What wines at Heron Hill Winery are vegan?
Upon my previous blog about stabilizing the wines prior to bottling, another aspect of preparing a wine for bottling has emerged: what about fining agents used in wine? The fining agents dictate if a wine can be considered vegan or not. Fining agents are used for clarification and stabilization of the wine, but also to smooth out the mouthfeel if necessary, or fix the color on a prematurely oxidized wine. So, technically, bentonite is a fining agent. Remember, we use bentonite to react with proteins and make the wine “heat stable”. Bentonite is a clay of volcanic origin, and is discarded after it settles down to the bottom of the tank.
Tannins are part of a class of compounds called polyphenols. Depending on the growing conditions of a particular vintage, the phenols can vary in quantity and variety. For example, an unripe grape will have very harsh and aggressive tannins which will not age well, or grapes affected by mildew or sour rot will have undesirable compounds in the juice. The remedy is fining. Some tannins also come from the aging in a oak barrel. Sometimes these tannins can be too harsh and fining agents are used to eliminate the undesirable tannins, making the wine taste smoother and less aggressive on the palate.
Fining agents can have different origins: bentonite is a volcanic clay, casein comes from milk, gelatin from animal’s bones or sturgeon’s bladder, albumin from eggs (in the past some fining products were made out of albumin extracted from animal’s blood, but it has been outlawed). Others are synthetic, like PVPP (or PolyVinylPolyPyrolidone. I know it makes me look smart when I drop this word, but since I don’t use this compound, I don’t have many occasions to mention it!).
My understanding is that the use of fining agent of animal origin has made some people feeling uneasy. I’m a meat eater myself, but know that the use of these agents in wine would render it non-vegan. All of the white wines at Heron Hill Winery are treated with bentonite, the volcanic clay. The red wines don’t need to be treated since the barrel aging tends to stabilize them. Pinot Gris is a varietal used in the Eclipse White blend. The Pinot Gris portion is actually treated before the fermentation even starts with a mix of bentonite and casein, to prevent any “pinking” from this varietal. Pinot Blanc is white, Pinot Noir is red, and Pinot Gris (“grey” in French) is in between. Sometimes the fresh juice from Pinot Gris can have a pinkish hue, which can be a problem if it has to be part of a white wine blend. The other wines we treat with this mix are all the Late Harvest and Icewines because they are made from grapes that can be botrytised (“Noble Rot”).
I don’t know if it makes a difference, but I must point out that all these compounds end up at the bottom of the tank after they reacted with the wine. They form big molecules that become too heavy to stay in suspension and drop down. That is why casein, gelatin, and albumin based fining agents are always used in conjunction with bentonite. Bentonite (reacts with proteins) will take care of any excess of protein based fining agent by attaching itself to it and dropping to the bottom of the tank.
So, to clarify for our vegan friends, all of our wines are vegan except for the Eclipse White, Icewine and Late Harvests. If you have any questions, just comment below and I’ll be sure to follow up!