Vegan Wine

There’s What in My Wine?

Vegan wine? What’s next? It seems that the trend towards a plant-based, more environmentally responsible and sustainable diet is really taking hold. When people are differentiating their alcohol based on animal husbandry issues then it must be a real thing, right?

And if it is a real thing, then perhaps we should prepare ourselves and our staff for the inevitable questions, availability, and the subsequent interrogation about provenance and certifications.

So, first let’s clear up the details with some definitions:

Vegan: Veganism is both the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. A follower of either the diet or the philosophy is known as a vegan.

Wine:  An alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes.

So, just because a wine is organic doesn’t mean it’s vegan. Organic wines are made from organically-grown grapes, free of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. It also means that preservatives are not used during any part of the process. Animal parts can be organic.

Just because a wine is bio-dynamic doesn’t mean it’s vegan. Biodynamics does come under scrutiny from vegetarian/vegan communities because of the use of animal parts including horns, organs, heads, eggshells, etc. Any grapes grown bio-dynamically would fall into this category because that is, by definition, part of what biodynamics is–they couldn’t be certified biodynamic if they didn’t do it.

Now that we have that out of the way, the question to ask is, if wines are simply the product derived from fermented grape juice, where do the animal parts come in? It turns out that the fact that wine predates a lot of agricultural and scientific innovation lies at the heart of this conundrum.

A recent discovery of the remains of white wine attest to our millennia-old tradition of fermenting any available sugars we come across into beverage alcohol. The white wine residue discovered in an earthen amphora was determined to be 10,000 years old.

Over the centuries, we have worked hard to perfect the art of wine making. One of the most obvious attributes of well-made wine is its clarity and brilliance in the glass. Haze and other foreign particles are looked upon as defects in a wine and are a sign of poor wine making or hint at potential for other faults.

Winemakers over the years have identified products at hand that they can add to wine to help clarify it. The process is called filtering and fining. Filtering is the process of removing the larger or gross particles by passing it through a filter-like contraption that typically uses paper like a giant coffee filter. Fining is the subsequent process of refining filtering and ultimately leaving a clear and bright liquid that has any particles or other large colloids removed.

This increases the wine’s appeal to the market by making it more attractive in the glass. Some winemakers eschew the practice, saying that it “filters the flavours out”. Wines that are hazy in the glass usually include some sort of notice on the back label that the wine has not been “fined or filtered”.  The practice and benefits of filtering and fining is open for debate with amateurs and experts alike having wide ranging opinions.

So, what kind of animal products are employed in winemaking? There are a few and you may find them quite surprising. Popular animal-derived fining agents used in the production of wine include blood and bone marrow, casein (milk protein), chitin (fibre from crustacean shells), egg albumen (derived from egg whites), fish oil, gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), and isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes).

With the advent of more economic, predictable products that are crafted in such a way as to maintain broad market appeal, you see less and less of these animal products employed. However, in both older, more rustic regions and in large successful wineries tradition may prevail.

So, if it makes a difference to you and your customers, you may want to do a bit of research into how winemakers go about their business.


Tim Ellison is a Certified Chef de Cuisine and Sommelier with almost a half century of experience in the hospitality industry. He is currently the Director of Food and Beverage Service at the Vancouver Club.