Grapes are miracle berries. These squishy purple, green, or red pint-sized fruits get transformed into delicious jam, juice, raisins, or oil. And the really lucky grapes? These darlings get fermented and become part of an alcoholic beverage that brings joy to humans for celebrations, holiday toasts, romantic dinners, or much needed relaxation after a long day. But if you are vegan following a plant-based diet, you may be surprised that your favorite sparkling white, rosé, or dry red wine, even if certified organic, has been created with animal-derived ingredients.
Veganism is on the rise around the world. There are meat alternatives for everything from bacon to fish sticks, dozens of dairy-free milks, and even vegan eggs have been invented. But if you want a glass of wine with your plant-based meal, get ready to do your research.
Whether or not a wine is vegan or vegetarian friendly does not have to appear on the wine label, as there are no laws in place mandating what is written on the labels. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages, but does not mention anything regarding if the wine is vegan. In fact, standardized alcoholic beverages are entirely exempt from the requirement to show an ingredients list. In the United States, where wine labels are under the jurisdiction of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the Food and Drug Administration, nutritional and ingredient labels are also not required.
We know wine is typically an alcoholic drink created from fermented grape juice and made by pressing crushed grapes. But many wines are stabilized and clarified using fining agents that remove suspended little bits of particles, yeast, or proteins, which get rid of that cloudy look, so the wine is clear and vivid. Fining agents have <strong>typically been derived from albumen </strong>from egg whites, milk protein called casein, fish oil and bladders, chitin from crustacean shells, and even gelatin — a protein obtained by boiling the skin, bones and tissues of cows, pigs, or chickens.
Many vegans and vegetarians may honestly have no idea that animal ingredients are used when fining wine, as companies are not required to reveal the process their products have gone through before bottles reach store shelves. However, issues surrounding alcohol's fining process have risen to the forefront. Some companies are making the move to go vegan: Famous Irish brewery Guinness announced in November 2015 that its beer will be vegan by the end of 2016, when the use of fish bladder is removed from its 250-year-old filtration process. This proves companies can change, particularly if they're chasing a growing number of new customers: A few years ago, New York Magazine declared 2014 as the year of the vegan due to the rise in people switching to plant-based diets. As more vegan restaurants are serving alcohol, it only makes sense these beverages be vegan, too.
The website of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reveals several vegan fining agents that can be used in the winemaking process, such as bentonite clay, carbon, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, vegetable plaques, and silica gel. But to further complicate things, not all wines are fined. To figure out if a wine is fined or filtered, labels do typically indicate these characteristics, but they do not mention which fining agents are used.
So if you want to know if a wine is vegan, ask a winemaker. Vintner Sherry Karlo founded Prince Edward County, Ontario’s Karlo Estates, the world’s first vegan-certified winery, with her late husband Richard Karlo in 2005. Their wines are certified by the Canadian non-profit organization VegeCert, that not only reviews and audits their winemaking process but confirms the supplies are all vegan. “A wine is considered vegan when there is no use of any animal products during the production phase of the winemaking,” Karlo says, noting she and her husband made a conscious decision to have a plant-based winery after learning about the inhumane treatment of animals in agriculture.
To keep its wine vegan, Karlo Estates uses bentonite — which is used in both vegan and conventional winemaking — as its processing aide of choice. "Bentonite binds with naturally occurring proteins in the wine like a magnet. Afterward it sinks to the bottom and we 'rack-off' the clear wine," she says, referring to the process during which clear wine is pumped off the top of the tank into another container, leaving any sediment behind. "It has little impact on taste and isn't in the finished wine."
According to Winemaker Magazine, not all wines need to be fined. In fact, some wines become clear all on their own, over time, after they're fermented and the wine is left alone. "Our first approach is to break the dogma that protein fining is necessary in reds," Karlo says. "We like our wines to be full, strong, and age well. We rely heavily on our palates during the winemaking process to avoid the build-up of anything we'd want to remove later. As an example, our 2015 Pinot Noir received no fining whatsoever. It's lush, subtle and elegant all by itself." But when protein fining is unavoidable, Karlo uses plant-based proteins from potato or pumpkin.
When doing your own research on vegan wine, it's important to have patience and a sense of humor, as many people are still learning about the relatively new phenomenon. But there are many vegan restaurants that confidently know about vegan wine. Cosmic Treats, located in Toronto's retro Kensington Market neighborhood, opened in 2015 and is a fully licensed vegan restaurant and ice cream parlor. (Because who doesn't love a cupcake sundae followed by a glass of wine?) Co-owner Elliot Alexander, who operates the restaurant with his husband Tim Guimond, explains, "We were a new vegan business with a liquor license and wanted to carry a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. There is a misconception that vegans don't drink because they want to be 'healthy,' but who doesn't like to enjoy a glass of wine with their meal? The second reason was it just made simple business sense."
Without labels to help Alexander determine if wines are vegan, he used Barnivore as an initial source. Barnivore is an alcohol directory and searchable database founded by Jason Doucette in 2008. Doucette started sharing information online about vegan-friendly alcohol and realized others were wondering the same thing. Although some information is gleaned directly from wineries, the bulk of Barnivore's database is from drinkers' own research: There are now close to 30,000 entries that the community helped build. But it's not just vegans wanting to know what's in their alcohol. "We've also seen a lot more interest from people with allergies, who, while not necessarily vegan, seek out wines that are made without the use of egg, dairy, or fish," Doucette says. But if a product isn't in their database, the only way to determine the fining agents used is to contact the winemaker.
That's exactly what Alexander did when sourcing vegan wines for Cosmic Treats. "Barnivore was my go-to source initially, and it's a great resource. However, there are still a number of wineries or products that weren't listed. In those cases I made direct contact with the wineries. Most wineries seem to know exactly what I was asking for and could tell me about their finishing agents." Alexander continues, "Many vegans are very knowledgeable about the presence of animal ingredients in the things they use, but there is also an inherent trust that people have when they come to a vegan restaurant that the owners have done their due diligence to ensure products that aren't specifically labeled vegan are in fact vegan."
If you live in a big city, you can join (or start) your own community of vegan wine enthusiasts. As customers, we can all put on our vegan-wine-detective hats and play a role in the wines that are served in restaurants and sold in stores — so all vegan grapes can live happily ever after.
Miriam Porter is a Canadian journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Toronto Star, Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, and Today’s Parent.