I used to assume (like most) that wine is made of just grapes and so automatically suitable for vegans. But since becoming a wine producer and vegetarian, then I have realised there is much more to it. During January (and beyond), many people are now trying to eat a more plant-based diet or give up all animal products. But do we know whether the wines we drink are vegan or suitable for vegetarians? And is there a difference?
A general consensus on the vegan wine definition is ‘a wine not having been made or come into contact with anything derived from an animal source’. I try to break down the mystery around winemaking so that drinkers of my wines really understand what happens in the process so here are some of the decisions I have made and some things you might not have thought about when considering whether a wine is vegan-friendly:
Let’s start with the obvious - fining for clarification and stabilisation. Fining is adding a product at final stages after filtering and before bottling. It passes through the wine and any remaining tiny particles in the wine stick to it. These particles together with the fining agent create a sediment that is then removed. Traditionally derived from fish eggs or egg white or casein (a protein found in milk), the substance passes through and so nothing should remain in the finished wine. However, if there is the slightest chance a touch of the fining agent is still present, then things get sticky because an animal product has been in contact with the wine even though it is taken out afterwards. Vegetarians might not object to egg white while vegan-friendly fining products include a pea protein or bentonite. So there are options suitable for vegans. Alternatively don’t fine at all. Here at Château George 7, we have never fined our red wines and for the white wine, we tried bentonite but now we don’t fine the white wine either – we simply filter and bottle.
Now for one you might not have thought of. Wine is just made of grapes, right? Technically yes, but apart from the obvious yeast or sulphur, some wines have other things added to them depending on where in the world they are made. Here in France we have very strict regulations on what can go into wine which is very little but wherever wine is made, in the main, additives don’t tend to involve animal products (caveat: I cannot speak for all wine production worldwide!). But how about accidentally? Anyone who has worked on a sorting table during harvest where the grapes are machine harvested will have been amazed at the amount of MOG [matter other than grapes) that rocks past as red wine grapes head for fermentation – snails, lizards even baby snakes or parts thereof. (Aside: I love the fact that the vines are teeming with lots of wildlife). If some bits get through, then they would get removed with the grape must after fermentation or at worst during filtering, no? But they have been in contact with the wine during its production albeit by accident and in very small proportion compared to the quantity of wine being produced. It is different for hand-picked grapes where the picker inspects bunches but even then, some insects might get through the initial phases. In addition to manual sorting, we use an optical sorter, a sophisticated piece of equipment adding another stage of sorting which inspects each grape for size and colour (thanks to computer pre-programming) and ejects anything that doesn’t conform. Not everyone uses an optical sorter though.
Then it starts getting more complex depending on why you are vegan or vegetarian in the first place. Is it for health or environmental and sustainability reasons? Or is it a principle against the commoditisation of animals? (And they are linked).
Vegan or vegetarian-friendly has nothing to do with being organic - that is a different topic even if there may be overlap in the approach and guiding principles of the producer. Biodynamic viticulture follows many practices that are in tune with nature – from being guided by the moon to growing, making and using natural treatments based on specific plants. The practices of burying a cow horn filled with manure or using deer bladders for a yarrow preparation are unacceptable to many vegans because they require the rearing of animals for its parts ie commoditisation rather than a happy byproduct of an animal's natural existence. This is a real debate.
I use organic fertilizer on the vines and I switched from one made from fish byproducts to one that is plant-based because although I believe the fish remains used were after the main purpose of the fish being caught (think heads, bones, skin etc) and these would be discarded if not turned into fertilizer, I couldn’t be 100% sure that the fish weren't farmed for that primary purpose. I made the switch to a plant-based one to be safe. In any case, I hear you say, the fertilizer goes into the ground and not the wine so does it matter? Some purists hold out that any process linked to the environment where the wine grows or is created should not be involved in the 'commoditisation' of animals however well they are loved and treated when living. One example is working horses in the vines - does this make the finished wine unsuitable for vegans if the horses exist for that purpose and their efforts harnessed to support wine production? Is this taking it a bit far? Read on..
What about packaging? We don't tend to consider whether a vegan sandwich is in packaging stuck with a glue that has been made from animal byproducts because we assume that the food is not touched or affected by an animal derivative (the glue in the package might offend a purist's principles). Natural glues using animal parts from horses or even rabbits have been made for centuries while synthetic ones are common and made from plastic polymers, but they don’t break down easily. Natural vegetal glues do exist, and so I consider whether something is in direct contact with the wine giving the slight possibility that some of the animal product could be absorbed into it (as the case with fining).
So what about the cork? I was delighted, on producing my first Château George 7 Blanc in 2020, a white wine not made to age, to discover a new agglomerated cork (offcut real cork pieces) bound together by only vegetal polyols including beeswax ie no animal products in the glue. But as some wine touches the cork which has used a product from bees, then would vegans object? I solved this by switching the following year to another new cork bound by a glue made from discarded grape remains (skins and pips). I know many will consider that the bees are not commoditised for their beeswax because they are not ‘harnessed’ to work but others disagree. I felt it was an issue best avoided as a great alternative is available and I do like grape 'waste' being put to good use. Not an animal product in sight (or touch).
As we have seen, the debate is broader than wine clarification. Producers need to keep up the communication and not be mysterious about how we make our wines so that the consumer can make up their own mind especially as more and more people are becoming vegetarian or vegan. There is a relatively recent independent certification scheme called EVE Vegan which covers all products and not just wine. However, a number of producers and others in the wine trade I asked hadn’t heard of it and it is not a certification which I feel warrants my personal investment until it becomes more widely recognised - we already have enough schemes/logos that the consumer doesn't understand. It is simple enough to put vegan on the back label and as we move to ingredient labelling in the EU, then this step change for the wine industry can also offer producers the chance to be open regarding whether their wines are suitable for vegans (although that is certainly not part of the new legal requirement).
It comes down to why you are vegan in the first place and whether you consider anything that harnesses animals in the production process renders a wine out of kilter with your principles. As for other decisions when creating my wines, I have delved into each step of the process to make my own informed decisions which I am happy with. Get to know producers and what they do because only then can you be sure where animals and their by-products have come into contact with the wine you are drinking and if they really are suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
Looking for plant-based food and wine pairings? Visit www.wineand2veg.com where Wendy and I give you suggestions for how to pair seasonal recipes with sustainable Bordeaux wines.
Interested in more on the topic? Have a listen to the UK Wine Show podcast where Sally and Wendy were interviewed and in the second half, Sally talks about what makes a wine vegan-friendly. Wendy talks about our wine and plant-based food pairing website www.wineand2veg.com .