It’s World Vegan Month, and with the ever-increasing take-up of veganism, more and more wine drinkers want confirmation that their bottle is as vegan-friendly as their plant-based cheese or tofu-burger. Fortunately, take a look at the wine aisles of almost any major wine or grocery retailer, and the chances are you’ll be able to pinpoint whether the wine is vegan or not. But what does this really mean? Wine is made from grapes, after all – so aren’t all wines vegan by default?
Why isn’t all wine vegan?
The complications arise mainly when wine is fined – a process whereby a fining agent is added to the wine to bind and extract unwanted solid matter or particles. Fining agents have several different uses: to ensure that the wine is star-bright and free from any haziness; to remove harsh tannins; or even to correct faults such as oxidation or washed-out colour.
Traditional fining agents include many animal derivatives, such as egg whites, whose use is still popular in Bordeaux, isinglass (ground fish bladders), casein (derived from milk) and gelatin. These substances are removed before the wine is bottled and there is no mention of them on most labels. Nonetheless, their use, even as processing aids, is considered unacceptable by vegans.
The UK’s Vegan Society (one of the oldest such organisations worldwide) defines veganism as “a philosophy and 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”. The use of any animal-derived substances – even those which do not remain in the finished wine and thus do not have to be declared on the label – counts as exploitation and is not consistent with the vegan ethic. Vegetarians, on the other hand, eschew meat and fish, but accept the use of by-products such as egg whites or casein, whose sourcing, it is argued, doesn’t involve the death of the animal.
Wines don’t have to be fined or filtered, and many artisanal or natural wine producers choose to bottle without either process. These wines often state “unfiltered and unfined” on the label, which provides a de facto guarantee that the wine is vegan-friendly. Even where fining does take place, there are non-animal derived alternatives such as bentonite (a type of clay) or Poly-vinyl-poly-pyrrolidone (a micro-plastic). Bentonite is fast becoming the most popular fining agent for those producers who do choose to fine their wines.
How do you know if a wine is vegan?
The challenge for vegans is that, because producers are not required by law to state which fining agents (if any) were used, it can be difficult to confirm whether a wine is vegan or not. Organic or biodynamic certification is no help, because most natural fining agents are permitted for these schemes. To make matters worse, there is no internationally agreed legal definition of what constitutes a vegan product. Ronja Berthold, head of public affairs at the European Vegetarian Union (Euroveg), explains: “We don’t have an EU-wide definition for what criteria make something suitable as vegan or vegetarian food,” although she adds that the European legislator has acknowledged the need for an “implementing act”.
V-label (the symbol of the European Vegetarian Union, a green V on a yellow background) is gaining ground, especially in German-speaking countries, but most major retailers must still draw up their own criteria based on information submitted by producers. Waitrose Cellar in the UK specifies that its vegan wines are either unfined or fined without the use of animal products, while specialist wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrene labels wines vegan if they have no dairy or animal-derived products added to them at any point. “That’s probably 90% of our wines, now that bentonite is the main fining agent,” says director Doug Wregg.
We want it to be practical, so that people can actually find vegan products on the shelves.
Fining isn’t the only process which might disqualify a wine from being vegan, though. Gernot Heinrich is a biodynamic winery based in Burgenland, Austria whose wines are certified vegan by V-label. But a select line of its premium wines are bottled with a beeswax seal, automatically excluding them from the certification. Another theoretical issue is the use of animal collagen-based glues for affixing the label to the bottle – something so opaque that winemakers are often oblivious to the details.
Some vegans go further, suggesting that any use of animals, animal-derived manure or fertilisers during production disqualifies a wine from being properly vegan. The use of horses for vineyard work (popular with biodynamic wineries) is a case in point, as is the use of manure that has been buried in a cow’s horn – a preparation that must be used in order to gain biodynamic (Demeter) certification.
Berthold suggests the definition can be pushed too far, excluding the vast majority of products on the market. “We want it to be practical, so that people can actually find vegan products on the shelves,” she says. V-label’s certification only considers what happens from the point of harvest onwards – hence wine from a biodynamic producer which fertilises its vines with cow manure or uses horses for ploughing would still qualify as vegan.
Despite the grey areas and the lack of legislation – not to mention the existential issue of tasting notes for vegan wines trumpeting descriptors of “leather” and “honey”, as in the wines below – the demand for vegan wines looks set to keep growing. The Vegan Society reported a fourfold increase (to 600,000 people) in the number of UK vegans from 2014 to 2019, based on Ipsos MORI surveys which it commissioned. There are a reported 1.3 million vegans in Germany, according to a 2017 survey from Skopos.
As Wregg confirms, more and more wines automatically qualify as vegan, at least based on their fining methods. But there are some major exceptions. Wines from two of the world’s largest wine producing companies, Gallo and Constellation, are listed as “not vegan friendly” by the US site Barnivore – an online directory of vegan beverages. On the other hand, UK retailer Marks and Spencer has committed to making its own-label range of wines entirely vegan by 2022.
It’s just one of many signs that vegan wines are fast becoming the default – even if the jury is still out on exactly what that means.