Cup Floweth: An Introduction to Vegan Wine
By Catherine Clyne
As we all know, wine is made from grapes. So why would
there even be a question about animal products?
Here’s the burning question vegan and vegetarian wine-drinkers
want to know: Is wine vegetarian—vegan even? If not, which ones
aren’t and why—and how do I find out?
Wine is made from fermented grapes. With red wine, whole grapes are
used, including the skins. A “fining” process is often used
to clear out yeast and other debris clouding the wine. A common misperception
is that most white wines are vegan. In fact, many are fined even more
than reds because people expect their whites to be clear.
During production, wine is passed from one container to the next a few
times before it is either bottled or put in barrels and stored to mature.
Since gravity naturally draws silt down, debris is removed throughout
the process as the sludge settles to the bottom and is left behind.
Many wines—French, for instance, especially reds—are not
fined at all. A touch of cloudiness may in fact indicate a fine unrefined
wine, not some cheap, sludgy moonshine.
But not everyone likes their wine cloudy. Therefore, a host of non-grape
fining agents may be added, some of which are derived from animals.
What’s in the Mix?
The most common fining agent in wine production is albumen, from egg
whites, which acts as a binding element, and is passed through vats
of wine and attracts yeast and debris, then sinks to the bottom. The
clear wine is then removed in a process called “racking,”
which leaves the fining agent and solids behind; it does not normally
remain in the product you end up drinking. So, wines cleared with albumen
are suitable for vegetarians; for vegans, the line may be less clear
because the wine is touched by egg whites but they do not remain in
Also used is isinglass, which is derived from the air bladders of fish,
commonly sturgeon. Like albumen, this additive attracts debris and sinks
to the bottom, and is also removed in the racking process. So, normally,
the wine you drink will not have isinglass remnants in it, but will
have been touched by it.
Bentonite, a natural clay powder, is a common fining agent that also
settles to the bottom and is removed, allowing for perfectly vegan wine.
There are also synthetic fining agents, such as polymers, that are also
vegan; please note, however, synthetic fining agents are not allowed
in organic wines.
Animal blood, commonly bulls’ blood, has also been used to fine
wine—but this practice has fallen out of fashion, and is now outlawed
in Europe due to concern over the potential transmission of mad cow
disease, the human version of which—new variant Creutzfeld Jacob
Disease (CJD)—is understood to be transferred through tainted
animal products. (I can’t help wondering if a handful of prized
vintages aged to perfection might still have the disease-causing prion
lurking within the wine.)
A process known as malo-lactic fermentation is also used. Bacteria converts
malic acid, a plant-based compound, to lactic acid, leaving the wine
tasting “softer.” It’s a natural chemical reaction
that does not involve animal products.
Another animal additive that is used in winemaking is gelatin, which
A common misunderstanding is that organic wines are vegetarian or vegan.
This is not necessarily true—many will use organic animal by-products
for fining. Wine varies from batch to batch, meaning, some batches may
need more fining than others. So even within a certain brand, there
may be some wines that are vegan and some that are not.
Some winemakers make a point to indicate their wines are vegan, like
Frey Vineyards of California, which produces only organic vegan wines
[see interview with Jonathan Frey]. Another
California organic winemaker, Organic Wine Works, also produces all-vegan
wines. More and more distributors are selling vegan wines online, like
the Organic Wine Company [see interview with Veronique Raskin on p.
14]. This is currently more common in the UK (one company, Oddbins,
even lists which wine bottles use animal-derived glue for the labels—how’s
that for “purity”!), but change is happening in the U.S.
Winemakers—both organic and conventional—are not required
to list ingredients used in processing on the label, and fining agents
generally are removed by the time the wine ends up on your table. But
for those who want to avoid anything that has been touched by animal
products, the surest way is to ask the winemaker directly whether or
not a wine is vegan. You can also ask your local wine shop to stock
specifically vegan wines and indicate them with a sticker or special
section. Not everyone knows there’s even a vegetarian/vegan issue
with wine, but as demand grows, the selections will expand.