Despite being vegan since 2014 I hadn’t really given the idea of vegan wines much thought, surely wine is just made of grapes and what could possibly be non-vegan about that? Well, the non-vegan aspect of wines is not to do with the content of the wine but rather the processes used in wine-making which can render the wine unsuitable for vegetarians and/or vegans.
During wine-making, the wine goes through a process called clarification which removes insoluble materials from the grape juice. This can include impurities like dead yeast cells, fragments of grape skin, grape pulp and seeds and stalks. As most people don’t really want to drink a wine with bits floating around in it, fining agents are added to the wine to remove these unwanted materials from the cloudy grape juice. Once added, these fining agents bind to the insoluble materials which means they become big enough and thus easier to be filtered out.
There are various different fining agents that have been used traditionally, which include blood and bone marrow, casein (milk protein), chitin (fiber from crustacean shells), egg albumen (derived from egg whites), fish oil, gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), and isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes).
Obviously the use of animal-derived fining agents renders the wine unsuitable for vegans simply because, even though these agents are not purposely left in the wine, the wine-maker is not able to 100% guarantee that their wine is completely free of animal-derived products.
What fining agents are used in vegan-friendly wines?
Suitable vegan-friendly fining agents include carbon, bentonite clay, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein and silica gel. Therefore, only wine-makers who use these non-animal-derived fining agents can guarantee their wines are completely vegan-friendly. There is definitely a trend moving towards vegan wines and you will find vegan wines readily available in all shops and supermarkets. Some will be accidentally vegan, simply due to the processes used, others will be intentionally vegan, where the wine-maker makes a conscious, ethical decision not to use animal-derived products in their wines. Both are of course suitable for vegans and most vegan wines will be labelled as such.
Not all vegan wines are labelled as vegan though. I have found that sometimes the labels don’t declare the wines to be vegan and yet the product descriptions on the supermarket websites, for example, say that they are. Perhaps not all wine-makers consider it important to label their wines as vegan yet. This is something I will look into a bit more, the whys and the wherefores of this.
Are wines labelled natural or organic vegan?
Some winemakers prefer not to fine their wines as they believe that this process deprives them of their natural flavour and texture. Many natural wine producers do not fine or filter their wines, for example, therefore nothing is added or removed in the cellar. Natural wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and no additives or processing aids are used, thus intervention in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum.
However, without wanting to confuse the issue, while natural wines are vegan, not all organic wines are vegan-friendly. A wine labelled as organic is a wine made without herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and genetically modified seeds. Organic wines also typically avoid the use of added sulphur in bottling, meaning that it is suitable for people with an allergy to this preservative. However, it does not necessarily mean that animal-derived products have not been used so you would need to double check the label of an organic wine before assuming it is vegan.
There really is a lot of choice for vegans, it just means paying attention to labels and/or doing a little research before buying a bottle of wine. Interestingly, when asked what emerging trends were seen at the 2019 London Wine Fair, Hannah Tovey, the Director of the London Wine Fair, in a Q&A with WSET Global, remarked on the “huge increase in the number of organic and biodynamic wines were being shown, compared to last year” as well as a “marked increase in searches for vegan wines”. This can only be a good thing for us vegan wine lovers with more vegan wines on the shelves obviously meaning more choice for us.