Vegan wine is here! Truth is, it has been all along
For many years, I did not know vegan wine was a thing. After all, you just crush grapes and make wine. Grapes are vegan, right?
In its purest form, wine is vegan. Grapes are pressed, the juice is fermented into wine, the wine is left in a tank or barrel until all the suspended solids slowly fall to the bottom of the vessel and then clear wine is bottled.
“There are no hurdles to making vegan-friendly wines,” says Ron Giesbrecht, a professor at Niagara College in the Department of Oenology and Viticulture.
“I don’t teach a whole course on vegan wine but I take every opportunity to talk about them with respect to fining agents, making sure that people are aware of the options they have as winemakers to make wines in a vegan-friendly manner,” he says. “Many of those options are just as effective and good as the non-vegan methods.”
Clarifying or fining involves the introduction of a coagulant into wine, to which all the tiniest particles suspended therein will adhere, including spent yeast cells, grape bits, excess tannins, some pigments as well as potential microbacteria that could lead to spoilage. The wine is then filtered to remove the coagulant along with all the ugly bits.
Fining agents can be extracted from plant- or mineral-based elements. These include bentonite clay (the most common), carbon, kaolin clay, limestone, silica gel, plant caseins and vegetable plaques. Some, however, are made from animal by-products.
If the coagulant contains albumen (egg whites), casein (milk powder), isinglass (derived from fish bladders) or gelatin (derived from animal bones), the wine no longer qualifies as vegan.
A few winemakers roll their eyes at this. They contend that fining agents added to wine are completely filtered out, along with all those cloudy particles. And they say that none of the animal by-product remains in the wine.
Vegans counter that once a wine has touched any animal-based products, it is effectively tainted. Any exploitation of living creatures is verboten. By vegan standards, sealing a bottle in a hot beeswax dip to protect the cork is a no-no.
Even before completing construction of his Prince Edward County winery, the late Richard Karlo guessed there might be a market for vegan wine. Sherry, his fiancée, was vegan and he wanted to make sure that she could drink his wine. Karlo was convinced that many people, even non-vegans, would opt to buy wine made to those standards.
When it opened in 2010, Karlo Estates offered a full portfolio of vegan-friendly wines. Three years later, it became the first winery in North America to be officially designated “Vegan-Certified.” In addition to its premium portfolio of wines, all products sold, served or used at the winery are plant-based. According to Sherry Karlo, “It has done wonders for our business.”
The number of people opting for a pure vegan or vegetarian lifestyle has grown 500 per cent over the past decade in Canada. Buying vegan-friendly wine is predicted to become a conscious choice for a growing number of people over the next decade.
Last spring, Okanagan-based Summerhill Pyramid Winery announced it would begin to feature the term “vegan” on its front labels. At the time, winery CEO Ezra Cipes said questions about these wines had increased substantially at the winery and at retail outlets.
As it turns out, a whole lot of Canadian wines are made to vegan standards. For the most part, though, very few winery marketing departments have thought to promote them as such. The only reliable, though incomplete, list of vegan-friendly wines appears online at www.Barnivore.com.
Harald Thiel, owner of Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, says, “We don’t label our wines ‘vegan-friendly’; we just make them that way.”
“We use bentonite for our whites and we don’t fine or filter our reds,” Thiel says, adding that his staff are knowledgeable about his winemaking practices and can advise customers on vegan-friendly wine pairings.
Winery manager Meg McGrath adds, “Honestly, we don’t get a lot of questions about vegan wine. People are more interested to learn that we are certified organic.”
Veteran winemaker Ann Sperling concurs. All wines produced at the biodynamic Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara where she is winemaker, and all the wines she makes at her family’s certified-organic Sperling Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, are made strictly to vegan specifications.
“It’s pretty easy to exclude animal-based products,” Sperling says. “We made the conscious decision to be vegan-friendly. We just don’t advertise it.”
“I’m philosophically opposed to fining because it ‘removes stuff’,” she says. “When you’re working with great vineyards, you want to keep it all in.”
Jim Clark, president of Colio Estate Winery of the Lake Erie North Shore appellation in southwestern Ontario tells me, “Vegan wines have not been on my radar. You are the first person to ask me about them. So, I asked around the office: our office staff have had two questions and our winemaker, Alison Christ, fields questions about once a week.”
“We only use bentonite in our winery,” Clark adds, “so, basically, all our VQA wines are vegan-friendly.”
Although you might never know it, it appears that vegan wines are everywhere.
“We are not deliberately vegan-friendly, we’re vegan by coincidence,” says Darryl Brooker, general manager of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. He adds that because of all the questions he was getting over the past 15 years, he penned a stock standard response that clearly states, “None of our wines are made with animal products.”
Conclusion: yes, vegan wines are a thing … and you can find them if you try.