Serious vegans pick wine carefully

Animal products are usually used in production, except by select winemakers

Glass Act: September 12, 2014

Wine is a simple combination of fruit, yeast and time.

The use of animal products in winemaking is therefore a surprise to most people, and a disappointment to those who avoid consuming animal products for ethical, health or environmental reasons.

As basic as wine is, making it well requires monitoring and intervening at the various stages of fermentation, fining, aging, filtering, finishing and packaging.

Fining is the process of removing undesirable microscopic particles, which, if left in wine, can make it cloudy and give it off-odours. Fining works by adding agents to wine that coagulate and precipitate the unwanted particles and serves to clarify the wine and smooth out its smell, taste and texture.

Some widely used fining agents are animal-based, such as casein (a milk product), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal skin) and isinglass (fish bladders).

Only trace amounts of fining agents remain in a given bottle of wine. However, for vegans — those who have made the commitment to removing animal products from their lifestyle — wine made with organic fining agents excludes it from their diet.

Having taken part in a grape harvest myself, I have a pretty good idea how many snails are harmed in the making of a bottle of Lucie Kuhlmann. And netting that keeps birds off grapes in Nova Scotia vineyards strangles many a small animal. Given this, does it really matter that milk was used to make the wine?

Of course it matters.

“The point is you’re doing your best to cause the least harm,” says Jessie Doyle, co-owner of Fruition, a raw food producer, and co-organizer of Halifax VegFest, an all-day vegan festival Sept. 20.

Wine’s animal-based properties are often unknown even among vegans, according to Doyle.

“There is a whole spectrum of veganism; for example, fireworks and shoe glue are made with animal products,” she says, and it’s up to the individual to choose whether they include those products in their lives.

Not all wine is fined using animal products.

Bentonite, a clay, is an effective inorganic fining agent. Cold stablization — keeping a tank of wine at below-zero temperatures for weeks at a time — can do much of the work of fining agents. Aged wine will not necessarily need fining. And some winemakers simply don’t believe in fining, choosing to market their product without worrying about its hazy appearance.

Demand for vegan wine in this province seems uncommon. Of the liquor stores I approached last week, only Bishop’s Cellar in Halifax had a comprehensive list of vegan wines.

Few local wineries were able to tell me immediately whether their wines were vegan, and even some winemakers were uncertain. But nearly every winery accommodated my query with a list of its vegan vino.

Among those is Gaspereau Vineyards 2013 Muscat ($20, Bishop’s Cellar and NSLCs).

This white wine is immediately recognizable in two ways: the salmon tinge in its colour, and its unmistakable aroma. If you’ve never smelled a lychee fruit, open a bottle of Muscat.

The grape, sometimes called New York Muscat, has become a fixture in Nova Scotia winemaking for its intense aromatics. Gaspereau’s rendition is one of my faves; the fruit experience on the nose seems to juxtapose the absence of sweetness when you put it in your mouth. This is a great wine to open for out-of-province visitors.

For a fuller-bodied vegan white, try Saint Cosme 2013 Little James’ Basket Press ($20 at Bishop’s Cellar).

This unusual blend of Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc is at first sip delightful and at second sip sensible. It’s fresh (Sauvignon Blanc does that) and smooth, likely from its exposure to lees (dead yeast cells), which give the wine (and its drinker) a sophisticated edge.

This Pays d’Oc wine is from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, on the French Mediterranean, the single largest wine-producing region in the world. Its history of sub-par wines mean that today’s improved standards result in wines of great value. This one is a surprise, the bottle’s funky cartoon label and satisfying contents not unlike a ground cherry, the fruit-in-its-own-skin that all the kids are decorating desserts with these days.

Are you a Shiraz lover? Are you ready to move to the next level? Try Saint Cosme 2013 Cotes-du-Rhone IGP ($23.50 at Bishop’s Cellar).

This red is all spice and pencil shavings and sticky-smooth in the mouth like Syrah — same grape as Shiraz — should be. This wine is at once familiar and challenging, a bit like finding yourself in an upper-year philosophy class by accident.

My consumer choices affect the people around me and my environment. Would I choose, therefore, to purchase a French wine, given the repercussions on animal species and ecologies of its carbon footprint, if my primary concern is ethics? Maybe not.

But the choice to seek vegan wine matters. Regardless of the net impact of my decision, awareness lays the foundation for intelligent decisions. The liquor store aisle is not a bad place to begin.

This column was originally published by The Chronicle Herald.

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