What is Vegan Wine? Isn’t all wine Vegan?? It’s just grapes right??? Well, in fact it is extremely common for wine to contain traces of animal products. These animal products are not added to the wine but are used in “conventional” winemaking techniques. The most common fining agents to be used are egg whites, gelatine, milk proteins and isinglass. But there are alternatives… however, let’s first explore why wineries use fining agents.
From the very beginning of winemaking, animal products have been used in the production of wine. In fact before the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the 1990s it was most common to add bull’s blood to wine! The removal of unwanted particles in wine is a process called fining.
Before we explain what the process of fining involves, it’s best to identify why winemakers have felt the need to use this technique for thousands of years.
After fermentation there is often a visible haze or cloudiness in the wine caused by insoluble particles suspended in the wine. The common culprits are lees (dead yeast cells), tartrates, proteins, tannins and various organic grape matter such as skins and pulp. Generally the insoluble particles do not impact the flavour of the wine in a negative way, and in fact the overuse of fining agents can strip favourable flavour profiles and colour from the wine.
The main benefit of fining a wine other than aesthetics is most evident with red wines that are intended for early drinking. Often a young red wine has tannins and phenolics that can over power the wine with undesirable astringency and/or bitterness. The fining agent removes the harsh tannins from the young red wine so consumers are able to enjoy a smoother drinking experience.
So now we know why fining is common practice, lets breakdown the basic process (It is pretty complicated, but wine nerds can read The Australian Wine Research Institute article HERE)
Basically what happens is a fining agent (isinglass, egg whites etc) is added before bottling to form a bond with the insoluble particles suspended in the wine. As the bond is formed, the particles get heavier and sink to the bottom of the tank. Once the undesirable particles have settled at the bottom of the tank, the wine is then racked - which is the process of separating the wine from the lees and other unwanted particles that have settled at the bottom of the tank.
All of the animal product fining agents have certain winemaking pros and cons to using them which can be explored in more detail HERE.
There are a number of vegan friendly alternatives that winemakers can use during the fining process (or they can skip it all together! But more on that below). The most common organic fining agent that is vegan friendly is Bentonite which is a type of clay (with a negative charge when hydrated). Bentonite is used in the same way as the animal fining agents to remove unwanted particles in the wine. One of the byproducts of Bentonite can be tartrate crystals forming in the bottom of the bottle. These are small salt like crystals that are completely harmless and have no negative effects on the wine, so don’t worry if you spot them and keep this in mind when you are drinking Vegan wines!
It seems like we are always in a rush these days right? Well one of the alternative solutions is to simply wait it out… Like we mentioned above, one of the reasons for adding a fining agent is to produce soft red wines that are made with the intention of drinking early. However the naturally occurring harsh tannins in some young red wine do slowly evolve as the wine matures into more palatable softer textures. This is all about waiting it out as a consumer once the wine is bottled… something we are not very good at!
Lucky for us, the alternative is the winery does the waiting for us! Before the wine is even bottled and instead of adding fining agents, winemakers can simply leave the wine to settle in the tank and for the insoluble suspended particles to slowly (very slowly) make their way to the bottom of the tank. This method does remove most of the suspended particles, but not all of them. The next big thing that stops wineries opting for this method is winery space! Most large wineries rely on speed and their ability to quickly process wine and move it out of their valuable tank space.
The definition of Natural wine is wine produced from organic-farmed (to certification standard or certified), hand-picked grapes, with no additions in the winemaking process, no heavy mechanical intervention, no filtering or fining, and low or no sulphur additions. The key for vegans is that nothing is added during the winemaking process (so no animal product fining agents!) Natural wines are naturally hazy and are expected to be. It is a wine style that is becoming super popular in the UK with sustainability aware consumers. Australia is currently riding a surge of epic Natural wine producers that have been able to get their Natural Vegan friendly wines in the United Kingdom. You can read all about Australian Natural Wines in Mike Bennie’s article HERE. And you can explore the Natural Wines available online HERE.
Biodynamic winemaking is winemaking that takes a spiritual, ethical & ecological approach. In Biodynamics, the vineyard is viewed as a single organism and it is in the best interest of the winemaker to ensure the entire ecosystem of the vineyard functions in a sustainable manner and is healthy from the microorganisms living in the dirt to the grapes at vintage time. One element which becomes a grey area for some Vegan groups is how Biodynamic ethos demand how the soil is fertilised. It is forbidden to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides and instead ducks, horses, sheep and cattle live in the vineyards to create rich, fertile soils thanks to their manure. It is the decision of each individual consumer whether they are happy with how Biodynamics use animals for their positive impacts on the whole ecosystem.
The definition of Vegan wine is very straightforward - “It is any wine that is produced without any animal products.” However as a consumer distinguishing which wines are vegan friendly or not can become very challenging. There is no legal obligation for wineries to display on the label if the wine contains traces of animal products. This is extremely unusual because most other beverages and foods found in a supermarket list the ingredients clearly on the label - and more often than not the Vegan logo is a prominent marketing tactic.
In traditional wine marketing, advertising that a wine is vegan has never been a strong unique selling proposition for a winery. In fact most vegan friendly wines are made in a vegan friendly manner because the winemaker believe they get the best flavours from their wines following vegan principals and not a marketing ploy to reach new customers. But times are changing (slowly) and as wineries start to realise that consumers want to know more about how their wine has been made we can start to see small vegan approved logos on the back of bottles.
So now you know how tough it can be to identify wines that are vegan friendly, what are your options?
For quality purposes and of course to support smaller businesses who are more likely to pass it on to the growers, we recommend finding a local independent wine shop. Independents are more likely to have staff members that have a greater knowledge on the production of their wines and can therefore guide you in the right direction with vegan wines as well as being able to help you choose a wine that suits your wine preferences. If you live nearby Brixton in London make sure you check out The New Zealand Cellar's Wine Shop - Click here for directions.
If you would prefer to order wine online, finding independent online wine retailers that have speciality collections for Vegan wines, Natural wines & Organic wines can be extremely useful. Plus with independent retailers like The Australian Cellar if you need and guidance or suggestions, we’re always a phone call or email away :)