2013. A younger version of this writer was excitedly preparing his first vegan meal for friends. As a self-confessed novice I felt it prudent to check the menu with my guests prior to cooking, not only for peace of mind but also to ensure my research was thorough.
All was going swimmingly until dessert - pears poached in a red wine sauce.
‘Just make sure the wine is vegan, it usually isn’t’.
What followed was a 30-minute conversation about the processes that could render a wine non-vegan. It was a voyage of enlightenment.
Fast forward six years and the picture is remarkably different. Vegans are no longer few and far between and almost all major industries have been forced to adapt to changing consumer needs. According to a recent report by finder.com the number of vegans in the UK is expected to rise by a staggering 327% to total 2.2 million by the end of 2019, an explosion being dubbed the ‘vegan boom’. Given the majority of new consumers are either millennial or post-millennial it is easy to see why they are driving such change in the wine industry – what is currently a struggling marketplace.
The range of vegan wines available to savvy consumers is now substantial and increasing in most major outlets. Last year the Co-op announced they were working with their producers to expand their range of vegan wines, urging vineyards to tweak the production process to allow their products to be correctly labelled as animal free. Other outlets have followed suit.
So how is it that a considerable number of wines are non-vegan? Many people are still quite shocked to learn that production of a fruit-orientated product could involve animal-based products, and that because of this fact many wines can’t be labelled as vegetarian let alone vegan. In truth it is only a small segment of the process that falls under the microscope, however this part is a universal aspect of most alcohol production.
Beer, cider and wine can be quite cloudy when young due to the presence of natural proteins and tannins formed during fermentation. This can be left to settle out naturally but takes time, so in order to ensure that bottled products are crystal clear, wine (as well as ale, cider and others) goes through a filtration process in order to remove unwanted impurities quickly. The ‘fining agents’ that wine passes through can differ from maker to maker but are usually quite abstract and complex; anything from albumin (derived from eggs or dried blood) to the dreaded isinglass, a gelatine-type product obtained from the dried swim bladders of some fish which has hit the headlines in the beer industry before. Given there is no legal requirement for these agents to be listed on the label it can be quite a task to find out exactly what has been used to clarify your bottle without consulting the producer directly.
With such a huge market of young consumers desperate for a solution change has been swift. Vegan producers have turned to a range of natural alternatives such as various clays, limestone and plant casein with further experimentations in the pipeline. Better yet with no impact on flavour and no reported additional cost to the producer it is easy to see why traditional processes are being scrapped in favour of the new plant-based methodology, and quickly.
The vegan-friendly stamp of approval that we are used to seeing on our food labels are now no longer a footnote on the back of the wine bottle. They have become too valuable, and in many cases now occupy prime marketing real estate on the front label. Wine makers and their design teams are making every effort to promote the ‘Buy me, I’m vegan’ message from the retailer shelf.
It is a promising move in an industry looking to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving UK market that has failed to follow global trends. While the headlines show that still wine sales are falling, it is actually the low-end market that is being hit hardest as mid- to high-end sales remain almost constant. So as the vegan boom and ‘David Attenborough Effect’ continue to add weight to the plant-based argument across the board, the numbers show the conscious consumer is no longer willing to accept a wine made using animal products.
My quest for a vegan wine back in 2013 was quite a testing experience. The staff at my chosen retailer lacked the knowledge I so required them to have. It was a lucky dip.
In 2019 it would be more difficult to find a carménère in most good wine outlets. The very same chosen retailer is now educated and able to provide advice alongside a strong selection of vegan wines. The days of the lucky dip are over, and we should all raise a glass to that.