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What is vegan wine?

Veganism is an increasingly popular lifestyle choice today. Proponents are against the exploitation of and cruelty to animals, primarily for food and clothing. For vegans, meat and dairy are off the table, as are eggs, honey, leather and products that have been tested on animals. We don’t traditionally consider wine alongside these products, but serious vegans do: Vegan wine is a response to a problem many of us don’t even know about!

Wait, isn’t wine vegan in the first place?

Actually, no. Sure, wine is fundamentally fermented grape juice. Grapevines are plants, where’s the cruelty or the exploitation of animals? Wines that taste like honey or leather don’t actually contain those things. The problem comes not in the vineyard or in the glass, but somewhere in between.

Before most wine is bottled, it undergoes fining and stabilisation. Fining clarifies the wine by removing the small particles that can accumulate over the course of its production and ageing. Further stabilisation is done to ensure that, once the wine is bottled, it stays in the same good shape that the winemaker intended.

This may sound innocuous, but it presents an issue for vegans because many of the processing aids used in fining and stabilisation contain animal products.

How do you make vegan wine?

More to the point, let’s establish how you don’t make vegan wine: Through the use of animal products in fining, stabilisation or, indeed, any other part of the winemaking process. The more common offending substances here are:

  • Egg whites, commonly used in most classified growth Bordeaux estates to remove excessive tannic particles and other nasties from red wines. A single barrel needs around five egg whites to do the trick, so cracking and separating
  • Casein, a milk protein used in fining white wine to remove unwanted colour and cloudiness.
  • Isinglass, a protein sourced from fish bladders and primarily used to remove particularly astringent tannins in red wines.
  • Gelatin, another animal product used for fining and abhorred by vegans.

What can winemakers use to make vegan wine?

If all that stuff is out, what can the winemaker do? Some choose to avoid fining altogether, a ubiquitous practice in natural winemaking. For those producers that don’t want to make natural wine but simply want vegans to be able to enjoy their wares, there’s bentonite.

Bentonite is a vegan-friendly fining agent based on clay soil primarily found in Wyoming in the USA. The substance is effective in removing solids, cloudiness but, if used in excessive quantity, flavour molecules.

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