The Blackhearts Guide to Vegan Wine
We're taking a deep dive into vegan wine, talking about how and why animal-based additives are used, as well as some viticultural techniques that play a key part.
31 Aug 2021
by The Blackhearts Crew
It’s no secret that plant-based diets have exploded in popularity in recent years. Alongside (and arguably as a result of) this growth, we are in the midst of a cultural rethink on the impact that the products and services we use every day have on animals and the environments they – and we – inhabit. This is a conversation from which the production of wine is not exempt.
The common narrative surrounding wine is that it is a plant-based product, and therefore does not contain any animal products or harm any animals in the process. From a traditional perspective, this statement is largely true. However, with the advancement of agricultural science and the pressures of market demands, winemakers have had to figure out methods to make the turnaround of wine production quicker and more cost-efficient. These methods can at times be harmful to animals and the environment, and indeed can even use animal-based additives in the process.
In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into vegan wine and talk about how and why animal-based additives are used, as well as some viticultural techniques that are not so great for the environment. Our goal is to arm you with information so that you can purchase wines that align as closely to your personal ethics as possible.
What is Vegan Wine?
Essentially, vegan wine avoids the use of animal products throughout the winemaking process.
“But isn’t wine just made from grapes?!”
Historically, yes! The production of wine did involve just fermented grapes, which were picked, crushed or left whole, and put inside a sealed container to ferment and mature. There are many reasons why wines are left to mature, but the one we’re going to dive into is filtration.
During the fermentation process, wines are typically very cloudy and are full of small particles suspended in it. These can be organic particles coming from the grapes themselves, traces of dirt (grapevines are grown in soil, after all), or they can be from organisms such as yeasts, which at the time are busy producing alcohol. When a ferment begins to wind down, yeast cells begin to die off, forming a clay-like slurry at the bottom of the fermentation vessel referred to as lees. Generally speaking, gravity (and a cold environment) does a pretty good job of allowing a wine’s lees to drop out of suspension, allowing for clear wine to be siphoned off from the lees to another clean tank in a process called racking. This can be a time-consuming process, however, and is a significant barrier for winemakers looking to release their wines quickly.
As a result, one of the methods that modern winemakers have developed to speed up this process is through the use of fining agents. These additives essentially act as a magnet, binding to impurities and particles suspended in a wine and then sinking to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, leaving the wine clear.
There are many different fining agents available for winemakers to use, and some of these agents are derived from animal products. There are also fining agents which are derived from extracts found in the earth’s soil, which are permitted in the production of vegan wines. But they aren’t all used for the same task, and they can vary in efficacy and application. Generally speaking, though, they allow for the speeding up of the clarification process so that wines can be made palatable and bottled sooner to turn a profit.
Examples of animal-based fining agents include:
- Casein (a protein found in mammalian milk)
- Egg whites
- Isinglass (a form of gelatine extracted from the swim bladders of fishes)
Examples of earth-based fining agents include:
- Bentonite (A type of clay)
- Plant-derived Casein
- Silica Gel
Other products involved in wine production that may potentially be derived from animal products are beeswax (used for wax seals) and some agglomerated corks which can use milk-based glues.
So, by definition, vegan wines are made without the use of these animal-based fining agents. They either rely on gravity to clarify the wine, use other fining agents which are not animal-derived, or the wine can be bottled cloudy to give it that ‘lo-fi’ look and texture. If you encounter the words ‘unfined and unfiltered’ on the back of a wine bottle, then you’re probably in good hands.
The Difference Between Vegan Wine and Organic Wine
Both organic and biodynamic viticulture have a bit of a touch-and-go relationship with the concept of vegan wine. On the surface, they seem to be both championing similar philosophies. Dig a little deeper, though, and things can get a bit muddy (excuse the pun).
One of the pillars of organic and biodynamic viticulture is the avoidance of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers etc. in order to encourage biodiversity and general soil health. This means that viticulturalists farming this way opt for more organically derived fertilisers to put nutrients back into the soil, and therefore can contain blood, bone, and/or manure. Similarly, organic and biodynamic wine does permit the use of animal-based fining agents, so organic wines don’t inherently qualify as being vegan.
On the other hand, vegan wine can and often is made from grapes grown with synthetic agricultural products in the vineyard, which can have detrimental effects to biodiversity and soil health. This can make things tricky when making a purchase, because vegan wine certification only takes into consideration the winemaking processes in the winery, not in the vineyard.
As always, it’s up to you where you stand on these practices. In the Venn Diagram between organic and vegan winemaking, the overlap can sometimes be difficult to find, and the relationship between the two can be tenuous. We recommend taking the time to research a producer and their practices from the vineyard to the finished product, in order to make a decision which best reflects your beliefs. There are many great producers here in Australia and overseas who are immensely passionate about producing wines which are both sustainable and ethical, which brings us to the next section of this article.
Vegan Wines to Try:
Finally, we’re at the fun part! Here is a selection of vegan wines available both in our stores and online which we think are fantastic.
A delicate, floral take on the variety, that’s fermented & aged in terracotta vessels. Spring blossom and sweet pea aromas emerge, with custard apple, pear and citrus fruit alongside. A subtly spicy, doughy texture makes this EXTREMELY drinkable.
DUNE BONAIRE ROSÉ - $28
This is a fantastic Rosé from Dune in McLaren Vale, made from a blend of Carignan, Sangiovese, and Shiraz which spent six months in seasoned oak barrels. Rose petal, strawberry, and a little orange blossom, with a coolness and vibrance to the palate which flows into watermelon, white cherry, and just a lick of spice. A little gentle, chalky tannin helps to coax the barrel-derived savouriness out on the finish.
SEE SAW PROSECCO - $24
Made with organic grapes and trés vegan friendly, this is a fresh and easy-drinking Prosecco with notes of pear and jasmine complemented by sherbet-like acidity. Delicious on its own, or a perfect addition to your favourite Spritz.
DREAM POP PÉT-NAT - $26
Look, when you get a call from the excellent Clare Burder (of Eminence wines), with an offer of some Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier base wine... how could you ever say no!? Coming from the beautiful Whitlands High Plateau, this juicy and fresh pétillant naturel (made of 75% Pinot Meunier, and 25% Pinot Noir) brings peachy fruit and a crisp acidity. Dream Pop is the fizzy wine of your dreams!
This is a beautiful wine from Guillaume & Helene Baron, both highly respected vignerons who spent many years working at reputable domaines across France before settling down in the Languedoc. Les Gravettes is made from a blend of Grenache (55%), Cinsault (30%), and Syrah (15%). It's pristine and beautifully lifted, with red fruits, lavender, nutmeg spice, and rocky mineral notes with bright acidity and firm tannins.
Originally the creation of the late Marcel Lapierre, Genevieve Chanudet, Jean-Claude Chanudet, and Joseph Chamonard - Château Cambon wines focus on using indigenous yeasts, maturation in old oak, and little to no sulphur additions. Cuvée du Chat is plush and fruit-forward, with juicy redcurrant, morello cherry, and sage leaf leading into some moreish acidity and light, sandy tannins.
Look, we've never been particularly shy about just how much we love Dom Valentine's wines - and why would we be, he brings it to you every time! Using fruit from the Lonestar Creek vineyard in the Yarra Valley, this is beautifully perfumed Pinot Noir, with plum primary fruit and a nice clench of tannin. Drinking well now but will only get better over the next six-twelve months. Yum.
This iconic Shiraz needs no introduction. From one of Heathcote's most famed producers, The Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz is an absolute powerhouse of a wine. Succulent black cherries and dark plum are layered with mixed spice and alpine herbs, flowing through to a beautifully poised structure of firm tannins and lively acidity. This wine drinks superbly when young, but it no doubt shines best when carefully cellared.
As always, our lovely staff are happy to have a chat with you in store to point out which wines are vegan and/or environmentally sustainable, but if in doubt, look for the following symbols on our tags in-store or online: