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Vegan wine: Meet the woman removing the fish bladders and eggs from our bottles of red

A vineyard in San Fransisco is on a quest to prove that wine can be cruelty-free.

If you think wine is just made of some crushed up grapes fermented in a barrel, think again. Fish bladder protein, crushed crustacean shells, egg whites, gelatin, and casein milk protein are all commonly-used in wine-making process, from your bottom-shelf rose to a vintage Bordeaux.

So finding an animal-friendly tipple if you’re a hardcore vegan or vegetarian can be tricky. And may be one of the reasons that while there has been a 360 per cent spike in people dabbling in veganism in the UK since 2006, separate research from the US shows that 84 per cent turn back to consuming meat and animal products soon after.
Animal products find their way in wine as fining ages, which are used to clarify the drink and to carry unstable proteins. A fining agent is added to the top of a wine vessel. As it sinks to the bottom, the agent binds with proteins in the wine.

“The majority of people are unaware that wine, although made from grapes, may have been made using animal-derived products,” the PETA animal welfare website readers rather sadly.

But a bit of fish bladder protein or crushed up crab isn’t going to stop vegans from enjoying a glass of red. And much like using sweet potatoes as a replacement for eggs in cakes, or even switching cow’s milk for almond or soy, vegans have thought up plenty of cruelty-free ways to get their wine fix.

According to Peta, carbon, bentonite clay, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, silica gel, and vegetable plaques are all used as alternatives to animal products.
And Eliza Frey, assistant winemaker at Frey Vineyards, has been making vegan wine way before the lifestyle was fashionable. She has worked at the Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County, California around 100 miles from San Francisco, for a decade. Pinor Noir, Sangiovese, Merlot and Pinot Grigio are all made by the vineyard.

Founded in 1980, Frey is the oldest certified organic winery in the US. The team there specialise in making additive-free, gluten-free and organic wines.

“There has been an increase in interest in vegan wine, in line with the rising popularity of plant based diets in general,” Frey tells The Independent. “In the past most people assumed wine was vegan.”

“We have always worked with vegan wine. We practice low impact winemaking, so we never use sulphites, animal based fining agents, colours, stabilisers, enzymes or extracts. We rely on the quality of fruit to make wines of high quality and character,” she adds.
So what does vegan wine taste like, exactly? While we can all argue that a pizza tastes just as good not dripping in mozzarella, it’s hardly true. Does wine suffer the same fate?

“Vegan wine taste similar to other wines,” says Frey. In fact, animal products don’t seem integral to the winemaking process at all, she argues. “Factors like varietal, growing region, the ripeness of the fruit at harvest, choice of yeast, contact with grape skins during fermentation and exposure to oxygen and oak have more of an effect on what a wine will taste like than whether or not it is vegan.”

“Wine is inherently vegan until an animal based processing aid is chosen by the winemaker,” adds Frey. “At Frey vineyards we test each batch of wine to see if fining is necessary to ensure that the wine will be stable on the shelf for consumers. We do not fin our red wines, but our white wines often require fining. For batches that need to be fined we use bentonite clay.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking that vegan wine is any more virtuous than regular plonk.

“Vegan wines are not necessarily healthier than others,” she warns. “Factors such as growing methods in the vineyard and preservatives in the wine are the biggest factors in determining the healthiness of a wine.”

Those intrigued by pairing vegan food and vegan wine should try richer and more robust wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot pair best with heavier, heartier foods like roasted mushrooms in olive oil and lemon, root vegetable puree, or a hearty primavera sauce with olives and rosemary, according to Frey.

For spicy, ethnic cuisine like coconut lemongrass soup or fresh basil spring rolls with peanut sauce choose a crisp white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc, a dry, not sweet, Pinot Grigio, or a light bodied Pinot Noir. Medium bodied reds like Sangiovese, Zinfandel and blended table wines like Frey’s Natural Red or Organic Agriculturist are great with grilled vegetables, hearty kale salads or quinoa pilaf with parsley and pumpkin seeds.

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