Many wines are unsuitable for vegetarians or vegans because of materials known as "fining agents" used to fine, or clarify, the wine. They remove haze and fine materials that would otherwise stay in supspension in the wine, and in some cases can alter the flavour, and even the colour, of the finished wine.
These fining agents may be derived from animals or
dairy products, or may be inorganic
(for example bentonite clay, or synthetic polymers such as PVPP). Animal-derived
gelatin (from animal bones and tendons), isinglass (from the swim bladders
of certain fish), albumen (egg white) and
casein (milk protein).
Bentonite clay and isinglass are used primarily in white wines, while albumen or gelatin are preferred for red wines. Casein is often used in white wines or sherries.
Vegetarian wine may use egg albumen, casein, synthetic polymers or clays as a fining agent, or be unfined.
Vegans wines are either unfined, or, fined with inorganic products such as bentonite clay. Vegans do not drink wines filtered with dairy- or egg-derived fining agents such as albumen.
It can be hard to identify which wines are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. There is no requirement for wines to display information about the fining agent used on their label. However, increasing consumer demand has resulted in some wines stating "suitable for vegetarians (and/or vegans) on their label. Some even have vegetarian or vegan society approved symbols. But only a very small proportion of the total number of wines that are suitable are labelled. Organic wines tend to be better labelled, as they cater to consumers who want more information about the products they are buying. Another way to tell is through the retailer. Large supermarkets often have lists of the vegetarian and vegan wines they stock, available on their websites or through contacting customer services. Good health food stores also often stock a range of vegan and vegetarian wines. There are also some suppliers on-line. Farmers markets are a good place to go, as you can talk directly to the grower, and Vegan Volumes has found several good wines this way. Take a look at our links page for some suppliers.
Beer fining agents include Irish Moss seeweed and synthetic polymers, as well as animal-derived gelatine and isinglass. The best way to find out if your favourite beer is vegan or vegetarian is to contact the brewery. Beware, though, that sometimes a brewery in one country may use vegan fining agents, but a brewery for the same product in another country may use an animal derived fining agent.