian’ friends who simply like vegetables but not red meat. The food you eat is a choice, which can spring from allergies, health driven lifestyles or the politics of food. So how does wine play into your food regimen and are there any issues with wine you should know about? Let’s see.

Vegetarian Wine

Depending on the vintage and what happened with a particular wine as it evolved in fermentation, wineries may have to use a fining agent to clarify wine of proteins, yeasts or other organic material or to remove a flaw before bottling. This is done to correct something in the wine such as a haze, excessive astringency, an off-flavor or an odd odor, while not removing the good stuff like color, aroma, flavor and soft tannins. The wine-fining agent drops to the bottom of the barrel long before the wine gets into the bottle. Some of these fining agents are animal based.

The good news is that the majority of winemakers use no fining agents in their wines, ever. That’s the way they would like it—a gentle hand and little manipulation.  

Sometimes, a specific vineyard site or a given vintage will produce grapes with thick skins that contain an over abundance of tannins. This can give the wine a coarse mouthfeel and be overly harsh and astringent, so a winemaker might choose to remove those tannins via a fining agent. Some white wines might have gained a slight brown or pinkish tint in the fermentation process that need fining to remove an off color or flavor.  The goal of the winemaker is to make the best wine possible with the juice they received that year. Fining is a tool that winemakers use sparingly.

Animal-based fining agents include egg whites, milk caseins, gelatin and isinglass. Egg whites, or egg albumin, are typically used in red wines, not whites, to clarify a wine or to remove excess tannins. Isinglass is prepared from the bladder of the fish and is historically used more on white wines in Europe, but may also find its way into a ruddy Syrah whose tannins need to be toned down a little.

Not all fining agents are animal-based. Vegan-friendly bentonite, a type of very fine clay, serves as a popular fining agent as does Sparkolloid, which is made from seaweed. There are even synthetic fining agents (PVPP) that adsorb tannin polymers and proteins just fine and are totally filtered out before bottling. The winemaker’s choice of fining material usually depends more on what agent will work best to address a problem in a particular wine that year. Some of the fining agents are indeed animal-based, so whether your concerns are allergies or following vegetarian protocol, you should be aware that occasionally, an animal product might have been used out of the winemaker’s toolbox.   

Most fining agents work because they have the opposite charge of particles that they remove. Charged fining agents bind to oppositely charged particles in the wine, neutralizing their charge and increasing the combined weight enough for settling to occur. The agents solidify with the available protein and are then left behind in the process of racking—transferring wine from barrel to barrel—or through filtration. Very little, if any, of the original fining product is ever left in the wine itself.

Organic Wine

So what about organic wine? In general, “organic” applies to wine the same way it applies to any other agricultural product.

The land must be free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers for at least three years for the grapes to be called organic. Organic grapegrowers generally plant cover crops, rather than using herbicides, choose natural fertilizers over chemical ones, and encourage natural insect predators to keep pests under control rather than spraying with pesticides.All of this contributes to healthier soil that is more productive over the long term and a cleaner, chemical-free product.

Not to confuse things, but there are organic grapes and vineyards that focus on nurturing the soils, and there are organic wines. The two are not synonymous. Organic wines start with organic grapes, of course, but forbid the addition of sulfites in the process of turning grapes into wines.  

Sulfites occur naturally in the fermentation process, but most winemakers use additional sulfites to keep their product fresh and bacteria-free and prevent the grapes, and ultimately the wine itself, from spoiling in the fermentation bins, in the barrels and in the bottle.  

For decades, winemakers have relied on sulfur dioxide to keep white wines from turning brown prematurely and losing their youthful fruit flavors. Red wines contain tannin, a natural preservative, so they need less sulfite protection than whites, but they still need some sulfites to guarantee a reasonable lifespan.

Today, making truly organic wine requires an extraordinary commitment on the part of the winemaker as well as an understanding by the consumer as to the longevity of organic wines. If you buy organic wines, don’t count on cellaring them for long. Drink ’em young.


Biodynamic farms and wineries strive to be self-sustaining, holistic organisms within the surrounding ecosystem. The idea is that each vineyard becomes an individual unique ecosphere. The soil in which the grapes grow represents so much more than just dirt; it is a living thing that lends not only a sense of place, but also of time, with millions of years incorporated into its complex layers.

In biodynamics, spring equinox is for bud break; summer solstice, bloom; fall equinox, harvest; and winter solstice, the silence of dormancy. The movement of the sun, the changing seasons and the lunar cycles are all connected intimately in a biodynamic vineyard. A second tenant that defines biodynamic farming is the use of strictly prescribed preparations and sprays to treat the soil and vines.  

Many organic and sustainable farmers make compost teas to treat the soil and the vines, but what may be the most controversial element of the biodynamic practice are the soil and foliage preparations used.

These ‘teas’ are made of very specific botanical and mineral elements, sometimes involving ingredients from cow horns buried in the summer, filled with silica quartz, to oak bark aged in the skull cavity of a domestic animal, to stinging nettle or yarrow flower teas. These preparations are very specific in their composition. While all this may sound far fetched to the uninitiated, they all fit into a view of the natural world, where carbon-based nutrients and minerals, self-reliant farm recycling, and the seasonal and lunar cycles collide in a cosmic view of grapegrowing and winemaking. Some of the best wineries in Oregon rely on biodynamic methods to produce the best fruit from which to make their wine.

Mike Sherwood is a freelance writer, lives in Dundee and is the owner of Sub Rosa Spirits.

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