Learning that wine has ingredients like bull’s blood or crab shells is likely to trigger panic attacks in some dedicated vegans. It certainly did to Kate Jacoby. Jacoby is co-owner of Philadelphia’s Vedge restaurant with her chef husband, Rich Landau. “When I found out that a wine can be made and processed with animal and dairy products, I freaked out,” she said. Jacoby was writing a serious wine list, but she’d begun to wonder: Would she be limited to one or two wines?
In recent years, Jacoby and others have begun learning about the 72 additives commonly allowed in wine. Some are animal products, yes. But others might concern omniverous wine drinker for other reasons.
Know Your Fining Agents
To keep a wine squeaky clean, winemakers often deploy fining agents, which act like magnets to attract and filter detritus leftover from the fermentation process. Some winemakers use clay, but many use protein-based agents, such as:
Gelatin (animal bones)
Isinglass (fish bladders)
Casein (milk proteins)
Chitin (lobster and crab shells)
Bull’s blood (illegal in both France and the United States)
If you can tolerate a (sometimes) cloudy wine, there’s absolutely no need for fining agents. Jacoby recommends choosing wines that include the words unfined and unfiltered on the label.
Other Additives You Want to Know
In addition to filtering wine, gelatin is also used to help create a better mouthfeel and to remove bitterness. An enzyme derived from egg whites is used as an anti-bacterial. The other additives to be aware of are:
Yeast starts the fermentation and promotes certain flavors
Ureac acid acts as food for the yeast
Bacteria starts the second fermentation, called malolactic
Enzymes act to break down the wine skin, enhance flavor and aroma
Tannins from wood or grapes, this is often used to fix color
Tartaric acid stabilizes and brightens flabby wine
Gum arabic is used for mouthfeel
Excess sulfur stabilizes and sterilizes the wine
Mega-Purple is grape concentrate that boosts flavor, color, and body
Polyvinylpolypyrolidone (PVPP) fining agent for color manipulation, especially in rosés
Silicone oil emulsion reduces frothing during fermentation
Dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC) and chitosan (derived from the exoskeletons of crustaceans) subdues the yeast brettanomyces
It is possible to make a vegan and additive-free wine using grapes grown in vineyards that rely heavily on chemicals. If it’s important to you to avoid pesticides, you’ll want your grapes to be farmed more responsibly. In addition to certified organic, many winemakers use sustainable practices, and describe their practices–whether they use fewer pesticides, less water, etc.–on their bottles and on their websites. Another popular approach is biodynamic farming, which takes a spiritual, holisitic approach to soil and farming systems.
“Natural” wine is a hot category and wine shops and lists worldwide are embracing the trend. Unfortunately, there is still no official definition for natural wine, but most in the industry agree that it is made from sustainable agriculture and made with the “nothing added, nothing taken away” philosophy. With the exception of occasional, small quantities of sulfur—way below the legal limits—natural wines are made with no additives. Because they aren’t certified, finding natural wines can be difficult, a little like entering a secret society. What do they taste like? Expect more life and a broader range of flavors.
The good news is that there are plenty of great vegan and additive-free wines, it just takes a little education and some detective work to find them. Jacoby did her research, which included reading one of my own books, Naked Wine, and found a whole world of alternative wines. Armed with that and the help of some knowledgeable salespeople, Jacoby was able to construct a list of nearly eighty truly organic, biodynamic, and delicious vegan wines. Want to find them yourself? Here are a few tips.
Peruse websites such as the popular Barnivore, but remember to double check for misinformation. Also note: Many of the wines they mention are pretty industrially-made even if they’re vegan.
Consider looking up some natural wine importers and look at the labels and names of the wines they offer and then ask your local store if they can get some of them in for you. Some examples are: Louis/Dressner, Jenny & Francois, Indie Wineries, Zev Rovine Selections, and Amy Atwood Selections.
Use fantastic wine lists, such as Vedge’s as a resource. With nearly 80 references, there’s a lot to choose from. Then go onto winesearcher.com and see if any are available near you. These wines are difficult to find, sure, but not impossible. The prices are a little higher but there are plenty in the $14 to $24 range, and they’re worth it.
Read books such as my own and Natural Wine by Isabelle Légeron.
Get to Know Your Wineries
Here are some great wineries that produce vegan wine:
This is a biodynamic winery in Austria makes well-priced wines with soul.
La Clarine Farm (Sierra Foothills, California)
Hank Beckmeyer’s home vineyard is all organic, the others he uses are on the way there. But his winemaking is all natural.
Bonny Doon (California)
Owner Randall Grahm has been moving increasingly toward organic and natural production. The winery also includes ingredient lists, so if there’s an animal product involved, you’ll see it on the label.
Frey Vineyards (California)
Long-time organic winery and advocates of sulfur-free production, their wines have a few organic additives but they are totally vegan.
The oldest natural wine maker in California adds nothing to their biodynamic wines. Of note is their carignan and chardonnay.
Eyrie Vineyards (Oregon)
These wines are classic beauties and every single one is organic and vegan. I recommend the Pinot Noir (a specialty in Oregon).
Albet i Noya (Spain)
This large, conscientious, biodynamic wine estate produces a wide variety of wines comes from including a good sparkling, cava.
Eric Texier (Rhone)
A serious winemaker from France’s Rhone region who makes delicious natural wines, including syrah and lively rich whites. All have very low or no sulfur and are vegan.
Pheasants Tears (Georgia)
Yes, they make wine in the country of Georgia. This winery uses organic and natural techniques using small amounts of sulfur dioxide. The varieties are not familiar, and the wines, made in large buried amphora called qvevri might take some getting used to. Leave your pre-conceived notions at the door and enjoy.
The prices of these wines are a little higher than your everyday $8 tipple, but there are bargains in the $14-$24 category to be had. And you won’t be just drinking vegan, you’ll be but exploring a world of extraordinary wines.