With health and environmentally conscious ways of living gaining steam, more and more individuals are ascribing to the vegan lifestyle. Although there's an array of products labeled and marketed as vegan, wine and spirits sections can often be a bleak area in which to shop for vegan-approved items. Most would initially assume that wine made from grapes would surely be a vegan option; a startling number of commonly-available brands and styles actually rely upon animal byproducts for a few key winemaking processes, rendering the finished wine a no-go for vegans. Unfortunately, due to unclear marketing and labeling norms, identifying and shopping for a vegan wine can often be a confusing process.
What Is Vegan Wine?
So how can an agricultural product like wine not be vegan? During the finishing stages of the winemaking process, vintners may choose to make their wine more visually appealing by removing tiny, floating particulate suspended in the liquid, which makes the finished wine appear hazy or cloudy. Since most drinkers prefer a crystal-clear glass of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, many winemakers elect to have their wines undergo the processes of fining and filtering. It is this fining process that introduces the occasional animal byproduct into wine. Whereas filtering will remove some larger pieces of sediment in the wine, some very small, even microscopic particles called colloids will likely evade the filter and remain in the solution, making the finished product appear cloudy. In fining a substance, or fining agent is introduced into the wine. This substance may be composed of an array of things, including egg whites, isinglass (a protein found in fish air bladders), gelatin, casein (a milk protein), and bentonite, or carbon derived from volcanic ash. The purpose of these fining agents is not to have them remain in the finished wine, rather introduce them to the solution, have them float through and attach themselves chemically to the suspended colloids, and then precipitate out of the solution completely. Although the finished wine should not contain any traces of these fining agents, their use at all prevents the end product from being marketed or labeled as vegan-approved.
Wines most commonly known to go through this fining and filtering process are white wines, though several popular styles of red wines also go through these same processes to maintain consistency and appropriate clarity. The most simple way to find a vegan wine is to thoroughly review the front and back labels of the wine and search for a statement declaring the wine "unfined and unfiltered." This guarantees the wine inside has not been exposed to any of these animal byproduct-based fining agents.
Today, an increasing number of wineries choose to bottle their wines unfined and unfiltered, instead electing to clarify their wines through the process of racking. Over the course of several months and years before the final wine is bottled, dying yeast cells called "lees" and other organic particulate matter will naturally settle and sink out of the solution. The wine is then carefully pumped or bled off the top of this sediment layer into a fresh, clean aging vessel—such as an oak barrel or a stainless steel tank—without disturbing the bottom sediment. Repeating this racking process several times will result in a virtually particulate-free end product that is commensurate with the visual expectations of most consumers while also leaving some of the finer, more flavorful compounds suspended in the wine.
Some wine-growing regions traditionally have always used fining agents to produce the clearest and brightest wines possible, such as Bordeaux. Other winemakers practice non-interventionist methods of winemaking, such as California's legendary Paul Hobbs who prefers gravity-based racking, to fining and filtering agents. In recent years, an increasing number of wine-growing regions to include Australia and New Zealand have mandated that any wine bottled there must disclose if fining agents were used before bottling. Today, the Food and Drug Administration is considering measures to apply the same disclosure laws to American wines due to some data showing that these fining agents may cause some allergic reactions.
Still trying to identify if a bottle on the shelf is vegan-approved? If there is no disclosure of "unfined and unfiltered," the safest way to know for sure is to visit the winery's website, and research the technical data or tasting notes on the particular wine. Most winemakers will make mention if they bottled their wines unfined and unfiltered, but if no such disclosure exists on the bottle or website, then it's safe to assume fining agents were used. Whether those fining agents were the vegan-approved substance bentonite or the fish bladder protein isinglass will take further digging.
Looking to skip the research entirely? Stellar Organics wines are a popular and accessible choice for most markets. This South African winery proudly touts its vegan-approved, organic, non-GMO, fair trade practices for the most socially and environmentally conscious wine lovers. Red Truck Wine's Green Truck label is also available in most states and bottles Certified Organic, vegan-friendly wines from Sonoma, California. With the gaining popularity of subscription memberships, several vegan-approved wine clubs have emerged in recent years. Clubs like Vegan Wines, Frey Vineyards, and Winc are popular choices that do the difficult research and selecting ahead of time, giving customers the peace of mind and luxury of having vegan-approved wines delivered straight to their door.