Uncorking the Truth: Why Not All Wine Is Vegan

Words: Robyn Samuels

If we were to ask you what the main ingredients of wine are, you probably wouldn’t think twice before saying grapes, water and yeast – right? But the uncorked truth is that there’s something called ‘fining agents’ lurking in your wine. So long as you can enjoy it with your steak, you probably wouldn’t care about this unless you were vegan, in which case, you should probably listen up close…

Most people assume that wine is mainly made from grapes, thus making it vegan, but certain processes involved in traditional winemaking may require animal-based products.

Not all wines are made equal

Winemaking has evolved to include more sustainable, biodynamic processes and vegan practices, making it more suitable for environmentally conscious consumers. While most wine brands have adopted more sustainable practices in recent years, others still adhere to traditional methods, which might require animal-derived ingredients.

Why your wine might not be vegan-friendly

One such ingredient is a fining agent, which removes any impurities and sediment from the wine before bottling the final product. Traditional fining agents used during the process of clarifying wine include:

  • Gelatin: this is one of the more common animal-based ingredients used in many commercially processed foods such as candy, desserts and stock, and wine.
  • Egg whites are used as a binding agent to aggregate impurities before removing them.
  • Isinglass, a form of collagen and probably the worst of the three, is derived from the dried membranes of fish bladder – originally, beluga sturgeon was used; cod and hake were used in later years. Isinglass clarifies the wine and removes any impurities, including yeast residue. Isinglass is favoured over gelatin, which impacts the viscosity of the wine. It’s also more effective and accelerates the sediment process. Isinglass is sometimes used in beer brewing, and white and sparkling wine production.

Other non-vegan ingredients used in winemaking

While fining agents are extracted from the wine before bottling the final product through a process called filtering – meaning that virtually no trace particles are left – vegans and vegetarians alike find this an ethically contentious issue, as animal-based products are sometimes used in this method, making it non-vegan.

Casein, a milk-based protein used in many commercial and industrial products like paint, is also implemented in winemaking. The protein enhances the texture and mouthfeel of the wine. Since casein itself is a protein and doesn’t contain lactose, some might argue that it’s not a dairy product, but wines containing casein are not usually regarded as ‘vegan-friendly’.

Honey: although uncommon, some winemakers use honey during fermentation to introduce more sugar and feed the yeast – this increases the alcohol content of the wine and lends a more complex flavour profile. Since honey is not plant-based, winemakers that are producing vegan-friendly wines will avoid using it and instead rely on non-animal-derived agents to increase the sugar/alcohol levels of the wine. Tartaric acid is one alternative to honey; adjusted pH levels also help reach the desired acidity.

 With the rise of veganism, consumers are seeking more sustainably produced products. Certain winemakers thus avoid using animal-derived ingredients, relying on alternative agents or allowing the impurities to settle over time before removing them. Such wines are usually labelled as ‘unfiltered’ or ‘unrefined’.

Thankfully, most of the wine in your wine cabinet probably won’t contain fish bladder particles, as many winemakers have pivoted to using activated charcoal, bentonite clay, silica gel, and plant-derived substances like pea and potato protein as fining agents.

But does vegan wine taste different from non-vegan wine?

For the most part, the tasting notes and quality of wine are determined by the terroir and the grape varietal used; conditions like climate and methods used during the winemaking process also contribute to the expressed flavours/notes of the final product. These aspects ultimately impact the overall taste of the wine, meaning there could be a slight difference in taste between vegan and non-vegan products. But, if a batch of grapes subjected to similar growth conditions were used to make vegan and non-vegan wine, the difference in taste would be undetectable. However, some would beg to differ…

Some wine connoisseurs would argue that fining agents like gelatin and egg whites lend more body and enhance the overall flavour profile of the wine.

Additionally, isinglass might soften the tannins in the wine, improving the mouthfeel and helping create a less astringent/bitter taste or dry note – higher tannins produce a drier mouthfeel.

How do I know if wine is vegan-friendly or not?

Decoding labels can be tricky, as not all brands are transparent with consumers about the practices used. Wine labels might be advertised as ‘organic’, but not all wines are branded as vegan-friendly.

It’s crucial to do your research if you want to avoid supporting brands that greenwash sustainable efforts. The great news is that today’s wine market is saturated with vegan-friendly options, and brands that promote biodynamic practices and cater to conscious consumers, those with allergies, as well as vegans and vegetarians.

Learn all about these lesser-known wine varietals.

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