It’s hard for a vegan to find a wine to love. Wineries aren’t required to disclose farming or winemaking processes or ingredients on their labels, and vegan certification programs for wine are scant. Vegan-friendly wines do exist, but they’re not easy to discover.
General advice is likewise spotty. Many articles about vegan wine offer inaccurate or contradictory information. For example, this article from PETA says wineries commonly use blood and crustacean shells in processing, but those products have been banned for years. A story in The Washington Post states all kosher wines are vegan, but that’s refuted by this article from retailer Kosherwine.com. A recent piece in Thrillist advises vegans to choose natural wines because they’re free of additives, but additive-free doesn’t necessarily mean vegan.
Another problem is that much of the advice is aimed at dietary vegans. But veganism isn’t a unified philosophy, it’s a spectrum of choices and behaviors. Details about ingredients may not satisfy someone concerned about the full moral contours of human engagement with other animals — whether a horse plowed the vine row, whether cow manure fed the soil.
The quest for vegan wine must start in the vineyard.
Old MacDonald had a (wine) farm
Wine growing evolved over millennia within the ecosystem of the mixed-used farm. Picture the Cistercians tending their French vines surrounded by acres of vegetable gardens, cereal grains, orchards, and pastures of grazing livestock.
Animal labor and animal byproducts have long been used in wine growing:
- Sheep and goats for brush control.
- Poultry for insect control and soil aeration.
- Animal manures and manure teas for fertilizing.
- Bone, blood, or fish meal for soil.
- Draft animals like horses for plowing.
- Raptors for rodent and bird management.
- Bees for pollinating cover crops and for honey and wax production.
Animals are in fact definitional to biodynamics, viewed as critical elements of a farm’s nutrient cycle. Two biodynamic soil treatments commonly used in wine growing are made from cow manure and cow horn.
Also, nearly all wine growers use pesticides in some form. Such substances may be certified organic or synthetic, but the result is the same: dead bugs.
Animal byproducts in the winery
In the winery, the factors are no less complex.
One example is beeswax, often used to line amphorae, or qvevri, a type of large clay fermentation vessel dating back 5,000 years. Joško Gravner, a natural winemaker in Friuli, uses beeswax in his terracotta vessels. That means his wines, though natural, may not pass muster with vegans.
Animal byproducts may also be used to clarify wine, a process called fining. Fining agents bind to small particles and precipitate them out. While they’re applied in small quantities, and in theory don’t remain in the wine, their use is likely disqualifying.
- Casein, potassium caseinate, from milk.
- Butterfat, usually a mix of milk and cream, to remove cork taint.
- Albumin, from dried egg white.
- Isinglass, a collagen sourced from the swim bladder of sturgeon, cod, hake, or other fish.
- Gelatin, sourced from the skin and other tissues of animals, often pigs.
Organic wines may use animal agents provided they’re on the national organic standards list and are also certified organic, such as albumin sourced from certified organic eggs.
Non-animal substitutes exist and are widely used, but nevertheless, animal-derived materials persist throughout the winemaking world, especially in regions where they have a long tradition. Egg white fining has a long history in Bordeaux, for example, and is still used by some wineries that otherwise take a natural, hands-off approach, eschewing other interventions and additives.
Considering the trade-offs
It’s certainly possible to omit all animal involvement from vineyard to wine glass. The approach generally requires more human labor in the field and careful choice of processes and treatments in the winery.
But you can also imagine another, more cynical option. Consider a producer who farms with industrial machinery and uses only synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and processing agents. The results may technically be vegan, and even be labeled as such, but they’re also anathema to the ecologically-minded.
The takeaway is this: Ecologically sensitive farming does not necessarily mean vegan; vegan does not necessarily mean ecologically sensitive farming.
What’s a vegan wine lover to do?
First, check a wine’s back label. Producers that have gone to the effort of making a vegan wine may proudly say so there. Also look for the word unfined, although, as noted above, that may not guarantee a fully vegan product.
Consumers may also want to check the winery’s website. The brave may even try rooting around in its trade and media section; look for documents called technical sheets or sell sheets. They’re aimed at wine professionals and often contain detailed information about how a specific wine was produced. Keep in mind that wines may be accidentally vegan: free of all animal byproducts and labor, just not described or marketed that way.
Another resource for Americans is the consumer-focused website barnivore.com, which lists about 5,000 vegan wines and their producers. The caveat is that the information is self-reported, and some of it’s outdated.
Failing the above, pick up the phone. Most wineries will be happy to talk about their process and philosophy — especially if it means finding a new wine lover to please.