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The Finer Things: Vegan Wines

by Philip McKibbin

You’ve probably already noticed that many wines are now being advertised as vegan. This has to be a good thing, right? Veganism is better for the animals, better for the planet, and better for our health. But what is it, exactly, that makes some wines vegan and others not? After all, wine is made from grapes – and grapes are still vegan… aren’t they?

In most cases, the non-vegan components in wines aren’t ingredients, as such; rather, they’re ‘fining agents’. Fining agents are used to filter wines, to remove particles that can affect flavour, texture, and appearance. The reason most winemakers use them is because it speeds up the winemaking process, making it much more efficient.

Traditionally, winemaking was a long process: rather than using fining agents to remove unwanted particles, winemakers would wait for them to settle at the bottom of the barrel. The modern method of fining wine isn’t necessarily a bad thing: speeding up the process helps to keep wine affordable, and it can even make wines more aesthetically pleasing (as with beautiful rosés). What is problematic is the use of animal products.

Most fining agents aren’t vegan, and some aren’t even vegetarian. Blood, gelatine, fish oil, isinglass (from the swim bladders of fish), chitin (from crustaceans’ shells), casein (from milk), and egg albumen are all widely used in modern wine production.

The good news is that, increasingly, winemakers are choosing to make vegan wines. There are two ways they do this. Some choose to make use of traditional methods, allowing wine to settle rather than filtering it. Others use fining agents that are not derived from animal products – such as bentonite clay, carbon, kaolin clay, limestone, plant casein, silica gel, and vegetable plaques. In each case, the result is wine that all of us can enjoy!

Matavino is a small boutique vineyard in the Matakana region, north of Auckland. They produce five wines that are Vegan Certified by the NZ Vegetarian Society. Owner Jim Hight says his focus is on the environment and sustainability. He uses a potato-based product to clarify his white wines, and bentonite clay to fine the reds. Although it is not a requirement for certification, he even uses seaweed as fertiliser! Veganism is important, he says, ‘as it fits within my overall strategy, and I think it is good for the environment.’

Matavino Vineyard.

Further down the country in Nelson, Ursula Schwarzenbach, co-owner of Blackenbrook Vineyard, says the market for vegan wine is increasing, for both dietary and philosophical reasons. ‘It’s following on from people looking at what’s in their food more closely. People are being more conscious of what they’re putting into their mouths.’ Her family uses a traditional method, which captures the full flavour of the wines. ‘The design of our gravity-fed winery and the gentle processes enable us to produce vegan wines,’ she says. They do not use fining agents, because gravity does that work for them. ‘Vegan wines are quite often of a higher standard because they have been produced with a lot of care,’ she says. ‘It’s not the easiest or cheapest way to produce wine, but it means we preserve the character of the grapes by treating them as gently and respectfully as we can.’

Thomas, Ursula, Daniel, and Isabelle Schwarzenbach.

Nearby in Blenheim, the team at award-winning winery Hunter’s Wines have also noticed a strong increase in demand for vegan wines. Senior winemaker James Macdonald says it is important that their products remain in line with our society’s values. ‘We still fine our wine,’ he says, ‘but we now do it with plant-derived fining agents.’ Their wine sells in 30 countries, and for several years they have been fielding questions about whether or not their wines are vegan – so they decided to do something about it. ‘We are proud of our vegan status and have received extremely positive feedback from our customers,’ he says.

Hunter’s Wines.

As consumer demand increases, we will see even more vegan wines. If you’re unsure whether a wine is vegan, look for the NZ Vegetarian Society’s Vegan Certified trademark. You’ll find a list of certified products here: http://www.vegetarian.org.nz/food-dining/vegan-certified-products/

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