Is your wine vegan? – The Press

Photo: Erick Madrid / Special to The Chronicle

This may seem as silly a question as asking, Are grapes vegan? Of course, they are, but some argue that the answer for wine enters gray territory. Dont fret that bacon-y character flavor you taste in your favorite Syrah isnt actually bacon. But to be vegan or vegetarian, a wine must meet certain requirements during the production process just like wines with official labels like organic, biodynamic or kosher. Unlike organic wines, however, vegan and vegetarian wines are not governed by a certifying body.

So what would make a wine non-vegan or -vegetarian? It has to do with a winemaking procedure called fining.

One of the final winemaking steps before bottling, fining requires the use of various agents to help clarify to a wine. The brilliant luminosity youll observe in a glass of golden Chardonnay or the polish you might admire in the deep ruby hue of a Merlot that precision of color is thanks to fining. Beyond clearing any haziness, fining can also soften harsh tannins. The processing aids are often compared to a magnet: Various particles stick to the fining agents like Velcro and can then be easily removed.

The majority of common fining agents are animal-derived, which is where the vegan question comes in. The most traditionally common fining agent is egg whites, often used for more tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. Wines fined with egg whites would be considered vegetarian, but not vegan, as would those that see casein a milk-derived protein employed in some whites to remove oxidative characters. Conversely, fining agents like gelatin (derived from pigs) or isinglass (coming from sturgeon bladders) would render a wine neither vegetarian or vegan but would get it crystal clear.

If a winemaker wants to fine a wine but doesnt want to use an animal product, one common solution is bentonite clay. Nonetheless, many vegan and vegetarian wines may just simply forgo fining altogether. Some winemakers criticize the practice of fining, arguing that it values color over flavor that it scrapes off some of the good along with the bad. While vegan and vegetarian wine is unrelated to the natural wine movement, most natural wine nonetheless defaults to being vegan and vegetarian as theyre typically bottled unfined (and unfiltered).

While some wineries might advertise vegan or vegetarian on their back labels, many dont. When in doubt, you can ask the tasting room staff, or check Barnivore, a directory of vegan and vegetarian beverages.

But its important to know that fining agents are not ingredients, and no one consumes egg whites or fish bladders in a wine that was fined with them. The fining agents are removed by the time of bottling. Its a completely different effect than having a cocktail with Clamato (clam juice) or a shot of pechuga, a type of mezcal distilled with chicken or other meats. Still, its not impossible to imagine that trace residue might make it into the final product.

Then again, true skeptics might even point out the insects that inevitably make their way into a grape destemmer which get cleaned out during fermentation positing no wine can be truly vegetarian.

Ultimately, as with all food choices, whether or not to consume wines fined with animal products is a personal decision. Luckily there is no shortage of excellent wines around the globe that meet most criteria of being vegan or vegetarian. Here are six from California worth visiting.

Domaine Carneros

One of Californias pioneering producers of traditional-method sparkling wine, Domaine Carneros is partly owned by Taittinger, a pedigreed Champagne name. While the classic combination of bubbles and caviar is an option for visitors, so is a flight of Asian-influenced bites an experience that can accommodate other dietary restrictions, such as veganism and vegetarianism.

Foursight

Foursight Wines, in Mendocinos Anderson Valley, was one of the first American wineries to label its bottles as suitable for vegans and vegetarians. While best known for its Pinot Noirs, its also one of the few Anderson Valley producers to bottle Sauvignon Blanc. The Boonville tasting room offers a casual, leisurely visit, and guests staying the night can also rent out one of the guesthouses.

Frogs Leap

Perhaps the most obvious companion to Napa Valley Cabernet is a big hunk of red meat. While creative pairings abound, one option for vegetarian dishes might be to choose a Napa Cab with a lighter touch as is consistently the case with the ones coming from Frogs Leap, as well as the rest of their portfolio, which happens to be vegetarian and largely vegan-friendly. Its also difficult not to be charmed by the setting a bucolic red barn more in line with a Winslow Homer painting than Napas palatial tasting locales.

Stolpman

Syrah can smell like bacon. Sangiovese might give the impression of dried meats. Stolpman makes some of the best of each in Santa Barbara, but their wines are purely vegan. Their Ballard Canyon tasting room offers a glimpse into the countys impressive diversity of wine beyond their signatures Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Make sure to ask about their mother block, an experimental project that replicates the historic vineyard planting techniques of pre-19th century Europe.

Big Basin

One of the most dynamic producers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Big Basin bottles its wines unfined and unfiltered and thus vegan. Their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are among the regions very best, but perhaps their most distinctive contribution is their suite of Syrah and Rhone-style wines. Guests can either visit the tasting room in downtown Saratoga, or drive out to the more remote winery after a morning hike at the neighboring Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Broc

An early spirit leader for the American natural wine movement, Broc Cellars appropriately bottles all of its wines vegan. Its in Berkeley, so it wont be hard to find a vegan meal nearby either. The lineup is ever-changing, filled with idiosyncratic bottles that offer an entirely different perspective to California wine. Make sure to try their Angelica, a dessert style mimicking the Golden States very first wines made from the Franciscan monks that climbed the West Coast.

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Is your wine vegan? - The Press

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