For some years now the month of January has been designated as ‘Veganuary’, the month when we are encouraged to take up veganism, and particularly a vegan diet. This may have arisen as a good excuse to placate our guilt at having overindulged in the consumption of meat during the Christmas season! What is veganism? According to The Vegan Society the definition of veganism as applied to food and wine is: “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible or practicable – all forms of exploitation of and, and cruelty too, animals for food . . . In dietary terms it denotes the practise of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals”
The description ‘vegan’ as applied to wine is not clear for those not in the know, so it would be useful to explain what a vegan wine is and where to buy it.
Vegan wine, or more accurately, wine made in such a way that it is suitable for vegan consumers to drink, is, in fact, very common. Vegan wine is a wine that contains no ingredients derived from animals or animal products - it might be surprising for you to learn that there could be any animal products in wine at all when you would expect just grapes!
The answer to this lies in the process known as ‘fining’ which is regularly carried out on a finished wine before bottling to prevent subsequent unsightly cloudiness in the bottle. This cloudiness is caused by the clustering and subsequent suspension of naturally occurring molecules in wine, such as polymer proteins, which although harmless to us, after the wine has been bottled and with time may make the wine hazy. Some few wine makers do not fine their wine at all and risk the prospect of their wine going hazy when bottled. To avoid this, they must take special care in the preparation of the wine prior to bottling but they think that this extra effort is worthwhile in order to achieve a more natural product. For mass produced wine this would be impractical.
The fining agents used in wine making are of animal origin, for example, egg albumin, gelatine, casein or isinglass (fish bladders!) and therefore not suitable for vegans, or inorganic compounds such as activated carbon (charcoal), Bentonite (a mineral clay), Kieselsol (silicon dioxide) and a resinous inert synthetic polymer called polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP), which are. Fining agents are scattered into the top of a large vat of wine and percolate down through the wine taking the protein molecules with them as they sink to the bottom of the vat. The sediment that accumulates at the bottom is subsequently removed and separated from the bulk wine by filtration or centrifugation.
It is virtually impossible for anyone buying a bottle of wine to identify whether it has been fined by an animal product or not unless it is stated on the label. One indicator might be if on the back label it says ‘non-organic fining agents used’ or more specifically ‘fining agent: Bentonite’. The details of the fining process would only be known by the individual wine producer. Many wine producers could accurately label their wines as vegan, but the word ‘vegan’ does not appear on their labels or in their advertising blurb; they choose not to because they do not see this as their target market. You could look at a wine producer’s website see what fining agents they employ in their wine making, but they do not always publish this information.
According to the Vegan Society, its own commissioned survey carried out by IPSOS Mori found that there was an increase in the number of vegans in Britain from an estimated 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2019 and this trend is increasing. Veganism is here to stay, and it will not be long before wine producers clearly label their wines as ‘suitable for vegans’ on a regular basis, or, as is happening more frequently already, wine outlets are stating ‘suitable for vegans’ on shelf edges. Another source of information to look for is on a wine retailer’s website. For instance, Morrisons, on its website has identified the vegan wines it sells, while the Coop has a ‘suitable for Vegans’ button identifying their offer of wines as such. Many other outlets are identifying their vegan wines and there is a general recognition now of this wine category. Without the words appearing in large type on the front label it should be possible to buy a vegan wine with a bit of research and without too much effort.
Let’s say ‘Cheers’ to Veganuary and vegan wine!