Aren’t all wines vegan?

Wine – it’s made from fermented grape juice, so it’s vegan, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. Many winemakers use animal products in the “fining” process and have done for decades.

All young wines are hazy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. These are all natural, and in no way harmful. However, the majority of wine drinkers like their wines to be clear and bright so most growers employ the use of agents to ensure this clarity. These fining agents can include boiled fish bladders (isinglass) or animal parts (gelatin); it could be blood or bone marrow, egg whites (albumen), milk protein (casein), fish oil or shellfish fibres, none of which are vegan-friendly. Mercifully for vegans, a ban on bulls’ blood as a fining agent was imposed by the European Union in 1997 as part of measures to fight BSE (mad cow disease).

“the recent move to more natural winemaking methods, allowing nature to take its course, has led to more vegan and vegetarian-friendly wines.”

Subsequently and thanks to the vegan surge, many supermarkets and wine producers have wised up and ditched the animal products. Replacing them are clay- or charcoal-based alternatives, safe for both vegans and vegetarians alike.

In addition to Veganism gaining in popularity in the UK, the recent move to more natural winemaking methods, allowing nature to take its course, has led to more vegan and vegetarian-friendly wines. An increasing number of wine producers around the globe are electing not to fine or filter their wines, leaving them to self-clarify and self-stabilise. Such wines usually mention on the label ‘not fined and/or not filtered’, which is a blessing to the health-conscious consumer. Biodynamic winemakers, however, often use animal-derived products, such as cow horns, horse tails and manure, in the vineyard, thereby deeming the vineyard at least non-vegan,  but this is entirely another topic and one for another blog post.

Frustratingly, the clarity of labelling ends here; few producers are as keen to label their wines as Vegan or Vegetarian friendly (although some retailers such as Marks and Spencer do this very effectively); this is largely due to the fact that there is no regulatory body to certify the meat and dairy-free element nor any obligation to list ingredients on any wine label. This, as you can imagine, makes the task of listing Vegan and Vegetarian friendly wines, tricky for retailers.

Organic Wine

Organic wine is made from grapes grown in accordance with the principles of organic farming – that is, artificial chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are not used.
Instead, fertilisers of organic nature are used – compost manure, green manure and bone meal.
There are two core phases of wine making, so true organic wine would consider both elements in the process, however in some countries (UK included) just having the grapes grown organically will define the wine as ‘organic’.
Ensuring the vineyard is maintained, and grapes grown, using organic principles is one thing – however in the fermentation and bottling of the product there are still processes which need to be considered. An example here are additives which support the preservation and stabilisation of the product, such as sulphites. Because many wines are at their best over a period of time, it’s desirable for them to be preserved for longer – and there is therefore much debate in the wine making community about what defines an organic stabilisation/preservation age.

Vegan Wine

The definition of Veganism (The Vegan Society) is a way of living that seeks to exclude (as much as possible and
practical) all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose. More commonly, this would mainly focus on a plant-based diet which avoids all meat, including shellfish, fish and insects) diary, eggs, honey – and animal-derived products.

Easier said than done. So where does wine come into this?
It may come as a surprise to some, but in the wine making (and brewing) processes, animal-derived products may be used to
remove organic impurities and therefore improve the clarity and in some cases, flavour. This organic matter, which may be proteins and yeast, makes the wine cloudy and could give the illusion of the wine being spoilt. Removing the particles results in a clear wine.
Known as finings, this is an agent which is added to the top of a vat of wine. As it sinks through the liquid, organic particles adhere to it and are carried to the bottom where it can be removed. This residue is not bottled and generally will not make it’s way into the final product. The problem is that fining can be derived from gelatin, egg albumen and in some cases in the
Mediterranean, bull’s blood (although this is not allowed in the US or EU due to BSE).
Vegan wine of course uses nothing which has come from an animal, with some vineyards preferring to let sediment settle naturally, and others preferring bentonite – a clay mineral, to clear their product. There are also some vineyards which will not filter their wine at all, as some people prefer unfiltered and say it may effect the flavour.

Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic farming is an ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture which increases soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Using organic farming methods (see above) with the addition of soil supplements
according to Rudolf Steiner’s (Austrian philosopher, social reformer, architect, economist, esotericist) formulas and following a planting calender which depends on astronomical configurations. This approach was first lectured by
Steiner in 1924.

For a wine to be labelled as ‘biodynamic’ it has to meet the standards laid down by the Demeter Association which is an internationally recognised certifying body. According to Fortune, many of the top estates in France, including the likes
of Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Château de la Roche-aux-Moines in the Loire, Maison Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley, and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, now follow biodynamic viticulture.

Natural Wine

There has been something of a buzz surrounding “Natural Wine” in recent years and, unlike Organic, Biodynamic and Vegan wine making principles, it is a rather nebulous term. At present there is no established certification body and the term has no legal status. Indeed “natural wine” is more of a wine making philosophy of minimal intervention in the growing and wine making
processes than a scientific approach and, for this reason, opinions amongst “natural” wine makers often differ in terms of what they consider to be an acceptable level of intervention. It is also an approach that seems to divide consumer opinion.
Isabelle Legeron MW is a staunch advocate of “Natural Wine” and defines it on her RAW Wine website
“Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.”


To read the rest of my conversation with Tor, click the image to download “The Discovery Sessions #2” below. Also available; The Discovery Sessions #1.

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