The vegetarian wine category varies from the vegan wine category: in both cases it is the “finings” which are critical: animal and animal related materials are used to clarify the wine juice: such as milk, egg whites and gelatin which are widely used as fining agents.

Vegetarian and Vegan wine consumers would reject such wines (if they were made aware of the contents).

Vegetarian wines use vegetarian-friendly inanimate materials such clay or charcoal, as well as alternative processes to clarify the wine without the need for animal originated materials.’

Vegans will reject any product which has a secondary impact on animal life: hence fur, leather, sea shells are “prohibited” materials. The following chart present the constraining criteria:

VEGETARIANS

There are different types of vegetarian:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian. Eats eggs but not dairy products.

It’s the products used in the wine fining process that create a potential moral hazard for vegetarians. Though bull’s blood, a traditional fining agent, was banned by the EU after the BSE crisis, a number of animal-derived products are still permitted for the production of wine sold in Europe.

Among the most prevalent are isinglass (fish bladders), gelatin, casein (milk protein) and albumen (egg whites).

What complicates the issue further is that there is no obligation for winemakers to state whether they’ve used animal products on their labels. Which means that in many retailers or restaurants you have no idea whether or not a wine has been fined, or whether the fining agent was a veggie-friendly alternative (the clay-derived bentonite).

It’s a closely guarded industry secret, but a bottle of wine can contain all kinds of nasties. Grapes are a delicate fruit, and an arsenal of toxic chemicals are employed to blast the voracious bugs and fungi which infest them. There are over 50 pesticides in use by the wine industry, which puts vineyard workers, our environment, and you the drinker at risk. However the good news is that there’s an increasing demand for organic wine, and it is now very easy to find in off-licences, supermarkets and other shops.

We veggies have an additional concern. Although gelatine is less often used as a ‘fining’ (clarifying) agent, the fish extract isinglass is still added to many wines, regardless of whether they’re organic, and it’s very unlikely to be listed on the label. Many Vegetarian Wines Limited Limited are cleared with beaten egg white. Organic producers can use the eggs of free-range organic chickens.

So, if you want to be sure that your wine is both free from toxic chemicals and cleared with clay rather than animal products, it’s best to get it from a health food shop. Some of the bigger shops have an entire wine aisle! Most of them, along with many vegetarian restaurants, source their wines from two companies, Vintage Roots and Vinceremos. Both have excellent catalogues listing a wide range of red, white, rosé and sparkling wines from all over the world, and they’re happy to sell to the public by the bottle or the case, so why not treat yourself? There’s also a new company called Festival Wines.

Check the Drink & Eat Veggie index of Vegetarian London for restaurants that have a good wine list. The exclusively vegetarian places are your best bet.

Many of the wholefood stores listed in Vegetarian Guides sell wine and if so we tell you. Among supermarkets, the Co-op deserve a kudos mention for leading the way in labelling all of their wines as vegan, vegetarian, neither, contains sulphites etc. Other supermarkets like Sainsburys and Tesco were forced to follow their example as a result of customer pressure, though they haven’t done such a good job of it. It is basically now very easy to find vegan wine in supermarket chains (though not so easy when eating out in restaurants).

For mail order catalogues of vegetarian and vegan wine, beer, ale, cider, perry and spirits, or a trade price list if you run a restaurant, these are your people:

VEGANS

Things are getting easier for vegan wine drinkers. A useful place to start is veggiewines.co.uk – an amateur labour of animal love that has a long list of vegetarian and vegan wines (and beers, spirits and mixers) available in the UK.

Wineries might use animal-derived products as finings. To remove proteins, yeast, and other organic particles which are in suspension during the making of the wine, a fining agent is added to the top of the vat. As it sinks down, the particles adhere to the agent, and are carried out of suspension. None of the fining agent remains in the finished product sold in the bottle and not all wines are fined.

BOTH

Examples of animal products used as finings are gelatin, isinglass, chitosan, casein and egg albumen. Bull’s blood is also used in some Mediterranean countries but (as a legacy of BSE (mad cow disease)) is not allowed in the U.S. or the European Union. Kosher wines use isinglass derived from fish bladders, though not from the sturgeon, since the kosher status of this fish is in debate.

Of these, casein and albumen (deriving from milk protein and egg white respectively) may be considered acceptable for lacto and ovo vegetarians respectively, but not for vegans.

As an alternative to animal products, bentonite, a clay mineral, can be used to clarify the wine. Some vintners also let the wine’s sediments settle naturally, a time-consuming process. In Australia, winemakers are required to list the use of potential allergens such as casein and albumin on the label but are not obliged to list the use of other non-vegan fining agents such as gelatin or isinglass. Some wine makers will boast on the wine label that their wine is unfiltered, because some wine connoisseurs prefer wine to be unfiltered.

For grape wines, the juice may often be contaminated with a variety of entrained, liquefied insects, arachnids and other animals. Generally as vegans seek to minimize exploitation wherever feasible, as long as no animal-derived fining agents are used, it would be considered suitable, although interpretations may vary.