Vegan & Vegetarian wine
Exactly what is vegetarian and vegan wine?
There seems to be a lot of talk about it at the moment. You may wonder what all the fuss is about. After all wine is made almost 100% from grapes, a plant, so you would think it fits perfectly into a vegetarian's or vegan's approved list of food stuffs, wouldn't you? You may therefore be surprised, even horrified, to know that some wines are not suitable for vegetarians and some not for vegans - and there is no requirement to state on the label if a wine is not vegan- or vegetarian-friendly. Read on to find out more about vegan and vegetarian wine and how can you make sure the wine you choose is suitable.
Veganism, not just a flash in the pan
There are estimated to be over 500,000 people in the UK aged 15 or over who are vegans (according to an IPSOS Mori survey in 2016), a huge increase from the previous estimate of 150,000 in 2006. This means, according to the Vegan Society that over 1% of the population is following "... a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose." Foodstuffs that are avoided include meat, dairy, eggs and honey.
An increasing number of people who, whilst not following a strict vegan or vegetarian way of life, are buying meat-free and dairy-free products either for health, animal welfare and / or environmental reasons. And in its 4 years of existence Veganuary 2018 was considered the most successful with the highest number of registered participants (168,500 worldwide according to Veganuary) - and 62% of those that filled in Veganuary's survey said they intended to remain vegan after January.
What are the animal-based products in wine?
Once a wine has been produced, whether a crisp light white wine for drinking in the next year or two or a fuller-bodied red wine that has been aged in oak for a couple of years, the final process before the wine is bottled may involve animal-based products. This process is fining; the aim of fining is to clarify and stabilise the wine before it is released to consumers.
Without fining wine is likely to be cloudy and potentially have unpleasant aromas and flavour due to microscopic impurities such as dead yeast cells and tiny bits of grape, leaves or stalks. Whilst these usually disperse with time and filtration is sufficient to get rid of some of the larger unwanted particles, many winemakers use fining to get rid of the smaller impurities and to make sure that the consumer gets what they are expecting i.e. a clear, clean-smelling, pleasant-tasting wine.
The fining agents used in the fining process effectively bind with the impurities and the resulting precipitate is removed by filtration or by pumping the wine off the sediment; the problem is that many of the fining agents commonly used consist of animal proteins such as:
- Egg whites or albumin - eggs
- Isinglass - traditionally from sturgeon bladders and now more usually from general fish waste
- Gelatine- from animal tissue, bones & skin
- Casein - a milk protein
Years ago ox or bull's blood was used but their use was banned in Europe in 1987.
Most vegetarians would find egg whites and casein acceptable but vegans would not. It is probably safer for vegetarians to seek out vegan wines to be absolutely sure that no meat or fish products have been used.
The good news for wine-loving vegans
The good news is firstly that wine does not need to be fined - eventually the wine will become clear itself but most wine drinkers would not accept cloudy wine and most winemakers do not want to have to hang onto their wine in the cellar for a long time.
Secondly there are alternatives to animal proteins that can be used, bentonite, a form of clay, charcoal, or silica sol being the main acceptable alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. Christophe Thibert of Domaine Thibert recently explained to me that the fining process is a very delicate balance; he tries to avoid fining altogether but has to keep checking the wine. If fining is required, Thibert uses bentonite and as little as possible.
Some argue that no traces of animal products remain after fining as all the protein is removed with the impurities. Indeed, only rarely will you find a wine label that states that the wine may contain eggs, fish or milk - despite these being on EU's list of allergens that must be listed on foodstuffs since December 2014. Labels like this one from the lovely Alpha Domus The Wingwalker Viognier are rare. But vegan friends do not agree with that argument - they prefer to drink wine that has had no animal products in it at any stage.
The less good news... vegan wine labelling
You won't know from most wine labels what has been used to fine a wine if anything. Some suggest that you should stick to unfiltered wines. All well and good but these are few and far between and only occasionally do you see on a wine label that a wine has been produced without fining. Some winemakers believe that fining and filtering can remove too many of the good aromas and flavours. But even if the wine is unfiltered, for whatever reason the winemaker may chose not to provide that information on the label.
Most 'natural' wines will not have been fined - but some of them can be a little too unfiltered, i.e. the winemaker has chosen to produce a wine that is cloudy and more 'interesting' on the nose and palate which may not be to everyone's taste - read my guide to natural wines for more information. The main problem is that the term natural wine is not defined and can be freely used by some less reputable winemakers.
You may also think that organic and/ or biodynamic wine will be safe for vegans or for vegetarians. I have even read a couple of recent newspaper articles that suggest this is the case but they are doing a huge disservice to vegans for whom avoiding animal-based foods is not simply a dietary choice.
An Austrian winemaker I recently spoke with told me that if you take the definition of veganism to the letter then even animal manure would be banned in the vineyard, something which she as an organic and biodynamic producer relies upon. I have asked my vegan friends but most seem content with the idea of animal manure as fertiliser. As I think most vegans would accept Johann Reyneke's ethical and sustainable practices for their organic and biodynamic wines - they are herbicide-, pesticide- and fungicide-free. To stop weeds growing they plant 'companion plants' amongst the vines "to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, help break up compacted soil or even harbour a beneficial insect or two. While all sorts of poisons are usually used to combat pests, we simply release their natural predators, like ducks – there’s nothing more delicious for a duck than a good, juicy snail."
I'll cover biodynamic wines at a later date but a common biodynamic practice is burying cowhorn in the vineyard - honestly - and this might also not be considered in line with vegan principles particularly if the cow had suffered in the process of losing its horn. Therefore organic or bio-dynamic wines may also not be suitable for vegans.
And if you're thinking of moving towards beer or cider in order to avoid this issue, beware as beers and ciders may also not be vegan-friendly for similar reasons.
The vegan wine solution?
What we really need is an internationally recognised definition of vegan wine - and worldwide vegan wine labelling. Some winemakers and wine sellers are getting wise to this and a few wine labels are beginning to address the situation.
Until such time as vegan-friendly wine labelling is commonplace, stick to finding a reputable wine merchant - hang on, I know one of those! - who can give you the information you require to make sure that you are making the right choices.
As regular readers and customers know it is Wines With Attitude's ethos to find smaller producers who work sustainably and ethically, with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the wine cellar. Many of the wines I have don't fine or filter their wines at all, or if they do, they don't use animal derived products such as gelatin or isinglass. I have created a new Vegan wine category - wines are being added daily to the list as I am in the process of checking the facts with winemakers. So keep checking back.
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