Vegetarian and vegan wines: what they are and what they’re not!

What do we mean when we talk about vegetarian wine and vegan wine? Surely all wines are, aren’t they?

Vegetarian and vegan wines hero

The short answer is no. Some may not be acceptable to vegetarians or vegans because of the possibility that trace elements from animal-derived fining agents can remain in the finished wine. Thanks to more stringent labelling laws, there’s now greater clarity about the contents of your bottle, with potential allergens and additives made clear, but the issue of what is a vegan or vegetarian wine is less cut and dried.

Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams and The Society’s technical consultant, Jenny Bond, step up to the plate to consider the winemaker’s perspective, dispel some myths and apply some science.

Is wine suitable for vegetarians?

As Marcel reminds us: ‘Wine is a living product, so a lot of what winemaking is all about is protecting and preserving it.’ It’s this final stage in the process that can affect a wine’s suitability or not for vegans and vegetarians, as this is where fining and filtration come in. There’s a fair amount of confusion around these processes. While both have to do with clarity and biochemical stability, they are quite different, as Marcel outlines below:

Filtration – removing particles

‘Filtration is a purely mechanical process whereby wine is simply passed through filters. These can be of two sorts:

  • Membrane: essentially finely perforated plastic sheets that hold back particles. The smaller the holes, the fewer remain in the wine.
  • In-depth filtration: used in the case of cloudy wine, which is passed through layers of cellulose or diatomaceous earth such as kieselguhr, to achieve clarity and brightness.

‘Some growers feel that filtration, especially for barrel-aged red wines, is unnecessary and so prefer not to filter. But there are no hard-and-fast rules and this may change depending on vintage and bottling date. Early bottlings tend to be more fragile and the need for filtration may be greater at this stage.

‘Importantly, there’s nothing in the filtration process that could be described as non-vegetarian or vegan friendly.’

Tank samples Bordeaux sauvignon blanc
Tank samples of Bordeaux sauvignon blanc, before fining and filtering

Fining – stabilising

‘The French word for fining is collage, or ‘sticking’, which neatly describes the process used to clarify and stabilise wine. Fining agents are added to wine in its bulk state, in other words in cask or vat. These fining agents are heavier than the wine and will gradually sink to the bottom of the vessel, carrying with them the smallest of particles such as yeasts, tannins, colour pigments and hazy proteins, even bacteria.

‘As with filtration, time can do the same job, so some producers choose not to fine, although again this can vary according to the vintage. Sometimes two different batches in the same vintage may be treated differently, making any kind of guide impractical.

‘Fining is especially employed in white winemaking where brightness, clarity and clean colours are important. Fining can improve the taste of red wine by making it softer and rounder, but this is something that will usually happen with longer ageing in barrel.’

Fining agents

‘This is where things may get more problematic for vegans and vegetarians. All kinds of agents have been experimented with in the past, including, in ancient times, dried ox blood – proven to be not especially effective and in any case, now banned. So, what fining agents are more likely to be employed by winemakers today?’

The Wine Society’s technical consultant, Jenny Bond of Grape to Shelf Consulting, goes into more depth on fining agents, their origins and function, in this table: Wine fining agents and their uses.

She says: ‘Most fining agents work by causing the unwanted particles to bind to the fining agent. The resulting complexes flocculate, precipitate out and settle at the bottom of the tank. They can then be removed by racking (the process of removing the clear wine from the solid material at the bottom of the tank), and filtration.

‘Protein fining agents, which include all the animal-based fining agents, are positively charged and bind with negatively charged particles. This includes phenolic compounds, such as tannins and anthocyanins, which can cause the wine to taste bitter and astringent. In contrast, bentonite is negatively charged and used to remove positively charged, naturally occurring proteins in white and rosé wines. This prevents a “protein haze”, which is harmless but looks rather off-putting, from developing in bottle.’

Alternative fining agents and the future of plant-based agents

‘Alternatives to animal-based fining agents include PVPP, an inert, synthetic polymer, and plant-based protein fining agents.

‘PVPP has long been used in the beverage industry as an adsorbent of phenolic compounds. PVPP can be a useful tool for removing the compounds responsible for excessive bitterness and browning in white wines.

‘There is ongoing research into plant-based protein fining agents, with pea- and potato-based options commercially available and already in use. As these are still relatively new, winemakers are still getting used to using them, and benchmarking them against the animal-based alternatives. Animal-protein-based fining agents have been around for a long time and winemakers have a greater understanding of how they impact the wines they produce.’

Fining agents, allergens and implications for labelling

‘Using plant-based fining agents means that the wine can potentially be labelled as vegan-friendly without any concerns that allergens need to be declared on the label. However, there are periodic reviews of allergens and there is concern that some of the currently used plant-based fining agents could be included in the lists of allergens in the future.

‘Milk and egg are well-known food allergens, and since 2012, must be shown as such on labels if present at a concentration greater than 0.25mg/l. Some brand owners choose to declare the presence of milk or egg as allergens on the label if they have been used in wine, even if no residue has been found.’

Lab Les Vins Aujoux
Jenny Bond would always advise laboratory trials are carried out to test fining agents. The lab at Les Vins Aujoux, source of many of our Beaujolais bottlings

The right fining agents for the job

‘Different fining agents (usually a protein and non-protein combination) may be used at the same time and commercially available products are often a combination of two or more complementary options. And fining is not obligatory – some winemakers feel that fining and filtration remove too much of a wine’s character. Also, winemakers may not always use the same fining agent across different batches of the same wine.

‘Whatever decision is made about fining a wine, it is usual (and advised, by people in my position), for laboratory trials to be conducted first to determine the amount of fining agent which has the most preferred outcome. Only when the trials are completed should full-scale fining be carried out.’

What is vegan wine?

‘Winemakers have to go a further step to label a wine as vegan-friendly and demonstrate that no cross-contamination has taken place. So, if the previous wine to be bottled was not vegan, the winemaker has to carry out a through clean of the whole bottling line involving increased use of water, power and chemicals.’

The Society’s definitions of vegan and vegetarian wines

Taking Marcel’s and Jenny’s observations on board, the reality is that, with an increased use of bentonite as a fining agent for those winemakers that choose to fine, many wines are vegan and vegetarian friendly. Wine producers are not yet legally obliged to list fining agents on labels (apart from potential allergens, as outlined above) and there isn’t yet international recognition for what constitutes a vegan or vegetarian wine. Because of this, we are reliant on our suppliers to let us know whether their wines are suitable for vegans and vegetarians following definitions outlined by The Vegetarian Society and The Vegan Society. This is just one aspect of the information provided by our producers and not all of them supply us with this data.

A wide range of vegetarian and vegan wines to choose from

The Society already offers a wide range of wines that our suppliers have indicated to us are suitable for vegetarians and vegans and plenty more that meet that requirement in practice, but can’t be formally described as such. With rising demand from followers of vegetarian and vegan diets, we are confident we’ll be seeing tighter regulation on clearer certification on this aspect of winemaking in the future.

In the meantime, we can at least guarantee that a high-quality end product that’s both honest and delicious is something that all our producers will always aim for, whatever it takes to deliver it.

>Browse our range of vegetarian wines

>Browse our range of vegan wines

>Read about matching wine with vegetarian cooking

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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