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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
22 Sep 2018

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

The very existence of vegan wines is probably illuminating for many wine drinkers. Animals? How on earth are they implicated in wine production? 

The truth is that we generally prefer our wines to be star-bright rather than cloudy or hazy, so most producers clarify their wines. 

For the finest of wines, made slowly and often at maximum expense, the tiny particles in wine that may result in a haze are precipitated out naturally over many months. But for the great majority of wines, and all of the least expensive, things have to happen faster than this. The quickest and most effective way to do this is to add a fining agent that will coagulate or adsorb bigger molecules such as little fragments, polymerised tannins and colouring matter and precipitate them out of the liquid, leaving it clear. Some producers also filter their wines and there is much discussion about the effects of this on quality, but the choice of fining agent should not affect the taste of a wine.

A surprising number of the many permitted fining agents for wine are animal-derived. Bordeaux châteaux and other quality-conscious producers have long used albumen, or egg whites, for fining. Various dishes and pastries based on egg yolks are supposed to owe their roots to being winemaking by-products.

The EU outlawed a traditional fining agent based on dried blood at the end of the last century, but other popular fining agents are isinglass, derived from fish bladders; milk-based casein; and gelatin, traditionally based on waste meat products. None of these would find favour with anyone following a vegan diet, so they are increasingly being replaced by products based on vegetables such as peas and potatoes that do a similar job.

A host of wine retailers and importers, particularly but not exclusively in the UK, have become aware over the last few years (sometimes months) of the increasing demand for vegan wine. David Gleave of Liberty Wines, a leading supplier of British bars and restaurants, reports that their customers' most frequently asked question today is whether a particular wine is vegan. 'Not the Gavroche, though', he added, referring to Michel Roux Jr's temple of French gastronomy in London.

Strangely, wine like other alcoholic drinks is exempt from the sort of detailed ingredient labelling imposed on foodstuffs – although in theory fining agents should not remain in the wine. In any case wine consumers have to rely on producers and retailers to tell them which wines are vegan-friendly and more and more of them are doing so (see below).

An early mass-market adopter of specifying which wines are suitable for vegans, about 10 years ago, was Marks & Spencer, whose wine buyer Sue Daniels had in the late 1990s encouraged the labelling of wines as suitable for vegetarians. The M&S buying team is famously prescriptive and so many of their wine suppliers have, encouraged by them, moved away from animal-based processing agents so that 70% of their wine range is now labelled as vegan-friendly, as shown below on this back label for one of M&S's English wines (with a further 5% suitable for vegetarians).

M&S_vegan_label-6.png

Bob Lindo of award-winning English wine producer Camel Valley volunteers, 'I'm not vegan or vegetarian, but we've always made vegan wines because I've never seen the logic of adding animal products to a fruit drink. However, in the early days "vegan" was seen as too quirky! So we labelled them as vegetarian.'

Vinceremos, a specialist importer of organic wines in Leeds, has been labelling wines as suitable for vegans since the late 1980s (when many of their customers were presumably fairly perplexed by the very concept of veganism). Today only eight of their 370-plus organic and biodynamic wines are unsuitable for vegans. But, as with organic wine, there can be a world of difference between verbally espousing the aims and actually proving, via certification with one of the major bodies, that they are followed in practice.

According to Jem Gardener, Vinceremos's managing director, 'in the last two years or so several of our suppliers have decided to take the step of obtaining certification for their vegan wines and mostly have done this via the UK Vegan Society, since in our opinion this is the most recognisable body offering it.' Wine brand owners can apply, with full details of winemaking practices, for the registered trademark shown top right, issued by The Vegan Society. 

From a particularly privileged vantage point, he has also observed that 'vegetarians seem to be less conscientious about their vegetarianism than vegans about their veganism' and that in some countries such as France, vegan has been seen as a negative attribute – at least until recently.

The leading UK bricks and mortar chain of wine stores Majestic and its sister online specialist Naked Wines have search filters for vegan wines (Naked since 2012). Perhaps predictably it has been only in the last six months that The Wine Society, with its probably more conservative client base, has started to indicate which wines are suitable for vegans (286 out of more than 1,500) – but it's a sign of the vegan times that this long-established bastion of British connoisseurship is doing so.

The website of The Vegan Society in the UK is not particularly helpful for wine drinkers, but barnivore.com does its best to indicate which brands are safe from animal-derived products in the winery. Allergen regulations which require bottlers to state any residues of milk- or egg-based products are encouraging wine producers to move away from animal-based products.

One very tricky aspect of all this however is the extent to which animals and animal products are used to produce wine in the vineyard. Indigo Wine is an energetic and innovative London wine importer selling to just the sort of hipster outlets one would expect to attract many a vegan wine drinker. They have seen such an increase in demand for vegan wine over the last year that they have now added a vegan specification to their price list and a special explanatory page to their website.

But Indigo's managing director Ben Henshaw admits, 'Some people believe that if animals are used to work in vineyards, or animal products are used as fertilisers, then wine shouldn't be called vegan. We looked at the Vegan Society and Barnivore websites and a number of other articles on the topic and decided we didn't want to take our definition to this degree as it would rule out organic and biodynamic producers, who are generally some of the most eco-friendly winemakers out there.'

Manure has long been treasured as an ecologically desirable alternative to chemical fertilisers, and horses in the vineyard such as at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Château Latour are seen as the ultimate sign of integrity, compacting the soil so much less than any machine. The Venn diagrams of vegans and those prepared to spend three- and four–figure sums per bottle of wine probably rarely intersect. For the moment anyway.

MAJOR UK RETAILERS' VEGAN WINE POLICY

Aldi – 17 vegan wines
ASDA – no answer forthcoming
Co-op – has always been good at ingredient labelling; 76 clearly labelled vegan wines, with a target of 100 by the end of the year. Vegan wines introduced way back in 2008; see Calling all vegans
Lidl – no answer forthcoming
M&S - 70% of their wines, 273 currently, all clearly indicated on the label
Morrisons – too busy with their range review to provide an answer
Sainsbury's – just over 70% of the range of about 250, indicated on the back label, including some of their best sellers
Tesco – 61 of their own-label wines are vegan
Waitrose – 691 of their 1,221 wines are suitable for vegans and listed as such online at Waitrose Cellar and on their wine list, though not yet on labels

VeganWines.com claims to be the first vegan wine specialist in the US, and is explicitly against the use of animals and animal products in wine growing and winemaking.