What is vegan wine?

As the drive for clean eating gains momentum we are getting asked more and more whether wine is suitable for vegans. The simple answer is, for the most part, no. Although it might come as a surprise, animal products are indeed used in wine production both in the cellar and the vineyard. However, this is not always the case with more producers employing practices that enable them to label their wine as suitable for vegans.

In order to ascertain what makes a wines fall into this category, it is first necessary to consider what classifies as a vegan wine. A vegan wine is one which has had no animal products used throughout its production process, which for the devout vegan includes all vineyards practices to grow the grapes as well as all work done in the cellar. A common misconception is that because a wine is natural, organic or biodynamic it is therefore vegan. However, whilst this might be the case, there is no guarantee that animal products won’t have been used given that the laws governing these methods of production revolve around the use of synthetic and not animal products. Egg whites may well have been used in the fining process of an organic wine for example.

Which leads on nicely to what animal products exactly are used in wine production. During the winemaking process, pressed grape juice needs to settle following fermentation in order to let suspended solids left over from the fermentation process sink to the bottom of the tank or barrel. As the wine continues to mature, it will continue to get clearer as these solids sink and if left to its own devices the wine will naturally clarify itself, thus producing a wine which is both unfiltered and unfined. This process takes time however, which the demands of the modern winemaking industry doesn’t always allow. Furthermore the modern consumer likes to see a wine which is bright and clear. In steps science, and nowadays winemakers have various options at their fingertips to speed up this clarifying process by using a technique known as fining.

During fining there are a number of processing aids available, derived from animal products. They are added to the wine in order to bind with unwanted particles in the liquid and then filtered out. Due to the fact that this filtering process removes the fining agents from the wine you will not see them mentioned on the label.
A few examples of these fining agents are - 
  • Egg whites - to remove excess tannin
  • Casein (milk protein) - to give white wines brilliant clarity and remove oxidative taint
  • Gelatin  - to give red wines suppleness and white wines a brighter colour
  • Isinglass (from swim bladders of sturgeon) - to give white wines brilliant clarity by removing solids & excess colour
Not all fining agents are derived from animal products however and the following are permitted when making a vegan wine - 
  • Poly-vinly-poly-pyrrolidone (PVPP) - man made plastic substance which absorbs excess phenols and colours
  • Bentonite - purified clay which binds with protein in white and rosé wines

For those vegans who also focus on the farming side of the process, there are also animal derived fertilisers from bone marrow or fish emulsion that sit alongside plant based alternatives.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian and would like to know if your favourite wine is suitable for you to drink then first and foremost check the back label. More and more wine producers are paying attention to this and know that vegan consumers demand transparency. You can also check with your wine merchant for more information.

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