Wine labels can be tricky to read and understand. Often, you have to attempt to decipher numerous words you may or may not be familiar with. When it comes to vegan wine, you might be asking yourself, vegan? Isn't wine just fermented grape juice? In an ideal world, yes, but sometimes there is more in a bottle than crushed grapes.
Why Aren't All Wines Vegan?
You'd think that drinking a glass of wine is like drinking a cup of grape juice, except with alcohol, of course. But unfortunately, sometimes there can be a long list of other ingredients inside a bottle. All wine starts out vegan and remains so up through the yeast converting the grape sugars into alcohol. After this conversion, a winemaker decides whether to clarify the wine or not, a process known as fining. There are numerous fining agents winemakers can use to clarify a wine, many of which are not vegan friendly. If a wine is unfined or fined using a vegan substance, the wine may be labelled "vegan". Otherwise, it may not even be vegetarian.
Understanding Fining and Fining Agents
So what exactly is fining? When a wine is first made, it's typically quite hazy with teeny tiny particles floating around. These are all natural molecules, such as tartrates, phenolics, proteins, and dead yeast cells. While these are harmless, they can make a wine appear a bit cloudy until they settle at the bottom of the bottle over time. Natural wines embrace this character trait, leaving wines unfined, while mass-produced commercial wines are typically fined to achieve a clear wine.
A few common fining agents that are not vegan include:
- Egg whites
- Casein (derived from milk)
- Isinglass (fish bladder proteins)
In each of these cases, the molecules bind to the fining agent, sink to the bottom of the vessel, and are then strained out and discarded. While the fining agents are removed along with the molecules, small amounts may be left behind and absorbed into the wine; therefore, some may be vegetarian, but none are vegan.
Vegan Fining Agents
As consumers look for healthier and more sustainable products, there is a growing demand for transparency with wine and a desire to keep it vegan. Because of this, many winemakers are using bentonite, a vegan friendly, clay-based fining agent. Activated charcoal is another fining agent that can be used which acts in a similar way.
Certified Vegan vs. Vegan-Friendly
When browsing the shelves for vegan wine, you'll likely come across numerous vegan stamps or the phrase "vegan-friendly". There are numerous certifying agencies, each with their own criteria and certification process. Some of these certifications guarantee that no animal related fining agents were used in the winemaking process, while others take it a step further and look at any animal involvement in the whole process from vineyard to winery. If you come across a wine labeled "vegan-friendly", it often means the producer is declaring it vegan, but it has not been vetted by anyone else. To make things more complicated, there are plenty of vegan wines that don't bother with the certification process or labelling.
PETA suggests you search at BevVeg, which certifies winemakers producing vegan wines via an extensive documentation process that no animal byproducts are used in any stage of winemaking, nor is there any animal testing involved. BevVeg also has a free app you can use that lists the wines they certify as vegan. That way, if you're on the go, you can quickly check and find a wine that suits your needs. PETA also recommends Barnivore, which allows you to quickly search whether a specific wine is vegan-friendly.
Where to Find Vegan Wines
Nowadays, you can usually find a few commercially produced wines in a typical grocery store that are certified vegan and have a vegan emblem on the label or state they are vegan friendly. While this guarantees that no animal related fining agents were used, it doesn't speak to much else in terms of the viticultural practices or winemaking techniques.
If you are looking for more purity in your wine and want to ensure there are no added chemicals or remnants of egg white or anything else floating around in your glass, it's best to search out natural wines that avoid fining all together. These wines may be a bit cloudy at times, but they can also appear very clean and clear if they've had substantial time to clarify themselves. Natural wines may or may not state that they are unfined and vegan, so it's best to head to your local bottle shop and ask for unfined wines or natural wines to get started in the right direction.
More Questions About Vegan Wine
We get it, all the terminology and lack of labeling is confusing. Let's dig into it a bit more to help you decipher what wine is and isn't vegan.
Are Biodynamic Wines Vegan?
Not necessarily. Biodynamic refers to the farming practices more than what goes on in the actual winemaking process. So while the grapes may be grown in a certified biodynamic way, once the fruit enters the winery to be made into wine, technically anything can be added, taken away, and adjusted. That being said, often times winemakers who are growing or purchasing biodynamic grapes value more natural and minimal winemaking ethos and would opt for a vegan fining agent or avoid fining altogether.
Are All Organic Wines Vegan?
When it comes to wine, the word organic refers to the viticultural practices as well as what is being used in the winery. So...while this certification means the wine is organic all around, it really doesn't speak to the vegan aspect. For example, the wine may be filtered with organic egg whites; hence, it's organic but not vegan.
Are All Natural Wines Vegan?
While this should be a straightforward answer, it's made a bit more complicated due to the fact that there is no official definition of "natural". Regardless of this, the main ethos in the natural wine industry is minimal intervention. In terms of fining, this means that overall, wines considered natural would be unfined and just settle naturally over time.
What About in the Vineyard?
If a wine is to really be considered vegan, it needs to avoid using animal products from vine to bottle. Some people take this to mean abstaining from spreading animal derived fertilizers and manure on the vines and focusing on plant-based fertilizers such as cover crops and horsetail sprays instead. Again, because the rules, regulations, and definitions in wine are a bit blurred, what is considered vegan is somewhat left to individual interpretation.
Beyond Vegan Wine
Navigating food and drink labels today can be pretty challenging, regardless of the growing number of certifications and transparency. If you are vegan or just looking to drink a minimal intervention wine, search out a few of the many natural wine producers from all over the world.