Why Not All Wine is Vegan

Is wine vegan?

It’s impossible to visit any restaurant, grocery store or café these days without being bombarded by the trend du jour: veganism. Take to any social media channel and you’ll be inundated with vegan recipes, vegan only food festivals, and a not so pleasant movement – graphic imagery being shared of animals in the food and fashion industry, exposing horrific treatment and conditions. Big local names like Erin Ireland are taking the lower mainland by storm; she’s “veganized” her home, feeds her young daughter a vegan only diet, and goes so far as to feed her two dogs vegan kibble. Beyond Meat, a synthetic meat developed by an American company are seeing so much success they are back dated months to fulfill orders.  We are being pressured more than ever to take stock at not only our diets, but also our lifestyles, and really consider the impact of everything we put into our bodies.

With such a massive opportunity to capitalize on a hugely profitable trend; where does the wine industry fit into this puzzle? Consumers are more aware than ever, with no shortage of resources to tap into, the opportunity to educate themselves and utilize critical decision making about even something seemingly small as a bottle of wine. The answer isn’t so simple, however, as there are debates over what defines a “vegan” wine.

To really understand whether a wine can be vegan or not, first we must define what the term vegan actually means. The Vegan Society defines a vegan diet as:

“Veganism is 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.”

Based on this definition then, one might naively assume all wine is vegan. After all, it’s fermented juice made from grapes. However, things are never as simple as they may appear. There are a whole host of animal derived products used in winemaking, from the fertilisers sprayed on the vines to the fining agents used in the wines, all employed to achieve different outcomes, and different types meant for red and white wine.

Albumen, for example, are egg whites used to fine red wines. The main purpose being to remove astringencies often found in young, red wines. The use of egg whites softens the wine, leading to a rounder and more supple mouth feel. (The Australia Wine Research Institute) What we don’t realize most of the time, is that many different types of fining agents can be used in conjunction together to target various, and specific issues in the juice; in this case, there could be multiple animal derived agents used, and these are often not disclosed on the label, or mentioned by winery staff or the winemaker.

Other animal derived agents used to target issues in the wine include: isinglass (protein collagen derived from fish bladders), gelatin, and milk, all used for their targeted approach in correcting or “fixing” flaws in the wine, making the wine more presentable, approachable and appealing to the end consumer.

Another wild debate that exists is whether biodynamic winemaking practices are considered vegan. Some argue because it involves the welcomed roaming of animals in the vineyard, zero to minimal intervention, use of only naturally sourced fertilizers and plants to deter pests, that this would be a perfectly acceptable practice by vegans in wine production. However, one exception is the use of cow horns; where they are packed with manure, buried, allowed to ferment, and then used as fertilizer in the vineyard. Some may deem this practice as non vegan since not all derived ingredients in this approach are plant based.

So, where does this lead us then? If you are vegan, how do you find wines that are authentically vegan?

A good place to start; begin by asking questions and getting educated. What type of fining agents are used in the wines? How were the vines farmed? What types of fertilizers were used? Well versed and educated winery staff should know the answers to these questions. If not, ask to speak to the winemaker, or schedule a private tour where you’ll have access to accredited professionals who will be able to steer you in the right direction, and disclose which of their products are safe for consumption by vegans.

In the event visiting a winery is not an option for you; look for bentonite clay as a fining agent, which many wineries are now opting to use as an alternative to fine their white wines. If you’re a white wine lover, this is a safe, and vegan friendly option to seek out, and ensure your wines did not come into contact with any animal by products.

Lastly, a growing trend in the wine world is that of “natural wines”; many wineries are increasingly converting to farming organically, and exercising an ideology of “minimal intervention”, where no additions, including fining agents, of any kind, are used at all. The idea is that great wine is made in the vineyard. If you put the tireless and exhaustive effort into proper farming techniques; this will result in high quality, and clean fruit, that require no corrections of any kind.

Typically, these wines are not fined or filtered. Beware, however, as unfined and unfiltered wines are not as pleasing to the eye as those of “conventional” wines. One purpose of animal derived fining agents is to create crystal clear wines; natural wines are often hazy (as the remaining solids and other compounds are left in the wine), with sediment often found at the bottom of the bottle. They can also be less “perfect” – natural wines can have a certain “funk” to them – the argument being they are a true expression of the vineyard where they were sourced, flaws and all.

As is the case in almost any argument; nothing is entirely black or white. Infinite shades of grey always exist, and the decision comes down to that of the individual.   Personal choice is being exercised more than ever, consumers are educated more than ever, and even the minutiae of whether a wine is vegan or not; the information and resources are there for us to make our own conclusions.

Laura Milnes is a Kelowna native and local wine professional, operating her own wine and hospitality consulting company. Laura is WSET certified, and continually expands her wine knowledge through education, research and travel. You can find Laura hosting wine related pop up events, and consulting with wineries throughout the Okanagan with a focus on wine education and training. The rare time Laura is not reading about, or tasting wine, you can find her travelling with her partner, cooking or doing DIY projects for her home. To learn more about wine check out her Instagram page @silkandcoupe.


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