It's a sight increasingly rare in the wine world, but if you go to parts of Bordeaux and Rioja you can still spot winery workers cracking large quantities of eggs. The job is slow and time-consuming (the albumen has to be separated from the yolk), but some winemakers regard it as essential. They claim that a red wine 'fined' with egg whites (clarified and stabilised in layman's terms) has smoother tannins.
If you're a strict vegan, that last sentence probably made you flinch. For wine-drinking readers who won't touch animal products, the bad news doesn't stop there. Many of the fining agents used in wine are no-nos for vegetarians as well as vegans. Gelatine (made from animal tissues), chitosan (derived from the shells of crustaceans and shellfish) and isinglass (made from fish bladders) are all on the proscribed list. These products don't show up in the finished wines, of course, but it's the principle that counts.
Fortunately, there are plenty of wines out there that are suitable for vegetarians. A growing number of wines advertise themselves as 'unfined and unfiltered' on the label, particularly in the US, where such a declaration has marketing clout. The problem with these wines is that, despite their vegetarian credentials, they are potentially unstable and can develop bacteria and yeast-derived off characters in bottle. The higher a wine's alcohol and the lower its acidity, the more likely you are to have a problem. So watch out for 'natural' warm-climate wines.
If you leave a wine long enough, it will pretty much clarify itself. But most producers have neither the time nor money to wait for this to happen. That's why they use a fining agent to speed up the process. Not all of these are things you might find on the counter of your local butcher or fishmonger. In fact, bentonite (a clay widely used for protein stability) is totally vegetarian friendly.
Winemaking consultant John Worontschak reckons that around 90 per cent of all wines are suitable for vegetarians. 'Most producers these days try to make wines that can be drunk by anyone,' he says. Things are different for vegans, however, as roughly 70 per cent of wines are fined with milk or egg-derived products such as casein and albumen.
How can you distinguish wines that are suitable for vegetarians and/or vegans from those that aren't? One solution is to contact a specialist importer, such as Smithfield Wine (0161 273 6070), Vinceremos (01132 440 002), or Vintage Roots (0800 980 4992; www.vintageroots.co.uk). By the way, it's worth remembering that just because a wine is organic, it isn't necessarily vegetarian or vegan, and vice versa.
In a supermarket or off-licence, it's harder to be sure that what you're drinking wasn't fined with an animal product. Tesco, Waitrose and M&S use vegetarian symbols on their own labels, but not all retailers are as switched on. Part of the problem is that producers and importers have to pay the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies to use their logos and are sometimes reluctant to cough up the dosh.
I've chosen three wines for vegetarians this week, and one that is right on the triple whammy of vegan, vegetarian and organic. The trio of vegetarian wines are: the complex, toasty, age-worthy 2004 Château Tour Léognan, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux (£9.99, Waitrose); the minty, deeply coloured, blackcurrant-scented 2003 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua Valley, Chile (£9.99, Tesco) and the brambly, smoky, sweetly oaked 2003 Bush View Shiraz, Margaret River, Australia (£7.99, M&S).
[From the Observer magazine]