What is Veganuary?
Veganuary is a challenge to adopt a vegan lifestyle during January. Launched in 2014, last year it had over 620,000 official sign ups from over 200 countries and territories. This year that figure looks set to increase, plus there will be a huge number of people who take part without officially signing up.
Wine is made from grapes so it must be vegan, right?
So you’ve stopped eating meat for the month but you still want a nice glass of wine to wash down that nutroast. Can you still reach for your favourite bottle? Well that depends, because you’ve guessed it, wine is not necessarily vegan. To explain why let’s go through the basics of winemaking.
The raw ingredient for wine is grapes. Once they are fully ripe they are picked, taken to the winery and put into fermentation tanks; grape skins removed for white, or kept on for red wine. Yeast is added which reacts with the sugars in the grapes through the process of fermentation creating an alcohol, or wine. Once the fermentation is complete you have a tank of wine but with a lot of extra unwanted bits floating around in it, grape skins, dead yeast, unfortunate insects that have fallen into the tank, you get the drift, basically stuff you don’t want in your wine. To get rid of the larger particles the wine is filtered, but this doesn’t remove the smaller bits which if left in can make a wine cloudy and bitter. To remove these the winemaker adds a fining agent which clumps the smaller particles together making it possible for them to then be filtered out.
The fining agent is where we run into issues with the wine’s vegan credentials. Traditionally, the most common fining agents come from animal sources: Albumen (egg whites), casein (derived from milk), gelatine (derived from pig skin) and isinglass (created from the dried swim bladders of fish) are the most frequently used. None of these sound great but they don’t alter the flavour of the wine in the slightest and are completely removed before the wine is bottled, but their usage means that the wine cannot be considered vegan. (Wines fined with albumen or casein can be labelled vegetarian but not vegan).
Are there any vegan fining agents?
Yes, many producers use non-animal based agents and over the last few years their usage has increased. Many of them are derived from rocks and minerals; carbon, kaolin clay, bentonite clay and limestone. There is also a plant based version of casein that has been commercially created as an alternative to the milk derivative.
Some winemakers can avoid the issue altogether by bottling the wine unfiltered and unfined, something which is becoming more common with the increased popularity of “natural” wines. Although unfined wines will likely be cloudy and hazy, the aspects that fining was designed to eliminate.
How do I know if my wine is Vegan?
Winemakers aren’t obliged to state if their wines are vegan or vegetarian. Thankfully though a lot of producers are paying attention to the consumer’s desire to know this information and are making efforts to label wines in such a way, albeit there is no overarching labelling scheme. A quick scan of my wine rack discovered four different vegan labels along with a couple of bottles stating that they contained egg whites. There are a number of different vegan certification bodies available to winemakers, but sometimes the cost of membership puts off a winemaker joining despite them adopting vegan practices. The same is also true for organic certification.
Thankfully, a lot of supermarkets are actively labelling wines on the shelves and on their websites with vegan and vegetarian marks, many supermarket own labels also now have vegan friendly labels as standard. Independent wine merchants also have access to a lot of producer information and should be able to tell you, with a bit of digging, if a wine is vegan or not. There are also some great websites available such as barnivore.com which can help you understand if your drink of choice is vegan friendly.