Angus Perkins and Samuel J Shaw from Wolf Wine dive into the murky depths of why a fish’s swim bladder lurks in wine to find out why not all wine is vegan.
Why isn’t all wine vegan?
Most people are under the reasonable assumption that alcoholic products are vegan – what animal product could possibly be in fermented grape juice or distilled cereal? We’re here to tell you that the pint in your hand or bottle off the supermarket shelf is probably not vegetarian, let alone vegan. We’re not going to tell you vegan wines taste better than non-vegan counterparts, but in my experience, the less ‘stuff’ is added to the wine, the better it tends to be.
What makes wine non-vegan? It’s the fining and filtration process that wines and beers go through to make them crystal clear. Historically fining agents would range from animal blood to isinglass (a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish, who on earth discovered that?), but now egg whites are the most commonly used.
So, how do they make vegan wine? Winemakers have a vast array of clarifying agents to choose from, but the two vegan options are bentonite clay, which does the same job as eggs etc, and the most natural way, which is to not fine the wine at all. With this method, the winemaker often leaves the wine in the barrel over winter and lets the cold and gravity settle all the particles to the bottom. They then carefully tap off the clear wine. This can mean the wine is not as crystal clear, but done properly it produces the purest expression of the wine.
While many winemakers and brewers are embracing vegan-friendly practices, it still begs the question why would animal products be used at all? Fish bladders!?
Globally speaking, vines are often planted in relatively close proximity to coastal areas. These large bodies of open water are perfect for maintaining a constant warm climate, ideal for fruiting vines. It goes without saying, coastlines mean fishing. Fishing means animal processing. And animal processing means by-products.
Historically, wine and beer production provided a logical option to generate revenue from an otherwise wasteful product. As with all things agricultural, this practice has become pretty much set in stone (“My father used fish bladders, and his father before that, and his…” etc). Only recently has the world of wine recognised veganism as a prominent commercial concern. And only in the last few years have some winemakers been changing their ways to accommodate vegans.
Labelled without care
You’re probably wondering, “If winemakers are starting to sack off the animal gunk and the egg white, then how on earth can I tell if the wine on the shelf is vegan-friendly?” Well, more and more retailers are insisting on wine labels incorporating the vegan-friendly tick. Own brand products from M&S, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all provide vegan-friendly info on all their labels. Sadly, we cannot necessarily say the same for regular supermarket wines. To add insult to injury, very few wineries will indicate which clarifying agents they may choose to use.
So where does that leave us? Luckily, those artisan producers who choose not to filter their wines, tend to do so with pride and will often say so on their bottles. I like to inspect a bottle to look for a little piece of text saying ‘unfiltered’, ‘non-filtre’ (French), ‘unfiltriert’ (German), ‘non-filtrato’ (Italian) or ‘sins-filtrar’ (Spanish and South American).
This little glimmer of incite surrounding labelling leads me on to the subject of organic or bio wines. If you consider yourself a savvy vegan, you may already be an aficionado of all things organic and sustainable.
There are plenty of organic wines out there. In many cases, this will be evident from the little EU Bio symbol on the labels. Regrettably, I am here to tell you this means diddily-squat in terms of vegan friendliness. EU regulation surrounding the certification of organic wines only impose rules to control herbicide/pesticides as well as caps on sulphite content. This is good news for the bees and the hangover, but vegans should beware. Newly certified organic wineries seldom change their filtration methods.
With all that said, it appears wine is one huge minefield ready to trap any vegan who dares venture in. It’s common knowledge that the mass market is bad at accommodating vegans. Sadly, wine and beer are no different.
The solution? Independent wine shops up and down the country will make it their business to find out which wines are vegan-friendly. Unlike the supermarkets, your local wine guy/gal will have the information about the wine at their fingertips. From grapes to glass, harvest to hangover, the specialists will offer tips and tricks to make your vegan wine drinking life that little bit better. Natural or clarified, is up to you, but finding something awesome for your drinking pleasure is what winos do best. After all, booze shopping should never be a chore.
Angus and Samuel run Wolf Wine, an independent craft wine company based in Greenpark Station, Bath. Unlike many regular wine shops, they wanted to offer people exceptionally high-quality wines made in very small quantities. Naturally, that means they enjoy a high turnover of new and exciting lines on an almost weekly basis.