Do we need a guide to vegan wine?
There has been a lot of talk lately about whether wines can be vegan (and we still discuss it), so we deiced to share with you our guide to vegan wine which explains how we classify and understand winemaking of vegan wines. At Pull The Cork we label wine vegan meaning that particular wine, from the moment the grapes enter the winery do not come into contact with any animal products whatsoever. But, let’s dive in.
Defining the term: What does vegan mean?
If you’re a vegan or you’re thinking about becoming vegan, there are so many things you have to think about in order to live a fulfilling vegan life. And who would have thought, of all the things you have to contend with when you adopt a vegan lifestyle, that there can be animal products in wine?
So what does vegan actually mean? Veganism is a surprisingly grey area. The one thing all vegans have in common is that they follow a plant-based diet, refraining from consuming any foods and drinks (including wine) that are made from animals or animal by-products.
Some people choose to just follow a vegan diet, whereas others are much more strict, adopting a wholly vegan lifestyle.
A vegan lifestyle, according to The Vegan Society, is one where you live a life that seeks, as far as possible, to not exploit or harm animals for either food, clothing or another purpose, i.e. for use on a farm, and to encourage the exploration and use of non-animal based products, with the aim to be kinder to humans, to animals and to the environment.
What is vegan wine?
Natural wines are essentially wines made in harmony with planet earth. And this is where the debate about vegan wine arose.
The natural wine movement has been the biggest game-changer in the 21st-century wine world and for very good reasons. To class a wine as natural, the general idea is that the whole production of the wine from the growing of the grapes (using organic, biodynamic or sustainable winemaking practices) to the fermenting, bottling and cellaring of wine is done with as little intervention as possible, be that without added chemicals (fertiliser, herbicides, pesticides, fining or filtration agents) or technological tinkering.
You may be wondering where we’re going with this. Isn’t all wine vegan you might be thinking. Wine is after all just crushed grapes.
If only life were that simple.
No, not every wine is vegan. And here’s why.
The winemaking process of vegan wines
It’s so hard to determine what makes a vegan wine. Whilst it is seemingly abundantly clear that a vegan wine per se has to contain no animal derivatives or animal by-products, no one could agree at what stage veganism enters the equation, because when does winemaking actually begin? When does wine actually become wine?
- When the grapes are crushed?
- Before that then when they’re harvested?
- When they’re grown?
- Does a wine stop being vegan if a farmer buries cow horns under the vines?
- Does it stop being vegan if animal manure is used to fertilise the vines?
- Is it still vegan if the farmer keeps animals on the farm, for biodynamic farming purposes, but none of them are used in the winemaking process?
- How about if the farmer keeps no animals on the farm, but eats meat?
This makes the conversation around vegan wine difficult. You see, this subject is incredibly grainy, not black and white as we first thought. And we haven’t even touched on organic farming or sustainable farming methods.
Can vegans even drink wine?
If you consider the above listed questions, you will see that there are so many answers to the question: is wine vegan? The main point of the opposition’s argument (the opposition being those people who believe winemaking begins in the vineyard, not when the grapes enter the winery – as we believe), was that wines produced using biodynamic farming methods – a farming practice that was created to work in symbiosis with nature, rather than against it, the most planet-friendly of farming methods that surely all vegans should embrace – actually contravenes what veganism stands for. Because, and this leads onto the next part of the debate –
What counts as an additive in wine if the winemaking process doesn’t start at the entrance to the winery (as we believe it does) but actually on the farm itself?
For some vegans, those who say that winemaking begins in the vineyard, biodynamic farming methods don’t produce vegan wines because through these farming practices, animal products do enter the wine.
But who are we to say which form of veganism has superiority over any other; do the purists, the ethical vegans, outrank the rest of them? What about the vegans who don’t believe that microorganisms from biodynamic farming can taint their wine?
Biodynamic vineyards and vegan wines
You see on a biodynamic farm, the whole farm operates as one entity, with 6 principles:
- Plant diversity
- Crop rotation
- Animal life
- Homeopathic solutions
- Life forces
All the parts work together, using and drawing upon each other to achieve the end goal – to create a farming system that is self-sustaining and sustainable for the long term. And animals are a central feature of this biodynamic farming method. Animals are thought of as workers; their manure is used to fertilise the plants and feed the soil, as are their horns, which are packed full of manure and ground quartz and buried in the Autumn to harvest ‘cosmic forces within the soil’.
Which is why purist vegans argue that if animals are used in the grape growing part of winemaking, then the wines can’t be vegan, because some microorganisms from the animals will have entered the grapes.
But how far can that argument go?
Can you therefore ever truly have a vegan-friendly wine?
Because for a vegan vineyard to exist in a wholly clean state, free of any animal contamination, it has to exist inside a protective bubble, one that is immune to insects, bees or wild animals such as mice, voles, snakes or birds. Because by absolutist vegan standards, no animal can come into contact with the soil, the grapes or in fact any part of the vineyard.
And what happens if the winery isn’t located on the vineyard itself? How do you ensure that the grapes don’t suffer from some cross-contamination on their journey from the vine to the winery? You just can’t, there are too many variables.
Taking a step back for a second, let’s discuss the main vegan philosophy that encourages vegans, as practicably as possible, to avoid any form of exploitation or cruelty to animals.
Why isn’t all wine vegan?
Wine is not always vegan-friendly because unfortunately, some wines are still processed using animal by-products, such as:
- Milk protein (casein)
- Isinglass (fish bladder protein)
- Egg whites (albumin)
- Gelatine (animal protein)
Egg whites, milk and gelatine you’ll have probably heard of, but isinglass?
What is isinglass?
Isinglass is a substance, a kind of gelatine obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish and is used in the fining process of some white wines. Yup. You read that right.
Fish bladders in your wine.
What is fining in winemaking?
Here’s the thing, like poker straight cucumbers and perfectly round apples, we consumers have come to expect nothing but perfection in the products we purchase to eat and drink. And that includes wine.
But wine is the juice of crushed grapes, and when you crush grapes and leave them to ferment, no matter how much you sieve the resulting elixir, there will always be remnants left behind. And in some cases, these colloids (the unwanted particles left behind in the wine) can render a wine unstable, affecting its taste, its appearance, even its smell.
So over the years winemakers have sought to remove these final impurities from their wine, to extend their shelf life as long as possible and make them more appealing for mass consumption. It’s worth noting that this process will happen naturally, the sediment will fall to the bottom of the tank if you leave the wine to sit for long enough – makers of natural wine* will attest to that. But when you’re driven by your bottom line, hanging around waiting for unwanted particles in your wine to settle isn’t feasible.
Which is where the fining process comes in.
The most common fining agents are animal products such as the ones listed above. To use fining agents, you simply add them into the wine and the unwanted particles bind to the agent, forming sizable clumps that can then be filtered out.
The great news is that with the widespread knowledge of these practices and the request by consumers for a more inclusive (vegan-friendly) approach to winemaking, a large number of winemakers have ceased using animal-derived products when making their wine, instead opting for a clay-based mineral called bentonite instead, or activated charcoal.
One point to note, be they vegan or animal-derived products, fining agents don’t alter the taste of the wine. They are simply used to clarify the wine.
So are all wines labelled as vegan or not?
Sadly no, while the rules and regulations surrounding food labelling are getting stricter, the requirements to label wine (bar any allergens) aren’t necessary just yet. So you don’t always know if your wine is vegan-friendly or not.
Our Guide To Vegan Wine
Because there can be lots of different interpretations of what it means to be vegan, here at Pull The Cork we made the decision in our wine classification that for us, wine’s life begins the moment it enters the winery. And therefore (as we stated at the beginning of the article) a vegan-friendly wine is one that has been made without the use or inclusion of any animal parts, from the moment the grapes enter the winery.
And so what we (Pull the Cork) decided is –
- Firstly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion (as we are too).
- Secondly, as mentioned before, wine production begins when the grapes enter the winery, not before, and as such we classify vegan wines as wines that are made without the addition (at the winery) of any animal products.
We figured this was a suitable way of allowing everyone to easily make a simple choice: to imbibe a vegan wine, or not. We were trying to figure out how best to categorise the various types of wines we stock on Pull the Cork. We eventually broke them down into:
- Practising organic
- Low Sulphur
- Low Histamine
- No additive
- Vegan friendly
We split natural and vegan-friendly into two separate categories because vegan-friendly wines are the hardest category to define.
In fact, vegan wine can fit into so many different categories (learn more from our guide to vegan wines), however, everyone’s definition of what constitutes a vegan wine seemed to differ, and this is what the debate centred around.
The definition we have settled on –
Natural wine is real wine, made the way it was supposed to be – by actual people, from clean grapes grown in proper, good old fashioned vineyards, no fuss, no chemical intervention.
Vegan-friendly wine is a wine that contains no animal products in wine or animal derivatives ie nothing animal-related has been added to the grapes that arrived at the winery.
So we’ve put together a handy vegan wine guide on our website to let you know when you’re choosing your next epic bottle of red wine, that it’s a vegan red wine. If you aren’t sure, you can always check out our wine selection of vegan wines.
We clearly label each bottle of vegan wine on our site with this symbol:
You can see at a glance if your chosen wine is vegan friendly or not.
Premium wines suitable for vegans
So what wines are suitable for vegans? The answer is plenty. If you are a red drinker, you’re in luck, as are you if you’re a white drinker, a rose or an orange sipper.
Browse through our selection of vegan wines or reach out and let us know what you like in a wine and we can steer you towards something that will tickle your tastebuds. We do after all have over 200 different premium natural wines for you to choose from.
*In our opinion fining isn’t sexy, nor is it necessary, therefore if you like your wine natural and untampered with, opt for the natural, low intervention wine that we are renowned for. We promise you, it’ll blow your mind. If you aren’t sure where to begin, try our entry-level low intervention mixed case.