Wines are made of grapes, therefore all wines are vegan, right? Turns out that’s not true! Sunny Gandara explains to us why!
A lot has been said about vegan wines. Many wonder if that’s even a thing. As far as we know grapes are fruits therefore vegan, right? Well, apparently is no that simple. So to know more about this matter we asked Sunny Gandara, an expert on this subject, to join us! She will help us understand why not all wines are vegan, and what’s the difference with regular wines.
Sunny, please give me a brief introduction about you. How did you end up being interested in a plant-based diet and wines?
I have worked in the wine and food industry for the past 16 years here in New York. However, I have only been vegan for 8. When I owned my own catering company called Fork and Glass, we often cooked at a local farm that had animals grazing outside. After some time I all of a sudden made the connection that the food I was making was actually these beautiful, sweet animals. It just didn’t seem like a compassionate thing to do. It made me go vegan shortly thereafter (with some help and nudging from a dear friend of mine who had been vegan for many years).
Once I adopted this lifestyle, I naturally was curious about anything I was ingesting, including drinks. Having studied wine for many years, I knew that some wines used animal-based ingredients in their winemaking. I slowly started researching alternative methods and producers who were making wine without resorting to animal derivatives. Being a trained chef I’m also naturally fascinated with the world of food. I welcome any opportunity to be creative with plant-based food and wine pairings!
What is vegan wine?
A true vegan wine is one that is made without any animals or animal-based ingredients in the vineyard or in the cellar. Most vegan certifications today only consider the winemaking portion (the cellar part). This means the producer has not used any animal-derived agents to clarify the wine. They are not concerned with the soil and if any animal-based additions like manure, bone meal, or fish emulsion have been added to the soil as fertilizers. It can also be difficult to monitor the soil if the winery sources grapes from different vineyards and growers.
If winemakers still want to find the wine and certify their wines vegan, they can use vegan-friendly ingredients. For example bentonite (a clay-based fining agent), pea protein, or activated charcoal to pull out sediments and unwanted proteins. Many producers opt to not use any fining agents at all, relying on time and gravity to remove larger particles. This is called self-clarifying or self-stabilizing. Both of these options qualify the wine as vegan.
Why aren’t all wines vegan?
As I said, many wines are fined (clarified) with animal-based ingredients. For those that don’t know: Fining is a method of eliminating small particles in wine that can’t be removed by filtration. The most common way of fining is using egg whites. It can help remove harsh tannins and off-odors in red wine. It also helps draw out any sediments left in the wine after fermentation like dead yeast cells, grape solids, and protein that may make a wine look otherwise hazy. Most consumers prefer their wines brilliantly clear, which is why winemakers go through this process. Other no vegan fining agents used include casein, gelatin, isinglass (fish bladders), and chitosan (crustacean shells).
What makes a wine no longer considered vegan?
There are several schools of thought here, as many as there are different opinions in the vegan world! In addition to the fining method as discussed before, some might not consider a wine vegan if animal manure or other animal remnants are used in the soil (as in biodynamic farming) to grow the vines. Others think that if animals are being used to plow the soil in the field or used to do other work on the vineyard, the wine is not vegan-friendly. Then there is the question of the bottle itself. Glue in agglomerated corks typically uses milk-based glues. Glue can be used to stick the label on, and beeswax can be used to seal bottles.
How does the process of elaborating vegan wines differ from regular ones?
The processes of growing and producing grapes can be very similar. But some of the differences are:
A vegan winemaker can choose to use green manure in the soil (green manure also goes by ‘cover crops’), which is a variety of plants and crops like legumes, brassicas, and grasses sown in the field. Specifically to be cut up and dug back into the soil. This provides nutrients, nitrogen, and organic matter to the soil. At Querciabella, the vegan, organic and biodynamic Italian winery I work for from Tuscany, we use this method and have seen incredible improvements in the field. In addition to a naturally more vibrant and diverse environment, bud breaks, flowering, and the ripening of the grapes all are more homogenous. Creating more balanced, beautiful wines that truly express the terroir.
This is a more laborious, time-consuming way of farming. However, the benefits are plentiful and can be seen in the final product.
If a producer chooses not to fine their wines (and by default is ‘vegan’), there is a period of about 3-4 months for the clarification to occur naturally. This means, of course, is more time-consuming and requires patience and the willingness to forego any profits during this process. Most mass-produced, cheaper wines are fined because there is a need to place those bottles on store shelves as soon as possible.
Is it noticeable to taste if a wine is vegan or not?
A vegan wine won’t taste a certain way or ‘different’ than non-vegan wine. Keep in mind that many world-class wines out there are ‘accidentally’ vegan because they don’t fine their wines! It’s impossible to really pin down differences in taste based on comparing these two categories. What I can say is that unfined wines will taste different than fined wines. This is because when you use any type of fining agent you don’t only remove any undesired flavors, but a textural difference also occurs. There is also a difference in taste if you fine with egg white versus bentonite, but it takes a very trained palate to detect it. In short: There are millions of ways to make wine, but one way doesn’t make it ‘bad tasting’ unless you just really don’t like the style of wine!
What’s the difference between vegan and organic? If it’s organic, makes it vegan?
It’s important to know that vegan wines are not always organic and organic wines are often not vegan. Wine can be vegan and not contain any animal products. However, it can still be produced in a traditional way, like spraying with copper, herbicides, and pesticides in the vineyard and choose to incorporate non-organic additives to their wine.
Likewise, organic wine may often use cow or pig manure in the soil, as animal-based ingredients are seen as more ‘natural and organic than synthetic fertilizers. Even if the manure comes from factory-farmed animals… An organic wine may choose to fine with their wines with animal derivatives (organic eggs, for instance).
What should we look for when selecting a wine at a restaurant or a winery?
In reality, many wines are naturally vegan. It often falls on the consumer to do the research and ask the sommelier or wine director in restaurants. However, they often do not know this information because there are no labeling requirements for wines. Unlike food! It makes it harder to know which wines are vegan or not. Luckily vegan wine certifications are becoming more common.
A winery will definitely know the practices of their own winemaking (I hope!). So when you visit ask them if they fine their wines. If so, ask them what type of agents they use in the clarification process. Additionally, if you are concerned with the soil, you can ask them what fertilizers they use and what their bottling process is. You can also ask them what they use for corks and labels, and so forth to ensure there is no glue or beeswax involved.
What’s your favorite (vegan) wine?
Querciabella, whom I in full disclosure work for! I was a fan of them for years before I was so fortunate to get an opportunity to represent them here in the United States. In my opinion, they are the golden standard of vegan wines, thanks to Querciabella’s owner and my boss, Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni. He is a passionate vegan, activist, and business investor who wanted to align the practices of the winery with his values. He turned the production organic already in 1988 before it was even a ‘thing’ and 100% plant-based from the soil to the bottle in 2010. Not only are the wines vegan and made with superb expertise and care, but they are world-renowned by wine critics around the world. Who are not vegan, mind you!.
I suggest trying a bottle of our Chianti Classico to get a true experience of the Sangiovese grape. If you are looking to splurge and love white wines, our iconic Batàr is a real treat. A blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Blanc, it has been named one of Italy’s best white wines and is one of the few white wines in the world that gets better with age. Finally, if you want casual but delicious wines I recommend Mongrana, our “everyday” wine from Maremma, Tuscan’s southern coast. It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
What are your favorite pairings for the summer?
I love grilled mushrooms with Querciabella’s red wines – like the Chianti Classico or Mongrana I mentioned. Mushrooms and Sangiovese really sing together and when basted with some homemade barbecue sauces, it puts it over the top!
A mixture of slightly charred vegetables is wonderful too with some fresh pesto. Grilled corn on the cob goes wonderfully with Querciabella’s Batàr. I often chuck the corn too and add it into tacos, salads, and frittatas. I don’t often eat store-bought plant-based meat, but the Beyond Meat Sausage links are on rotation in the summer on the grill! A slightly chilled Beaujolais (from the Gamay grape) or Cabernet Franc from the Loire are both wonderful red wines. They pair beautifully with plant-based meats, as they are juicy and light but still full of flavor.
A Caprese salad with vegan mozzarella and homegrown heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil paired with a Bandol or other Provence rosé is one of my go-to light meals.
I could go on and on… I typically like to experiment with different pairings on my IG @decanwithplants if you want more inspiration and ideas!