Making vegan wine selections: why navigating a wine list can be tricky

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With the growing demand for plant-based options in restaurants, naturally more vegan wines are making their way onto restaurant wine lists. However, navigating these selections can be a challenge for plant-based diners if they don’t know which wines are suitable for them.

wine bottles

What exactly is vegan wine?

Given that wine is a product of grapes and yeast, isn’t all wine vegan? The short answer is no, not all wines are created without the addition of animal products in order to produce what’s in the bottle. The part of the winemaking process being called into question is the clarification (more commonly known as the ‘fining’ process) of the wine to remove the grape sediment in order to improve the look of the wine, making it brighter, clearer and without tiny floating particles.

Animal products that are sometimes used in the winemaking process are:


This is the least common method of fining the wine, but its method is for the protein in the gelatine to attract other protein molecules to it and attach, pulling them out of the wine.

Egg whites

For decades egg whites have been used in kitchens around the world to clarify stocks and soups by forming a poached ‘raft’ on the surface of the liquid to which the proteins from the liquid become attached to the proteins in the egg whites, resulting in a clear and bright liquid beneath the surface (the traditional French consommé being one such example). This is the most common method used to clarify wines that are non-vegan, but instead of the egg whites being used as a poached raft on the surface, the whites are mixed in with cold wine and allowed to sink, thereby trapping the protein sediments at the bottom of the tank, and removing the haziness in the wine. The wine is then pumped out from the surface, leaving the solid mass behind at the bottom of the wine tank. (Note: there are approximately two egg whites used per 227 litres of wine.)


Not a common method used by South African winemakers but isinglass, an extract from the bladder of some fish (mostly sturgeon fish), is a form of collagen that would be used for fining in both winemaking and also artisanal beer production.

Bee’s wax and milk products

Not involved directly in the production of wine, but rather in the packaging of said wine… agglomerated cork is made by grinding up the off-cuts of natural cork bark (generally as a result of the production of natural wine corks) to form granules and then gluing the granules back together to form stoppers. The ‘glue’ used is derived from casein, a milk-based protein. And then there’s bee’s wax which is sometimes used to wax seal the wine bottles for a unique presentation, while still sealing the cork to make it airtight.

Vegan wines are made without any of these animal products, so the winemaker either chooses to leave the particles of sediment to sink naturally to the bottom of the tank and pump out the wine from the surface without disturbing the sediment at the bottom, or to use a non-animal fining product called bentonite, which is a form of clay or pea protein.

pouring glass of wine

“In reality, many of our wines in South Africa are vegan-friendly due to the cost of using animal proteins not making it a viable option for the quantity of wine produced, so it is by happy chance that the use of animal products doesn’t make it worth it,” says Spencer Fondaumiere, president of the South African Sommeliers Association (SASA).

“Unfortunately in South Africa, and largely the USA and EU, regulations do not currently require that wineries must stipulate fining agents on their labels. Like food in a restaurant, wine is served sans recipe,” Spencer clarifies. The decision therefore falls on the wine estate as to whether or not they choose to add a note on their label stating “Certified Vegan Production – Ingredients Not From Animal Origin”. Another indicator for those that want peace of mind if they don’t see this stamp on the label, is to look out for a label that has the word “unfined” on it.

Emma-Claire Peter, the consultant who assists with the curation of the demo kitchens for The Plant Powered Show exhibition, says, “It basically boils down to demand and education. In general, South African restaurants are far behind the global plant-based scene.”

It is a slow-moving process, but the significance of vegan certification and labelling for consumers and diners in restaurants looking for vegan-friendly options cannot be overstated enough. It falls on the restaurant or establishment’s sommelier to be responsible, knowledgeable and informed of what the options are for those that want a vegan-friendly wine option.

“Are the wineries with vegan wine labels hitting restaurants hard to educate their service teams and in turn, are the service teams supportive of the winery, confirming that they are following through to listing? Are these wines lost in listings or are they specifically called out and celebrated with the vegan menu?,” cites Emma-Claire. It might be seen by some as an odd line to add ‘vegan wines’ to a section of a restaurant’s wine list, making the ‘flow’ of the wine list seem a little disjointed, but a simple (V) next to a wine on the list would already be a greatly appreciated start in the right direction.

holding a wine glass

One winery that has been proactive in this regard has been La Motte Wine Estate in Franschhoek. Cellarmaster Edmund Terblanche says that La Motte’s wines have been vegan for some time, but being certified and indicated as such on the wine packaging now reassures vegan consumers that the wine is suitable for them to drink.

He says, “The number of vegan consumers is increasing and with La Motte’s strong sustainability focus and a consumer approach that demands accessibility, adding the accreditation to the product seemed obvious.” He adds that vegan dietary requirements have become a regular request in restaurants and restaurateurs are pleased to have quality wine and trusted brands as part of their vegan or plant-based wine offering.”

And so as the demand for vegan-friendly options continues to surge, the local wine industry stands at an exciting crossroads of innovation and inclusivity.

An example used on some South African wine labels:


Feature images: Unsplash | Pexels

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