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Vegetarian Journal Cover

Vegetarian Journal


January/February 1997
Volume XVI, Number 1

Why is Wine so Fined?

By Caroline Pyevich

Although wine usually contains only grapes, yeast, and a small amount of sulfites, which are added and created during fermentation, the processing of wine introduces small amounts of substances which may be of concern to vegetarians and vegans.

Every wine is different and no uniform formula exists for producing wine. The taste of a wine is a reflection of where its grapes were grown. The soil gives the wine its flavor, which is why wines produced in certain areas have a distinctive flavor. Winemakers may choose not to extensively process their wine in order to retain some of these natural qualities.

A clarifying or fining agent makes wine clear by removing proteins from the wine. The agents eventually settle out of the wine. Different proteins serve as clarifying agents depending upon both the type of wine and the desired flavor. Lab trials determine both the clarifying agent and quantities used. The fining agents have an opposite polarity to that of the wine. Therefore, the agents solidify with the protein and they remain in the wine, although they can be removed.

Some clarifiers are animal-based products, while others are earth-based. Common animal-based agents include egg whites, milk, casein, gelatin, and isinglass. Gelatin is an animal protein derived from the skin and connective tissue of pigs and cows. Isinglass is prepared from the bladder of the sturgeon fish. Bentonite, a clay earth product, serves as a popular fining agent.

Organic agents are more likely to be used in the clarification of premium wines. Premium wines are typically those which cost more than $7 a bottle and are produced from grapes grown in desirable locations. According to Bouchaine Vineyard, twenty-five percent of the premium wines produced in the United States is clarified with an organic protein.

Egg whites from chicken eggs are used for red wine clarification and are removed before the wine is bottled. The egg whites are not specially processed or separately distributed for the wine industry. They are regular, store-bought eggs or farm eggs. Two or three egg whites can clarify a 55-gallon barrel of wine.

Winemakers in France (Burgundy) commonly utilize egg whites in their production because they can use the whites of the eggs after the yolks have already been added to their foods. Egg whites generally clarify more expensive wines (above $15 a bottle) or French wines which are expected to age.

Large producers of wine in the United States do not usually use egg whites as a fining agent, and they may implement potassium caseinate as a substitute for eggs. Whole milk and casein are two other possible fining agents in some red wines.

Gelatin can clarify either white or red wine. Gelatin pulls suspended material out of wine, and less expensive wines may use this material. One ounce of gelatin can clarify 1,000 gallons of wine.

Gelatin serves as a finishing agent in some wine and beer. A finishing agent adds a "final touch" to the quality and clarity of the wine without making any radical change in its flavor. Gelatin may also be used in addition to another fining agent and is removed after the clarification process.

Although the clarifying agents for red wine are animal products, many producers of red wine do not need to use any clarifying agent to remove tannins. (Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that precipitate proteins from a solution.) By pressing the wine at an early stage of the winemaking process, the tannins can be removed without the additional proteins.

Isinglass is used to fine selected white wine. Germany, which initially introduced this method, is one of the main countries that still uses this technique. Some American wineries use isinglass to clarify white wine or chardonnay, but this substance is not commonly incorporated in wine production. Activated carbon or bentonite are alternative clarifiers of white wine.

The most popular substance used to remove the proteins of domestically produced white wines is bentonite. It is a silica clay which picks up the organic proteins left by the grapes. If left in the wine, these proteins would denature and form long molecular strands. This process would result in wine that is either hazy or has loose sediment floating in it. Therefore, bentonite acts as an agent to improve the cosmetic appearance of the wine for the consumer. Bentonite is used to fine most inexpensive wines. Two to three pounds of bentonite clarifies 1,000 gallons of wine.

Several other fining agents exist. Sparkaloid, a diatomaceous earth, clarifies white and red wine. Italian wine may be fined with either eggs, milk, or blood. Although blood of large mammals may serve as a clarifier in some Old Mediterranean countries, its use is forbidden in wine from either the United States or France.

Both the clarifying agents and the removed proteins coagulate on the bottom of the wine tank or barrel. They are then removed through either a settling process or a cellulose fiber filter. The ingredient list of a wine will not state the clarifier as an ingredient because it is removed from the final product. Calling or writing to a particular wine company may be the best way to discover which fining agent they use.

Wine may also be filtered to remove impurities. A wine can be filtered and not clarified, or clarified and not filtered. A wine marked "unfiltered" has not passed through a filtering substance, such as a plastic micropore filter. "Unfined" wines have not had a clarifying agent passed through them. Even though a wine label may state it is unfined, this may not always be the case. According to one California winery, some companies may mark a bottle of wine "unfined" as a marketing technique because no one avidly scrutinizes the wine producers to verify these claims.

Kosher wines may be more likely to avoid the use of the animal-based clarifying agents, but not all do so. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU) stated that all of their Kosher certified American-made wines do not currently use either gelatin, isinglass, or egg whites. They cannot vouch for the status of the international Kosher wines.

The Orthodox Union also claimed that a wine could theoretically be certified as Kosher if it contained egg whites or if the gelatin were completely removed from the final product. They did not reveal any general rule for certifying wine as Kosher and claimed that each certification agency may use different criteria for certifying wine. Star-K, another certification organization, also showed no aversion to the use of egg whites.

Kof K claimed that Kosher wine is not clarified with either gelatin or isinglass in America. Egg whites, a Kosher item, would be a permissible agent. Kof K mentioned that paper is sometimes used to clarify Kosher wine, as the paper adheres to the impurities. Kosher wine is a specialty item and is produced directly for the Kosher market.

Caroline wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML

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