Why Not All Wines Are Vegan (or Even Vegetarian)
As we all know wine is made from grapes. Essentially wine is fermented grape juice as discussed in my post last year on winemaking. Yeasts, either natural or cultured, convert the grape juice sugars into alcohol. So far this all seems to be vegan-friendly.
The reason that all wines are not vegan or even vegetarian-friendly has to do with how the wine is clarified and a process called ‘fining’. All young wines are hazy and contain tiny molecules such as proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. These are all natural, and in no way harmful. However, we wine-drinkers like our wines to be clear and bright.
Most wines, if left long enough, will self-stabilize and self-fine. However, traditionally producers have used a variety of aids called ‘fining agents’ to help the process along. Fining agents help precipitate out these haze-inducing molecules. Essentially, the fining agent acts like a magnet – attracting the molecules around it. They coagulate around the fining agent, creating fewer but larger particles, which can then be more easily removed.
Traditionally the most commonly used fining agents were casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) and isinglass (fish bladder protein). These fining agents are known as processing aids. They are not additives to the wine, as they are precipitated out along with the haze molecules.
Fining with casein and albumin is usually acceptable by most vegetarians but all four are off limits for vegans because tiny traces of the fining agent may be absorbed into the wine during the fining process.
A New Direction
But there is good news. Today many winemakers use clay-based fining agents such as bentonite, which are particularly efficient at fining out unwanted proteins. Activated charcoal is another vegan and vegetarian-friendly agent that is also used.
In addition, the move to more natural winemaking methods, allowing nature to take its course, means more vegan and vegetarian-friendly wines. An increasing number of wine producers around the globe are electing not to fine or filter their wines, leaving them to self-clarify and self-stabilize. Such wines usually mention on the label ‘not fined and/or not filtered’.
Apart from mentioning whether it has been fined or filtered, wine labels typically do not indicate whether the wine is suitable for vegans or vegetarians, or what fining agents were used. There has been much lobbying to change the US wine labeling laws to include ingredient listing. But so far it is not compulsory. One producer that is a big proponent of ingredient listing is Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard fame, whose wine labels all include a detailed ingredient list.When contacted Randall confirmed that all Bonny Doon wines are actually vegan-friendly. Randall notes, "Essentially all of our wines at this time are vegan — we haven't used any fining agents, not isinglass nor egg whites nor gelatin in any of them, only some bentonite on the whites and pinks." Moreover, Randall said he has not used any animal products in winemaking since 1985, when he last used egg whites on a Cabernet.
How To Tell If a Wine Is Vegan or Vegetarian-Friendly
So, if the ingredients are not listed how is a vegan wine drinker to know whether a wine is vegan-friendly or not? Not easy I am afraid. I called around a few stores asking if they had any vegan-friendly wines. For the most part I was met with a confused answer such as ‘what do you mean?’. But do not give up. There is help.
Firstly, these days, especially in New York City, and I am sure in other major metropolitan areas, there is an increasing number of wine stores that specialize in more natural wines such as organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Two such stores in New York are Appellation Wines in Manhattan and The Natural Wine Company in Brooklyn, where knowledgeable staff were readily able to suggest many vegan-friendly wines.
Another way to navigate the world of vegan wines is to look for wines imported by companies that specialize in more natural wines. Examples include ‘Jenny & François Selections' and 'Louis Dressner Selections'. According to Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François Selections, “99% of what we bring in is vegan because the wines are not fined”.
As I browsed various online wine stores I kept hoping that I would come across a search category for vegan or vegetarian wines. But alas, no such luck. Sites don’t typically allow you to search even for organic or biodynamic. As natural winemaking gains more market traction, I am hopeful that we will see progress in this approach.
Not being vegan myself, I have previously been unaware of the difficulty in telling whether a wine is vegan-friendly or not. I would love to hear from our readers on their experiences looking for vegan wines.
Recommended Vegan-Friendly Wines
Some vegan-friendly wines that were recommended to me during my search include:
White Vegan Wines
• 2009 Bonny Doon Ca' del Solo Albariño, Central Coast, $16 – Fined lightly with bentonite – vegan friendly.
• 2007 Movia Brda Lunar, Slovenia, $40 – Made from 100% Ribolla Gialla – Totally naturally-made. Not even crushed. Whole bunch fermentation, not fined or filtered. Totally naturally stabilized.
• 2008 La Colombaia Toscano Bianco, Italy, $21 – A blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia. Unfined and unfiltered.
• 2008 Domaine Derain Allez Goutons Vin de Table Francais 2008, $21 – 100% Aligote. Unfined and unfiltered. A favorite white in our house.
• 2009 Domaine de L'Ausseil Papillon, Languedoc, $26 – Southern French blend of White Grenache and Macabeo. Biodynamic and unfined.
• 2008 Domaine de Montrieux , Coteaux du Vendomois, Loire $23 – Unfined and unfiltered.
• 2007 Chateau du Champ des Treilles Blanc, Sainte Foy de Bordeaux, $16 - Biodynamic and fined lightly using bentonite. Classic white Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle, but unoaked, this has long been a favorite go to in our house
Red Vegan Wines
• 2009 Stellar Organics Cabernet Sauvignon, Western Cape, $12 – This wine even says ‘vegan friendly’ on the back label – Fair Trade accredited and organic.
• 2008 Kawarau Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, New Zealand, $29 - Unfined and unfiltered.
• 2009 Oliver Cousin Anjou Gamay, Loire Valley, $23 – Organic, unfined and unfiltered.
• 2009 Tissot Poulsard Vieilles Vignes, Jura, France $21 - Vintner Stéphane Tissot is a leader in Jura’s organic farming. Again unfined and unfiltered.
• 2009 Casina degli Ulivi Semplicemente Rosso, $17 – A blend of Dolcetto and Barbera from Piedmont. Biodynamic, unfined with just a light filtration. Natural yeasts and winemaking.
• 2008 Mas Foulaquier, Les Tonilliers, Pic Saint Loup, Languedoc $23 – A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. Biodynamic and unfined
• 2009 Sablonettes Les Copain D'Abord Grolleau, Anjou, Loire, $17 – Made from the local Grolleau grape. Organic, unfined or filtered.
• 2006 Chateau du Champs des Treilles Rouge, Sainte Foy de Bordeaux, $25 - Red Bordeaux blend. Unfined and unfiltered, biodynamic.
Until next week.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman; Bonny Doon)