Yes, Vegan Wine. As my family is vegan, I eat a largely plant-based diet, although the fundamentalists among them are still horrified that I am prone to lapses when out at wine functions, or in desperate need of cheap chocolate. This means I also get to field fairly frequent questions about vegan wines, or rather, wines suitable for vegans. But as often as I am asked these questions, I’m also just as likely to be met by a blank look when I mention the subject myself.
You see, whilst some vegans are vaguely aware that all wines are not suitable for vegans, just as many, if not more, are wholly unaware that there are any issues. I may eat the (very) occasional Kitkat but do you ask the bar tender whether the beer you have just ordered is vegan, or the host when you go round for dinner and get poured a Chilean Merlot?
It’s something that has been niggling away at me for a long while, but I decided to write about it because the subject has been getting a bit of coverage elsewhere of late. In fact Indigo Wine, the importer of artisan wines, who I have written about several times, recently, posted a whole piece on their blog dedicated to this very subject: Smell something fishy? Clarifying the vegan wine debate (25 April 2018). This pretty much tells you all you need to know, but I probably have a few things I can add (and indeed give the subject a slightly wider readership).
Can I make one thing plain, this is an attempt to clarify issues around wine for vegan readers, and others interested in the subject. I am not passing any judgements on individuals, and I hope you won’t do the same on me. As my vegan daughter put it once, whether you give up meat and dairy for Veganuary, or just for one day a week, you are making the world a little better for both animals and the planet. I can see the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and I am concerned for animal welfare, but I’m no saint. Equally, I have never lost a friend over the subject and hope not to do so now.
Why on earth are some wines not vegan?
The problem is that whereas vegans generally know quite a lot about animal husbandry or slaughter, what drugs animals are habitually given, or the dairy industry’s methods, they know nothing about how wine is made. Why should they!
The main actions in making wine which might affect a wine’s vegan credentials take place in the later stages of the production process, where animal bi-products can be used to finish a wine before bottling. Specifically, we are looking at how (and whether) a wine is fined and, to a lesser extent, filtered.
Fining is the process whereby solids are removed from the wine to make it look bright and clean in the bottle. We know that non-specialist wine consumers in particular don’t like “bits” floating around in their glass. Even harmless and natural tartrate crystals are approached with suspicion by many of them. So often wine producers, especially those who are not close enough to their customers to be able to explain wine deposits and solids, just get rid of them.
How? Well, there are many agents they can use for this, but the ones we are concerned with from a vegan perspective are egg whites, isinglass (from fish bladders), gelatin (from a range of animal sources) and casein (milk product). Fining agents attract/repel particulate solid matter in the wine as they are passed through it. The agent usually attracts or repels particles by way of a natural electrical charge, dragging the solids in suspension down to the bottom of the vat, where they can then remain as the wine is drawn off for bottling.
If wine is further filtered at the end stage, the producer can ensure (if he/she wishes, depending on mesh size) that not even the finest particulate matter can follow the wine from the vat.
I think a lot of vegans, and indeed perhaps a few non-vegans, might be somewhat surprised at this range of additives. It has to be said that when these are used, only a trace (at most) is left in the wine, but that is still a trace large enough to make a difference to many vegans. Irrespective of whether any residues are left, it matters to many that these products were used at all (though others might take it in the same way as a food labelled “made in a factory which …”, where the food doesn’t contain milk etc but other milk products are used in the same factory, but this appears a minority view in my experience, once people become aware).
How do I avoid these ingredients/additives?
It’s not quite as difficult as it seems. First of all, many producers these days, largely those in the artisan category, don’t fine their wines. Whereas the larger “vino beverage” producers see a need for clarity in their bottles, many wine makers feel that fining and filtration strips away elements of the wine which give it character and personality. They might argue that such a process deprives the wine of its potential to show another dimension. If your winemaker doesn’t do this, then they won’t have added these non-vegan ingredients. Wines are quite often labelled to state that they are not fined/filtered.
The biggest problems come with wines which give little information as to production methods, and also so-called fine wines. It was once habitual in Bordeaux, for example, to fine with egg white, although this is now restricted to some of the finest (pun intended) properties. It is time consuming and expensive, but it is still undertaken by some.
Of course, there are now synthetic fining agents in use as alternatives. They are potentially cheaper and you certainly don’t need to break and split dozens of eggs from their yolks. The problem is that you just don’t know what the producer is using without better labeling, another (wider) subject worthy of debate .
So where will I find vegan wines?
Over the past few years you will have been able to find wines labelled as vegan at the many Vegan Fairs springing up (Vegfest is one you may have come across in several major UK cities). But let’s be honest, one of the problems is that, just as was the case when wines started to be labelled “organic”, we want to buy wine because it tastes nice, not just because it is vegan.
What about the supermarkets? Well, you will indeed find wines labelled as “vegan”, or “suitable for vegans”, on the shelves at most of the major supermarkets now. You just have to take a punt. As with all supermarket wines, some will be good and some will be quite ordinary. In the early days of “vegan recognition” you’d probably find a wine with “Vegan” on the front label, but it would usually be at the lower end of the range. Things are improving. Waitrose has a symbol for vegan wines in its free wine list (and on shelf stickers), and as you flick through the List you may be surprised by just how many they sell, including Waitrose own label Champagnes.
The sector of wine we call natural wine is usually a safe bet because these producers are broadly against the use of additives, whether synthetic or animal, during winemaking. Although what makes a natural wine natural is infamously unregulated, you can be sure that a producer who claims to be a natural winemaker will not use the ingredients listed above. Most natural wines are going to be vegan, and indeed it is only my caution about people trying to jump on the natural wine bandwagon, and the lack of enforceable standards, which stops me short of being more decisive than stating “most”.
The “Indigo” wines in the photos below are guaranteed vegan by the importer, just a tiny selection. Hopefully one day they will all say so on the label.
You haven’t mentioned viticulture though?
Well spotted. This is a more tricky area. Animals are often used in the vineyard, especially the more “eco-friendly” ones (horses for ploughing, sheep for manure and even “pruning”), but that’s not what I mean. Fertilizers may well contain bone meal, and occasionally other animal bi-products, although again, it is unlikely that natural wine will be made using such products.
This producer uses sheep to prune and mow, and the wine from this vineyard is additive free, the only issue being that the sheep will eventually get eaten!
What about biodynamic wine? I know that no cows are killed specifically for the purpose, but all those cow horns in which biodynamic preparations are buried must come from somewhere. Some people might be concerned by that.
Most people, however, are happy to confine the idea of vegan wine to wines where no animal bi-product is used in wine making. If you think your views are more fundamentalist, and you are concerned about the viticulture aspects I’ve mentioned, then I can only recommend further research. But if you are happy to focus on winemaking, then either the increasing use of “vegan friendly” labeling, or looking further into natural wines, is the way to go.
Shouldn’t there be more help out there from the retailer?
Indeed there should, and this is increasing. This is where we return full circle to Indigo Wine. Indigo has an excellent list. They are one of the best small wine importers in the UK. They now state on their Trade wine list which wines they sell are vegan. But the ironic thing is, they almost shouldn’t bother because around 99% (according to one Indigo employee) are in fact vegan.
Veganism is now, like natural wine in fact, far more than the “fad” some observers would prefer it to be. Vegan food has, over the past couple of years in particular, moved from the specialist shops into mainstream supermarkets. Less and less do we see “vegan” paired with “diet”, a kind of double entendre gag implying it lives with the other latest weight loss fads of the moment. Veganism is a choice based on either the health benefits of a plant-based diet, animal welfare issues, or both. To call it a lifestyle choice is equally demeaning. But the major food manufacturers and retailers are not stupid. Vegan food is one of the fastest growing markets today. Vegan substitutes for meat, cheese and milk etc are some of the most profitable lines for both.
Vegan wine is playing catch up as far as labeling and marketing goes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of great vegan wine around. You just have to look for importers like Indigo (their range is so good you could almost say “look no further than”) who have their finger on the pulse as to what information consumers want. And you have to push your local wine shop into finding out which wines they sell are vegan.
One final observation, Beer. Beer is just as likely, if not more so, to require caution if you are vegan. For starters, many vegans will go and grab a beer at a bar without even thinking of putting their vegan hat on. But ironically this is a market where labeling is perhaps more advanced than wine. Many beers on supermarket shelves are labelled “vegan”, and I’ve drunk own range beers from several major UK supermarkets that are labelled vegan/suitable for vegans.
There are also a number of specialist beer wholesalers (like Biercraft in London, founded by ex-Liberty Wines man Nick Trower in 2013) which specialise in a range of true craft beers where additives are used to a minimum, and where pretty much everything will be vegan-friendly. Like natural wine, “craft beer” is a very wide, and often misused, category, yet true craft beers are made with the same kind of values as true natural wines. If you don’t want to chat to a specialist like Biercraft (who, incidently, are close friends with Indigo and share similar values), then you just need to stop and look at the label more often.
So, the answer is that if you are vegan there’s a whole new set of shelves where you need to spend the time reading the small print on the back labels. If you want to get advice from someone who knows, the alternative is to ask a specialist retailer…your local wine shop. They ought to know, and if they don’t you may just prompt them to learn.
Hopefully, more people like Indigo Wine (and I must say, others) will come forward with this information to help consumers. Many list wines as being “organic, biodynamic, natural” and I’m sure “vegan” will be a welcome addition, if they can obtain that information. I think it will happen quickly. And as a final suggestion, if they don’t know about vegan wines, then ask them if they have any natural wines. They should be a safe bet, but I would not wish to be the one to guarantee that one hundred percent. At the end of the day, what we really need is better wine labeling.
Some of the places you can find vegan wines: The Raw Wine Fairs (London, San Francisco and Berlin); and wine bars like Jaja Berlin (top right) and Plateau in Brighton (bottom). Les Caves de Pyrene is the biggest importer of natural wines in the UK, and is another good source for vegan wines.