Wine for Vegans: Pros & Cons

A certain number of insects cannot be separated from grapes and end up in the wine press.


© Shutterstock

Pros & Cons: Wine for Vegans

A certain number of insects cannot be separated from grapes and end up in the wine press.


© Shutterstock

Let's start with a definition of the term vegan. Veganism is a diet and a way of life that has developed from vegetarianism. Vegans avoid meat from animals (including insects), but also animal by-products such as milk and eggs, as well as all foods which contain ingredients of animal origin and animal auxiliary materials used to process a product.

A vegan lifestyle encompasses all areas of life, this uncompromising approach covers food, clothing, cosmetics, animal sports such as horse racing and much more.

The philosophical and ethical inspiration ranges from sustainability to animal welfare to climate protection. And the number of people who take this path, which in its consequence goes far beyond being a vegetarian, is growing year on year.

According to Statista, the UK had about 600,000 vegans in 2019, up four fold from 2014. Germany has almost one million people living a vegan way of life. In Austria, 79% of people aged 18-35 are interested in an animal-free diet. Clearly the vegan trend is growing.

Vegan zeitgeist

Many people have started to rethink their eating habits in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. For good reason, considering the effects of factory farming, which according to the WHO and the UN is considered one of the greatest risk factors in zoonotic pandemics. Wine production, however, has nothing to do with the pandemic; apart from possible alcohol abuse, it poses no health threat to the general public. So what is not vegan about a purely plant-based product, you might ask. The trick here – as so often – is in the detail.

Wine is made from pressed grapes (grape must), but it is still common to use animal substances in the vinification process. Most consumers prefer a transparent, clear wine without turbidity, so wine is fined for clarification and stabilisation. In this process, a fining agent is introduced that binds the turbidity substances as well as some of the tannins making the latter appear milder. Over the centuries, a variety of fining agents have proven to be effective.

For powerful red wines, such as Bordeaux, egg white from hens' eggs was used; the albumin it contains clarifies the cloudy solids and bitter tannins, binding them together. These large particles sink to the bottom of the barrel and the clear wine can be separated from them. For the fining of white wines, isinglass is very effective.

Traditionally this was obtained from the dried swim bladders of large sturgeon, but other fish can be also used. Sadly the numbers of fish in major European rivers such as the Danube and Rhine are in steep decline.

Winemakers resorted to gelatine, a neutral-tasting and colourless by-product from the meat industry, produced from tendons, cartilage, rinds and bones of beef and pork – not at all appealing to vegans.

Finally, there is casein, a by-product of cheese production, which is also capable of binding the turbidity and, in the case of red wine, results in a beautiful red lustre. Fined with casein, the wine will look and taste better, but it will never be vegan.

If a winemaker wants to produce a clear wine, he will have to carry out a fining process. There are many prodcts available to aid clarification.

© Shutterstock

Good alternatives

Fortunately, there are many modern fining agents that achieve excellent results without the use of animals. There is a clay called bentonite, which is produced from volcanic ash. This natural mineral clay can remedy protein turbidity as well as counteract biogenic amines such as histamine.

Activated charcoal can be used to counteract undesirable odours and colouring, but it cannot be animal bone charcoal if it is to be vegan friendly. Silicic acid from fossil algae can also be used for fining. And more recently, winemakers who offer vegan-certified wine are increasingly using vegetable proteins made from peas or wheat.

But how can a consumer tell whether a wine is vegan or not? Right away: tasting the wine will not get us there and wine is not obliged to carry a full list of ingredients, as many of the products used in making wine do not actually remain in the wine.

Animal additions are not subject to mandatory declaration, except for casein and albumin, but these would not upset the majority of vegetarians. The strictly vegan consumer will have to hope the winery has marked the wine as vegan friendly.

Vegan despite insects

There are wineries where people still joke about vegan certification, just as they did not so long ago about organic viticulture and more recently, biodynamic farming. On the other hand, some producers already have more certifications than there is room for logos on their labels.

The argument is often made that it is unavoidable that a certain number of insects, which are in the fruit and cannot be separated from the grapes, end up in the press and thus in the wine. This is certainly true, but not relevant in relation to vegan certification, because products with animal traces that get into the product unintentionally and are not part of the recipe are still able to be certified vegan. 

Even the most modern cellar technology cannot completely prevent insects from getting into the wine press with the berries. However, this has no effect on the status of the wine as vegan or non-vegan.

© Shutterstock

And do the other logos found on the back labels of wines impact its vegan status?

Let's look at biodynamic wines, these are identified by the Demeter and Respekt trademarks. Expert Jürgen Schmücking says, "The fact that biodynamic wines are accepted and consumed by many vegans can only be due to a lack of knowledge about the production of these wines." In order to harvest grapes that meet the strict regulations of biodynamic agriculture, organic winegrowers apply preparations, many of which have animal origins.

Cow horns are used to prepare the most important ones, horn manure and horn silica. Without horn, there is no biodynamic wine. Numerous anthroposophical preparations also cannot do without animal casings. Thus, camomile matures in the intestines of cattle, yarrow in the bladder of a deer and oak bark is composted in farm animal skulls before being applied to the soil.

You can't taste ideals

This reveals a fundamental contradiction: veganism takes a stand against livestock farming, while biodynamics propagates the circular efficiency of a mixed small holding or farm, with animal husbandry as a supporting pillar. If a biodynamic winemaker writes "suitable for vegans" on their label, they are referring to the absence of animal fining agents such as gelatine.

But let's be honest: the thought of a product made from slaughterhouse waste makes no one happy. So there would be nothing wrong with the legislator banning fining agents such as gelatine and replacing them exclusively with those of non-animal origin.

Whether someone prefers vegan wine or not – purely from the point of view of taste, there is no difference. The method of fining wine requires that none of the fining agent remains in the wine - if it did the wine would still be cloudy.

But there is an important principle. Veganism is more than just a diet, it is a lifestyle and one that excludes using or exploiting animals and animal prodcuts. If you choose to live your life as a vegan, then it is right and proper that you look for wines that have been fined with plant or mineral based agents. 

The V-Label

The V-Label trademark is the European Vegetarian Union symbol of quality for vegan and vegetarian products and services; it has been in existence since 1996 and is now registered in 27 countries. As of April 2019, over 30,000 products from more than 2,800 companies worldwide were labelled. In addition to food products, including wine, cosmetics and catering businesses can also be certified.

Note: there is a different V-label for vegetarian and vegan, but unfortunately they look quite similar. In the UK there is also the British Vegan Society, founded back in 1944, its trademark is a sunflower.

According to their regulations, products certified with the Vegan V-label may not contain the following substances: eggs, honey, milk and milk derivatives, animal wax, colouring, auxiliary substances made from animal products. They must also not have been processed or clarified using animal products, such as egg white or casein.