If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re likely already used to playing detective with various food labels to uncover any hidden animal products. Meat can turn up in the unlikeliest of places - many vegetarians will be familiar with having to turn down the offer of a seemingly innocent piece of candy, for example. But what about wine? None of the usual suspects appear on the back of the label, and it seems difficult to imagine how animal products might be used in winemaking in the first place.
Sadly, the answer is that many wines are not suitable for vegans or even vegetarians, but the good news is that more and more winemakers are starting to remove animal products from their wines, and vegan-friendly wine is readily available if you know what to look for.
If you’re wondering why animal products are needed to make wine, the reason, as is often the case with added nasties, is to save time and money during the manufacturing process. In traditional winemaking, pressed grape juice was left to settle both before and after fermentation, to allow any small solids to sink to the bottom of the barrel. This would usually take place during the winter months after the harvest, and by the spring, the wine would have naturally separated out into liquid and sediment.
Modern demand for wines created a need to artificially speed up this process, and these days a technique known as ‘fining’ is often used. Fining involves using additives known as ‘fining agents’ that bind to floating particles, creating large clumps that can easily be removed. Fining agents can also be used to bind to plant compounds with unpleasant flavours, such as excess tannins.
Many fining agents are animal-derived, including egg whites and casein (a milk protein), which are unsuitable for vegans, as well as gelatin, chitosan (derived from crustacean shells) and isinglass (derived from fish swim bladders), which are unsuitable for either vegans or vegetarians.
Luckily, there are some vegan options out there. Many winemakers have started using vegan fining agents such as bentonite, which is made from clay, and activated charcoal. There are also a growing number of producers who prefer using the slow method of winemaking, and avoid the fining process to preserve the delicate natural balance of flavours in the wine. These ‘unfined’ wines are also suitable for vegans.
Is Prosecco vegan?
Everyone’s favourite Italian fizz, Prosecco has enjoyed a huge boost in overseas popularity over the last decade, but the Italians have been drinking it for centuries. For more interesting facts about Prosecco, take a look at our article on the numbers behind Prosecco.
A high proportion of Proseccos available today are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, but there are still some that use animal products in the fining process, including all of the additives we have already discussed. As Prosecco is a drink that is often enjoyed by the glass in restaurants or bars, there is not always the opportunity to check the label, so you may need to ask wait or bar staff, or check the menu and do some quick research on your phone.
Is champagne vegan?
Synonymous with decadence and sophistication, this classic French fizz is often used to toast celebrations and special occasions. Take a look at this handy champagne infographic to find out more.
As for whether it’s vegan or not, the answer is much the same as for Prosecco. Many champagnes are vegan, perhaps even the majority, but some are not, so it’s always best to check. This applies to most sparkling wines, including Spanish Cava.
Red wine and white wine
Wines are usually divided into reds, whites, and sometimes rosés, but there are plenty of other differences to look out for. They can also be categorised as light-bodied, medium-bodied and full-bodied wines, and there are other factors such as dryness/sweetness, tannins and acidity that all affect how a bottle of wine will taste.
As with sparkling wines, many red and white wines are now vegan, but there are some that still use animal products. The colour of the grape may affect the type of fining agent used, with egg whites more commonly used in red wines, to remove excess tannins, while casein, isinglass and chitosan tend to be used in whites to produce a clearer, brighter colour. Gelatin may be found in either red or white wine.
How to tell if a wine is vegan or vegetarian friendly
Unfortunately, animal products can often go undetected in wines, as US labelling laws do not currently require winemakers to include a list of ingredients. But while it may be fruitless to search the label for negatives, companies that make traditional, unfined wines, or wines that are otherwise suitable for vegans, will usually want to advertise the fact. This means you will usually have more luck looking for a wine that is marked as vegan or unfined than checking the back of every bottle for rogue ingredients.
If the labels in your local store offer no clues, try finding a store with knowledgeable staff who can advise you, and failing that, there are plenty of clearly labelled vegan wines available to buy online. Consumer pressure is a great way to persuade companies to make their products and labelling accessible for vegetarians and vegans, so don’t tie yourself in knots researching obscure labelling. Reward companies who make it easy for you, and assume those who don’t have something to hide until they exercise more clarity.