Why is wine not vegan? A guide to understanding wines

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6 min read
Bottle and glass with white and red wine, vineyard in background

Veganism is becoming an ever more popular lifestyle in the UK, and the number of vegans has increased exponentially in the past few years. In fact, according to statistics from 2019, the number of people following a vegan diet in the country more than quadrupled between the years 2014 and 2019. 

In 2014, estimations suggested that around 0.25% of the UK population at the time, which was around 150,000 people, followed a vegan diet. In 2019, that number increased to over 600,000 – which was about 1.21% of the UK population. 

A plant based diet excludes all products that have any trace of animal derived ingredients or contain any byproducts that come from animals or insects, including those which are used during food processing operations. This will include obvious things like meat, dairy and eggs, but also excludes more obscure things like honey and certain alcohols. Many vegan diets also omit the inclusion of certain brands of alcohol due to the fact that many are made with animal products for a range of reasons. Because of this, it can be difficult for vegans to find alcohol that they can actually consume as manufacturers aren’t typically required to list their full ingredients on labels for beer, wine, and spirits.

So, why is some wine not vegan? This article aims to answer why wine is not vegan, if there are vegan alternatives available, and what you should keep an eye out for if you’re hoping to drink wine whilst following a vegan diet. 

So, why are some wines not vegan?

You’d think that wine was a vegan-friendly beverage, right? Surely it’s just a drink that’s made from the pressing and fermenting of grapes; there can’t be that much else to it! 

Although it’s completely understandable to think that all wine is vegan, it is actually the production techniques, namely the fining agents, that are used to bring clarity to the wine, and not the ingredients of the wine itself, that can turn a vegan-friendly concoction into something that should be avoided by vegans. 

The fermentation state of winemaking is where the natural sugars found within the grapes are magically turned into alcohol. The fruit juice from the crushed grapes are drained into a fermentation tank where yeast grows. From there, the yeast acts as a trigger for a reaction within the sugar – with wine being the end product of this reaction. 

Although the wine has technically been made at the end of this process, molecules such as phenolics, tartrates, and tannins in red wine, can cause there to be a hazy appearance within the wine itself. All of these molecules are natural by-products of the winemaking process, and they are completely safe for consumption, meaning there are absolutely no health risks with drinking cloudy wine; aside from getting drunk of course.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where aesthetics are everything, and winemakers are well-aware of the fact that they can’t ship their product without it being crystal clear in appearance – meaning that they need to extract these cloud-making molecules with the use of fining agents.

Why is red wine not vegan?

Red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon are full of heavy, astringent tannins when they’re still in the barrel. By adding natural egg whites to these barrels of this red wine, and allowing them to settle at the bottom after stirring, the harshest tannins can be removed. 

Furthermore, gelatin, a protein which is derived from animal hides and bones, can be used in red wines to provide suppleness.

Although vegan red wine does exist, any which includes these fining agents will not be suitable for vegans. 

Why is white wine not vegan?

Casein is often used in the white winemaking process in order to give the finished product brilliant clarity and remove any oxidative taint. Sometimes skimmed milk can be used to achieve this too, such as in very clear Sauvignon Blancs. 

Isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of certain fish, can also be used to give white wine clarity and remove any solids and excess colour. 

Chitosan, which is derived from the shells of crustaceans, is also used to remove excess colour and phenols from white wines. 

Furthermore, similarly to red wine, gelatin can be used as a fining agent in white wine in order for the finished product to attain a brighter colour. 

Similarly to red wine, vegan white wine does exist, although any which have been processed with these fining agents will not be vegan.

Why is wine not always vegan? Does my wine have animal products in it?

The fining agents that have traditionally been used in winemaking typically contain animal products. To provide clarity for red wine, egg whites or albumin are used, whereas, for white wine, the milk protein casein is the most common fining agent in use. Some further fining agents include isinglass, and gelatin. Carmine, a red dye made from cochineal insects, is also sometimes added as a colourant to wines.

Once the fining process has been completed, the fining agents that were used are actually removed. This means that, once the egg white, casein, or other fining agents that contain animal products have been used effectively, they are indeed removed from the finished wine. However, tiny traces of the animal product may be absorbed into the wine, therefore rendering the final product non-vegan. 

Although traces may be found within the wine itself, it is important to recognise that products like albumin and casein are only processing agents and not additives to the wine. This means that, because they are not explicitly used within the wine itself, these items may not be clearly listed on the label. 

Why is all wine not vegan? What should I drink instead?

Wine is great, and you shouldn’t have to miss out just because you’re vegan. Thankfully, there are vegan options available when it comes to wine that don’t use animal products during the fining process.

If wines are left to develop naturally, they will typically undergo a self-fining process; therefore reducing the need to introduce any animal products into the winemaking process. Winemakers are also taking note of this as, with the rise of veganism and the increased demand for more biodynamic wines, they are adopting a more natural approach across the world. 

Furthermore, for wines that don’t self-fine, there are alternative methods available that don’t involve the use of animal products, such as clay-based methods. 

Although it is not commonplace for winemakers and brands to include the fining agents they use in the winemaking process on their labels, there are signs to look out for to tell whether or not a fining agent has or hasn’t been used. 

Sometimes, you may see the terms unfined or unfiltered, and this shows that the wine was made without the use of fining agents – a handy tip if you’re on the lookout for a vegan-friendly bottle. Unfortunately, even with this rule, it can be difficult to find a vegan wine by solely looking at the label. If you have doubts that your usual bottle of wine is vegan, we recommend looking up the producer as they tend to make the vegan status of their wines clear on their website. 

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