It can be difficult to choose an appropriate wine if you are vegetarian or vegan. I am not vegetarian or vegan, but one of my sisters is vegetarian and another sister is a strict vegan, and I have an immense amount of respect for the discipline it takes to eat and live according to their personal beliefs. I've had long bouts of being a vegetarian, but I've never been able to make a permanent switch. Nevertheless, my sisters and I frequently talk about what makes a wine vegan or vegetarian, and it is often difficult for them to choose appropriate wines. The impetus for this post began after one of our conversations: I wanted to make a guide that would help them find an appropriate bottle of wine. I do think it's wrong that wine labeling is not transparent enough for vegetarians and especially vegans to choose a bottle that is in line with their beliefs. People should be able to easily discern what is in the bottle and if animals were used to process the wine, and then make their own choice whether to buy it or not.
Food labeling is regulated and precise. It would be an outrage if a product sold as a "vegetarian soup" turned out to contain chicken stock. Yet there are no clear labeling guidelines that distinguish vegetarian wines from non-vegetarian wines. I've noticed a recent buzz about wineries who have started to add ingredient lists to the back of their bottles. Many wineries and breweries are resistant to the idea and are concerned that listing ingredients and additives would ruin the public conception of 'purity' about their product. I think that the information is useful, and that people deserve to know and decide for themselves.
For instance, I know that Lopez de Heredia fines with egg whites, and I will continue to enjoy their products. But I would never serve this wine to a vegan, because I believe that is morally wrong. Imagine if a waiter served a vegetable consomme to a vegan, and explained how eggs were used to clarify the broth. The consomme, I'm sure, would be returned immediately. Why should the rules be any different with wine?
There are all different iterations of vegetarians, and I like to talk to people about what they are comfortable consuming before I pour them wine. An ovo-lacto vegetarian, for instance, might be OK with egg white fining, but not with isinglass fining.
What can make a wine non-vegetarian or non-vegan?
Several things can make a wine non-vegetarian or non-vegan. There are plenty of grey areas here, so I will present what I think is pertinent, and then you can decide for yourself if these things make the wine vegetarian or vegan.
There are 4 main areas where a wine can become non-vegetarian or vegan:
1. Wine Additives
2. Filtration and Fining Agents
4. Vineyard Practices
Most mass produced wines contain additives- just like mass produced food. And the additives are mixed in for the same reasons: to preserve and to make the product look fresh and appealing to consumers. Check out Alice Feiring's List of Additives and Processing Agents in wine to get an idea of what could be in your bottle.
One additive that can change your wine from vegan to non-vegan is sugar. Adding sugar to grape must increases the sweetness and provides more food for the yeast to eat, which means that the yeast can produce more alcohol. Adding sugar to grape must is called Chaptalization. There are rules about Chaptalizing, but most countries allow Chaptalization when the vintage has been difficult and grapes had difficulty ripening. Without Chaptalization, in these years some wineries might not be able to get high enough alcohol levels to sell their product as wine. In hot regions, Chaptalization is not usually necessary.
There are exceptions, but white sugar is often processed with bone char. Bone char is used to remove the color. If bone-char processed sugar is used to Chaptalize the grape must, the wine is no longer vegetarian/vegan.
Animal Products Used in Filtration and Fining
Sometimes, animal-based products are used as agents in filtration and fining. If you look at this list of Wine Additives, you will see that most of the non-vegetarian substances are used for clarification (fining). The animal products are not in the bottle of wine, but they are used in the process. Technically, the wine is vegetarian since no animal products remain behind (except possible trace amounts). But if you are vegan and looking to avoid wines in which animal products were used in the process, then there are some filtration and fining methods to look out for. Not all filtration/fining methods use animal products, but many do. Just because a wine label says that it was fined does not mean that animal products were used; it is an indicator that they may have been used. Here are some animal-based fining agents to look out for in wine production:
Catalase- This can be derived from 'bovine liver.'
Protease (Pepsin)- used to reduce or remove heat liable proteins- This is derived from 'porcine or bovine stomachs.'
Protease (Tripsin) - This fining agent is derived from 'porcine or bovine pancreas.'
Casein- Casein is derived from milk and is used to fine wine.
Gelatin- used for clarification.
Milk- sometimes used as a fining agent, or used to remove certain flavors
Isinglass- Isinglass is derived from fish gallbladders and is used to clarify wine and beer. How do you know if your wine has been fined with isinglass? Most of the time, you don't know because there are few regulations about isinglass-use labeling. Eric Asimov mentions isinglass use in his recent article, If Only Grapes Were the Whole Story, and states, "Certainly, vegans might want to know that information."
Egg Whites- Egg whites, because of their albumen content, are great fining agents. When mixed into wine egg whites collect solid particles and "clarify" the wine, much like a consomme. Some wineries use fresh egg whites to fine wine, but most use an albumen powder derived from egg whites that they sprinkle into the finished wine. In may regions and cultures, fining with egg white is an old tradition that many people believe is essential to the style of their wine. In Bordeaux and Rioja it is common to fine with egg whites (but there are plenty of exceptions). If you are vegan, be extra vigilant when drinking wines from these regions.
Go through this process to determine if the wine has been fined with isinglass or egg whites:
Step 1: Does the label state that the wine is unfiltered and unfined? If the wine label says that the wine is "unfiltered and unfined" then no isinglass, egg whites, or other animal products were used to fine this wine. If the label states the that wine was filtered and fined, then there is a possibility that isinglass or egg whites were used. If the wine is from Bordeaux or Rioja, the chance that egg whites were used to fine the wine is higher-- but most wineries are very transparent about this on their websites.
Step 2: Next you must search for technical data on the winery's website (or ask a knowledgable staff member at the wine shop, or sommelier if you are at a restaurant-- but I'd go the extra step and get the information directly from the winery). See if you can find a tech sheet that states how the wine was made. Usually, wineries will mention if the wine was fined or filtered. If the tech sheet says the wine was fined, this doesn't necessarily mean that isinglass or egg whites were used, but many fining agents are non-vegan, so the next step is to find out how the winery fined the wine.
Step 3: If you cannot find the information on the web, call or email the winery and ask what fining agents they used. This seems like a lot of effort, but it is the only way to find out for sure. If you are at a restaurant and don't have time for all this, your best bet is to request a wine that is unfiltered and unfined.
Here are a few examples of non-vegetarian packaging:
*animal-based gelatin glues could be used to affix labels
*leather can be used as a label, as a bottle covering (like bota bags), or as a string to hold the bottle
*coloring made from animal products can be used as dyes in labels and packaging
*in rare instances, sometimes wine is fermented inside an animal skin
*Sometimes silkscreen methods are used to make the wine label. If real silk was used in the process, this would be an issue for vegans against the use of silk.
Animal Labor Use in Farming
This is a grey area in veganism. If you are a vegan who doesn't mind eating food that has been farmed with animal labor then you don't have to worry much about this. But many wineries use horses to till soil. Usually, the alternative to horse tilling is machine tilling which can increase a winery's carbon footprint. Many vintners also use sheep, cows and chickens to "mow" the grass between the vines through grazing.
Animal Product Use in Farming
Compost Made From Animal Waste
Many wineries use animal manure in compost and it is worth mentioning in case anyone is concerned about this. Wineries have lots of waste, from vine cuttings to spent skins after the fermentation. Usually internal winery compost is made up of this vine-based waste. But some wineries purchase animal compost, and others have livestock, and when they do animal compost could be used.
Animal "Energy" used in Biodynamic Farming
Biodynamic farming is a principle that incorporates many unique elements including lunar cycles, organic "preparations" that are sprayed on the vines, soil maintenance, and a calendar that splits up the year into "root days," "flower days," etc. that dictate which days are best for particular farming practices. Ultimately, biodynamic farming principles view the vineyard as a complete ecosystem, and this includes the animals in it. Biodynamic farming principles were drafted by philosopher Rudolf Steiner who attempted to bridge the gap between mysticism and science. He is sometimes portrayed as a controversial figure due to the unique nature of some of his ideas.
He drafted nine "preparations" to be used in biodynamic farming, numbered 500 through 508. These preparations are aimed at bringing balance to the vineyard. For instance, in biodynamic preparation number 500, cow manure is stuffed into cow horns and buried over the winter. Preparation 503 involves burying chamomile flowers in cattle intestines over the winter. During the winter these preparations ferment underground and in the spring most of them are added in small amounts to a compost pile. This compost is used in the vineyard to increase soil microbe activity that will ultimately sustain healthier vines that can withstand disease and rot on their own without needing topical chemicals to fend off mildew and rot.
All of the animal products used in biodynamic farming go into soil management. None of these products end up in the wine. The grapes harvested are animal-free. Biodynamic wine is usually animal-free (most biodynamic farmers will not filter or fine, though some will, so most of these wines will be unfiltered and will therefore not have been fined with isinglass or egg whites). This presents us with a grey area for vegans and vegetarians: though the product is animal free, animals were used in the compost. The use of animals is a vital part of the farming philosophy.
I've spoken to several biodynamic farmers about whether biodynamic wine is vegetarian and I get different responses. Some say there are absolutely no animals or animal products in the wine, so it is vegetarian. Others argue that the use of animal products is central to biodynamic farming, and that the "animal energy" used in the viticulture keeps the wine from being vegetarian or vegan.
Many vineyard managers use one or two biodynamic preparations to supplement or reduce chemical farming methods, and lots of producers will not use every single preparation. Some use mica sprays to ward of fungal disease and to coat the leaves to prevent them from burning in the hot sun, but will leave it at that.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to determine if biodynamicaly farmed wines are vegetarian or vegan. If a vegetarian or vegan has chosen to be vegetarian or vegan based solely for personal health reasons, the animal use in compost production might not be an issue. But strict vegans night not be able to reconcile the compost issue.
Click here for PETA's list of wineries that sell vegan wines.
Asimov, Eric. (2013) If Only Grapes Were The Whole Story. New York Times. 30 May 2013.
Brown, Cory. (2007) What's Really In That Wine? LA Times. 28 March 2007.