Can vegans drink wine? For more than 50 percent of all wine vintages, the answer is no. Most of today’s wines are still made using more than simply fermented grape juice; techniques for fining wine require the use of egg whites or animal organ linings to sift out sediment. Although relatively few wines cater to vegan drinkers, more vegan consumers buy wine than ever before. A recent study found that the number of vegans rose from 1 percent of the population to 2.5 percent between 2009 and 2015. As more consumers turn to vegan alternatives for their health and for the environment, collectors will see producers fining wine less often, as these types of wines continue to lose favor on the wine market, resulting in more vegan-friendly, sediment-heavy bottles.
Going Vegan for Health
Decades ago, many people turned to vegetarianism for ethical reasons, believing that eating animals was cruel. Today, more people are becoming vegan or vegetarian for their health and that of the environment. While vegans still only represent 2.5 percent of the population, a recent survey found that about 36 percent of US households prefer to use meat, egg, or dairy alternatives in their daily cooking for health reasons. This trend is expanding to include the wines these households purchase every year, as they choose biodynamic wines over commercially processed bottles.
The biodynamic wine movement pushes for little to no outside interference as wines ferment, and this has expanded to include methods of fining wine. Traditionally, wine has a great deal of sediment resting at the bottom of barrels before it is bottled. To remove this sediment, winemakers mix egg whites into the wine to collect solid particles, then filter the eggs out later. Similarly, producers may also add organ linings to catch these particles. Even though the animal products are later removed, small portions linger in the final bottle, making the wines undrinkable for vegans. Instead of this method, producers in Napa Valley are beginning to allow sediment to stay in the bottles.
Collectors should look to biodynamic wines that cater to vegan tastes if they want to invest in bottles that will attract more attention and increase in market value over time. As vegans and non-vegans alike continue to seek out alternatives to animal products, the demand for biodynamic, unfiltered wine will increase. Aum Cellars has started to craft wines for their vegan customers, and even traditionalists such as Chateau de Beaucastel are following suit. More Rhône producers are also employing biodynamic techniques, believing that these methods result in more strongly terroir-based wines.
Studies at the University of California have proven that flavors unique to a terroir can be affected by fermentation and aging techniques. Producers in Bordeaux, for example, have some of the most expensive plots of wine land in the world, largely due to the limestone-rich soil. Modern winemakers in this region want their customers to taste the qualities unique to this expensive terroir, and as a result, many choose to forgo fining, oak barrels, and commercial yeasts in favor of letting the wines ferment undisturbed and in the most natural way possible. Two estates which have been making organic and vegetarian wines for decades include Chateau Couronneau and Chateau le Rait. The Merlot grown on Chateau Couronneau does not require the use of egg whites or other animal products for fining; instead, the owners allow the wine to age on its own, sediment largely intact. As a result, wine critics commonly describe the wines grown here as bold and slightly heavy.
Too much sediment is viewed as a flaw in serious wine circles, which is why some estates are choosing mineral-based fining techniques instead. Specialized mineral mixes are equally effective at removing sediment as egg whites, and the flavors of the wine are not noticeably changed with this process. However, the use of mineral fining is a rare and relatively new technique that few wineries have embraced. More wineries are moving away from fining wine entirely, and as a result, wine critics are relaxing their stance against sediment. The Court of Master Sommeliers uses five criteria for testing a wine’s quality, one of which involves noticing any sediment at the base of the glass. Master sommeliers recognize sediment as a natural part of a young wine only if the wine has purposefully been unfiltered. According to the official sommelier guide, sediment-heavy wine is only a flaw if the wine was fined before being bottled, and the wine is too young to have developed additional sediment on its own.
Former winemaker Dr. Leo McCloskey has long been a proponent of a less-is-more approach to wine production. He has said that a terroir-based wine should be hygienic, but beyond basic fermentation and hygiene, wineries should not interfere with the wine’s natural process. He once said, “All this technology — spinning cones, filters, evaporators — it’s all voodoo.” Perhaps no region would agree with this sentiment more than Barossa Valley in South Australia. Winemaker Tim O’Callaghan has said that wines in this valley are special because they are often allowed to ferment and age without human intervention.
A premium Barossa Valley winemaker that has made strides over the past 20 years in its techniques is Penfolds, whose wines from the 1990s are known to include some sediment, especially as they age. The sediment actually allows their wines, such as the Grange, to age longer than usual in a cellar. Experienced tasters and collectors know that heavy sediment does not always disrupt the wine tasting experience when the wine is properly decanted before drinking. In fact, many wine critics have lauded Penfolds’ Grange wines for their long cellaring potential and the naturally rich, lingering sediment that preserves the flavors.
In Barossa Valley, terroir and biodynamic techniques have come together to create some of the finest wines in the world that often cater to vegan consumers. Collectors would benefit from choosing biodynamic wines in this region, as producers here are likely on the cutting edge of the future wine market. We will see far more natural sediment in wines over the next 10 years than we have in the past, and these wines are likely to increase in value both because they carry the natural flavors of the terroir into their old age and because they will become more popular among vegan drinkers, who as they become educated about wine will seek out the best vegan vintages.
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