Why Not All Wines Are Vegan (or Even Vegetarian)

Mar 30 , 2021

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Tom Kisthart

Why Not All Wines Are Vegan (or Even Vegetarian)

Think all wines are Vegan because, well how could they not be right? Wine is simply made from grapes whose sugars are converted into alcohol by yeasts! Well most wines are vegan, but there has been much confusion on this subject because regulations in the EU and US do not currently require wineries to list fining agents on labels. Vegan wines are simply made without animal products. Majestic Wine defines vegan wine as those that ‘will not have been fined, filtered or come into contact with anything derived from an animal or dairy source’.

Clarification

The reason that all wines are not vegan has to do with how the wine is made clear and stable in the act of clarification. After fermentation, a new wine has a cloudy, almost murky appearance due to the remaining yeast cells and other solids that remain in suspension. Because modern consumers generally expect their wines to be clear and bright, various methods are used to remove these solids. Most wines left to settle long enough will clarify and stabilize themselves, but conventional winemakers have the need to speed the process along. This is done through fining and/or filtering.

Fining

The main part of winemaking where animal products may be introduced is in the ‘fining’ process. This is a time-honored technique in which an inert material that has an affinity for certain particulates is stirred into the wine. The fining agent falls through the wine, attracting and binding with the unwanted material as it settles to the bottom. Both the fining agent and sediment are then separated from the wine by racking, which is the process of carefully drawing the wine off the sediment and moving it to a fresh container. There are many types of fining agents, and traditional products were egg, fish, and milk derived such as: egg whites, fish bladders, casein (a milk protein), and gelatin (animal protein). These are not additives to wine, but rather processing aids which are filtered out of the final product.

Today many winemakers however, are either using fining agents made from clay, carbon, limestone, plant casein, etc. or not fining at all.

Filtering

Fining is normally done in conjunction with filtering, which is the process of straining the wine through a barrier with very fine openings in order to trap any particulates over a certain size. With modern technology, there is even sterile filtering, which removes all microbes (yeast and bacteria) that could cause spoilage later. Filtering is controversial as many argue that it filters away some desirable flavor molecules along with the unwanted particles.

You will find many conventional winemakers decide to fine and filter, while minimal intervention winemakers almost never do and instead use gentle methods of racking several times to get rid of most of the solids. If you see a natural wine, odds are it was not fined as this is basically the first rule for natural winemakers.

What is Organic Wine (and how is it different from ‘Made with Organic Grapes’)?

According to the Society of Wine Educators, Organic Viticulture is simply 'grape growing without the use of manufactured fertilizers or pesticides'. Organic grapes represent one of the fastest-growing segments of viticulture today, and wines made from organic grapes are in great demand among consumers. To be recognized as an organic grower, a producer must go through a certification process overseen by an accredited body. In the US, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) designates the certifying bodies and provides the criteria that a vineyard must meet to be approved as organic. Other countries have their own certification procedures, but they are not currently recognized for wines imported into the US.

The NOP's list of banned chemicals include most inorganic and manufactured chemicals. Some chemicals are allowed if there are no acceptable substitutes and if the chemical is generally recognized as safe. A vineyard must be free from all prohibited materials for a minimum of three years before it can be certified. Note below there is a difference in ‘Made with Organic Grapes’ and ‘100% Organic’.

Made with Organic Grapes

Sourced from 100% certified organic grapes and any added SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) yields less than 100 ppm in the finished wine. This process can involve winemaking processes that are more commercial in nature and do not qualify for ‘Organic’ status.

As you can see in the chart below, only a small proportion of the wines produced worldwide are organically made. This is rapidly changing and according to the Global News Wire, the Global Organic Wine Market is expected to grow by 12% annually and surpass $15 billion by 2025 and $30 billion by 2030. This is due to rising consumer awareness of organic wine practices, and more importantly commercial wine practices shedding light on the many additives and manipulations allowed.

Organic Wine

In the US Organic Wine is made from a minimum of 95% certified organic grapes and does not use anything in the winemaking process that is defined as "prohibited" according to the NOP. These wines can display the USDA Organic Seal on the label. Wines that meet these criteria and are made solely using certified organic grapes may use the term "100% Organic".

As of 2012, organic wines produced in the European Union may be labeled “Organic Wine” or “Vin Biologique.” These wines must contain 30% to 50% less added sulfur than nonorganic wines. No additives are permitted, and the winemaking process must be fully traceable.

100% Organic Wine

What is Biodynamic Wine?

Starting with 100% biodynamically grown grapes, production is guided by principles of minimal manipulation and low environmental impact. Certification is based more on progress toward certain goals than a strict set of criteria although there are some forbidden practices like not using genetically modified materials. Sulfur use is permitted, but kept to a minimum. Under the US, biodynamic wines are subject to less regulation than organic wines. The term biodynamic is trademarked and controlled by Demeter International, a private organization, rather than by government regulations. However, many biodynamic producers are also practicing Organic winemaking.

I have to say the first time I started taking biodynamic wines seriously was while visiting Coulée de la Serrant in the Savennières region of France’s Loire Valley. The owner is the famous 'Godfather of Wine Biodynamics' Nicolas Joly. As my wife, 4-year-old daughter and I were making our way up the long dirt road to his winery we ran into him with his truck blocking the way. He ran down the hill apologizing for the inconvenience as he was setting up for a massive weekend outdoor event in biodynamics classes. We chatted for a few minutes about biodynamics and random things and climate change as I said we were from Florida. I know of his vineyard and found visiting his property, walking the vineyard and tasting the wines awe inspiring. Little did I know at the time how influential he has been on the winemaking world.

Think minimal intervention wines are simple and cannot age? You have never tried Savennières, a region and wine from Chenin Blanc dubbed 'the most cerebral wine in the world' and capable of living to a great age.

Early on, Joly was visited by an official from the chamber of agriculture. ‘They told me that my mother had been running the estate well, but in an old fashioned way, and it was now time for some modernity. I was told that if I started using weed killers, I’d save 14,000 Francs.’ Joly took this advice, but soon regretted it. ‘Within two years I realized that the colour of the soil was changing; insects like ladybirds were no longer there; all the partridge had gone.’ Joly likened the state of the vineyards to a perpetual winter, devoid of life even in the summer.

Then fate intervened. Joly read a book on biodynamics. ‘I wasn’t attracted to the green movement, but this book fascinated me, and I had the crazy idea of trying to practice this concept’. Joly’s prime emphasis is on living forces, and the correct timing of viticultural interventions. ‘The soil has to be alive’.

What is the difference between biodynamics and organics according to Joly?

‘In biodynamie we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs—like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamie permits it to do its job more. It is very simple.

What does Joly make of inorganic fertilizers? ‘Fertilizer is a salt. It takes more water to compensate salt. You are forcing growth through water: the plant has to over-drink, so it grows, and carries on growing after the solstice. The process of growth ends up conflicting with the plant’s act of retiring to seed and fruit. The result of this is rot, so you need to counter this with lots of chemicals.

And disease? ‘Disease is a process of constrictive forces and contractive forces. Disease itself doesn’t exist. The living agents that bring diseases are just doing their duty. There is no point in fighting hundreds of new diseases.

What is Natural Wine?

So what exactly is Natural Wine? There has been much debate about the specific requirements of this category because there has been no definition of it until last year (2020). The simplest way to think about it is going back to the roots of winemaking, bottling wine the way all was in the past before any technological winemaking tools or chemicals were invented. Taking grapes from the vine, converting the sugars into alcohol with as little human intervention as possible, and bottling the finished beverage. In general, Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture which is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. Neither fining nor (sterile) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – nutritious and full of energy and naturally occurring microbiology. For natural winemakers, it's a bit of a shame that a label needs to exist, as they have always been a sort of rebel group going against conventional methods. It began as a group of winemakers believing greatly in minimal-intervention winemaking united by a common philosophy but not one they wanted to be strictly defined.

But as these wines gain more exposure and success in international markets, the scene has been kind of flipped with huge conventional winemakers jumping on the bandwagon labeling wines with various natural winemaking terms inappropriately and deceiving the consumer. This is one reason why the term is so ambiguous today and a confusing one at that.

Because of this, eventually a framework needs to be developed and widely accepted worldwide for the natural wine category to gain widespread momentum. France laid the groundwork in early 2020, with a union of natural wine producers forming a new designation called Vin Méthode Nature.

It's only appropriate that France devise the term as they have been a leader in the natural movement and have always led the way in defining wine laws for legally protecting and restricting the use of place-names for wine regions and other countries around the world have modeled similar systems from the French. If you have heard of the French term terroir, much of it has to do with strictly defining certain regions so that the typicity one expects from a Chablis, red Bordeaux, or CdP reflects its varietal origins and demonstrates the signature characteristics of a certain region.

To qualify as a Vin Méthode Nature a wine has to be made from hand-picked grapes that are certified as having been grown organically by one of the major certifying organizations. The yeast necessary for fermentation must be that found in the vineyard and/or winery, not produced in a lab. All additions such as acid, sugar, tannin, water and coloring matter that are sometimes used to make up for the shortfalls of Nature in meeting the expectations of consumers, or producers, are forbidden. And the wine must not have been treated with any of the interventionist physical procedures that are more common than many wine drinkers probably realize.

Another major requirement for a wine to qualify as a Vin Méthode Nature is that sulphites, the wine and grape antioxidant and disinfectant, are either not added at all, or added only modestly, just before bottling so that the wine’s final level of sulphites does not exceed 30 mg/l.

There are two versions of the Vin Méthode Nature logo, one for no added sulphites (some sulphites are produced naturally during fermentation) and one for wines whose level of sulphites is guaranteed to be less than 30 mg/l.

Right now, this term is only for use on French wine labels but if history is any sign of the future for the Natural designation, other nations will soon follow. Then and only then will these wines be easily distinguished from commercial imitations. Until then, do your homework and look for clues to determine ifthe wine you're buying meets some of the criteria above. Be weary of marketing terms such as 'made with', 'clean', 'raw', 'sugar free' etc.

Natural wine is really meant to be very approachable and less pretentious. Many are made to be enjoyed at any time of the day and overall they are lower in alcohol and have a fresher approach. But there are still plenty of age-worthy natural wines if they are well-made. Start trying a few out, you will be surprised how great they can be


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