John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Sept 15, 2018

What’s a Vegan Wine? & International Smart Buys
By John Szabo, MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel

John Szabo, MS‘Consumer activism’ in the food and beverage world is on the rise. Demand for organic, biodynamic and/or sustainably certified products is growing as consumers seek to support ethically and environmentally-minded companies. This week I’d like to shed some light on a related trend: veganism. Plant-based lifers with both a health and a moral/ethical angle are mushrooming, and demand for vegan products, including wine is escalating. Yes, that’s right. Not all wines are vegan. Let me explain. The WineAlign crü has also picked out the smartest international buys of the September 15th VINTAGES release, and next week David will cover the main theme, Ontario. Read on to drink for a better world.

What’s a Vegan Wine? 

There is confusion about vegan wines. Even many friends in the trade I have asked in the last few weeks have responded with a perplexed look. Knowing what’s what made challenging by the fact that wine, unlike everything else we put into our bodies, is not required to have a list of ingredients. But anyone who sells wine should bone up on the trend. It’s only a matter of time before someone asks you for a vegan wine. And vegans want to know what to drink.

Numbers are murky in Canada, but according to Google Trends, veganism is the number one health trend in the US, beating Paleo 5/2 and gluten-free diets to the top spot. Google searches for “vegan” are up 90%. 6% of the US population now identifies as vegan, compared to 1% in 2014, while in the UK veganism has rocketed from an estimated 0.5 million people in 2016 to more than 3.5 million today, 5% of the population. If you don’t believe that the trend is also growing in Canada, just take a stroll through Parkdale in Toronto. It’s been renamed Vegandale. And when high-profile restauranteurs like the Chase Group and Grant Van Gameren open vegan restaurants (Planta and Rosalinda, respectively), to name but two, you know something is up.

In contrast to vegetarianism, a purely dietary choice, veganism is not just about health and diet. It’s also adopted for environmental, ethical, and compassionate reasons. Influential documentaries such as Cowspiracy and What the Health have exposed the rather dramatic environmental cost of the meat and dairy industries. Philosophical opposition to exploitation of all animals is another driver.


In short, veganism is a way of life, one that excludes the consumption or use of any products made from animals, including eggs, dairy, and honey.

The definition of veganism by the Vegan Society: 

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

So, where do wines run afoul of this philosophy?

For starters, it’s common practice for wines to be put through some sort of fining/clarification process before bottling to remove unwanted particles like dead yeast cells, proteins, and tannins, and to soften texture. Various fining agents are used to achieve this, and many are non-vegan such as gelatin (protein from animal, skin, bones and cartilage), isinglass (made from fish swim bladders), casein (milk protein), albumen (egg whites), sea shells, and rennet. Although all of these agents are filtered out, with virtually no residue in the finished wine, it’s still a vegan no-no.

Vegan wines, on the other hand, can be fined/clarified with vegan-friendly alternatives such as bentonite or kaolin clay, limestone, silica gel, plant-based casein, rennet or gelatin, or filtered through mediums like diatomaceous earth, paper, ceramics or charcoal. “We use pumpkin protein, potato protein or pea protein, kind of like passing a vegan smoothie through the wine,” says Sherry Karlo of Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County, the first vegan-certified wine producer in North America.

Karlo Estates Prince Edward County

There is also of course the tried and true, vegan-friendly method of time. Leave a wine long enough in barrel or tank, and particles will settle on the bottom, allowing the naturally clarified wine to be siphoned off the top.

De-acidifying wine is another process during which animal products can slip into your wine. Agents include unrease from crabs or mussels (a crystallizable enzyme), animal mucus (animal lysozome), or Milch (urebakterien, similar to milk). Vegan alternatives for de-acidification include plant-based unrease, lysozome, and urebakterien.

An even more hidden source of non-vegan products used in the winery is sugar. Sugar is occasionally added to wines in a process called chaptalization, which prolongs fermentation and increases the final alcohol content of the wine. The trouble is, some refined sugars are processed with bone char, which is unacceptable to many vegans. This is something I’m sure many winemakers are not even aware off (I certainly wasn’t until I did the research).

When it comes to packaging, a wax capsule that contains beeswax would be frowned upon, as would non-vegan glues used on labels. But in practice, switching to a vegan protocol in the winery is relatively simple – there’s really no need for any animal products. Indeed, many wines would qualify as vegan, even if the winery doesn’t know it.

But taking vegan protocols a step further, back into the vineyard, may be more of a challenge. Since the use of industrial chemical fertilizers is increasingly, and thankfully, being reduced around the world, most green-friendly growers turn to natural manures and compost. But a strictly vegan wine must be made from vineyards in which no animal-based fertilizers or sprays are used. (That means out with the famous biodynamic preparation 500, for which cow manure is put into a cow horn and buried over winter under the vines, dug up in the spring, diluted in water and sprayed in the vineyard.)

Yet here, too, there’s an answer. Sebastiano Castiglioni, owner of organic/biodynamic/vegan-certified Querciabella in the Chianti Classico district in Tuscany has found a viable alternative: “As for fertilizers, we produce green manure (derived from composted plants), instead of all the ‘traditional’ preparations based on cow manure. We also grow our own medicinal and aromatic herbs for the compounds we spray, and we grow our own seeds for cover-crops mixes encompassing over 30 plant species at a time.” Judging by the quality of Querciabella wines, Castiglioni is certainly on to something. (Read full interview with Castiglioni on livekindly.)

But it doesn’t end at plant-based fertilizers and sprays. Ploughing by horse, another favoured organic/biodynamic practice and great for journalist photo-ops, is likewise, strictly speaking, not simpatico with the vegan philosophy of non-exploitation of animals. And I’m not certain about the practice of letting sheep wander your vineyard to graze to keep the grass down, or releasing chickens or geese to scratch the dirt and naturally fertilize – that would depend on how orthodox a vegan you ask – though I suspect that, too, is a no-no (is that exploitation?). But slaughtering the animal labour force at the end of the season and then selling or eating them, is, well, definitely out.

Vegan Certifications

There are no official government regulations concerning vegan certification, though many independent bodies exist that will provide certification and the use of a logo. Karlo Estate, for example, is certified by VegeCert, a Canadian-owned company. BevVeg and are other prominent companies. All of these organizations rely on the honesty of the manufacturer. The application process for Vegecert, for example, “will require you to provide the ingredients and products for which you are seeking VegeCert certification.” Inspectors then review the application, and if satisfied that the products meet VegeCert’s standards, proceed to a contract to obtain VegeCert certification.

Physical spot checks are, I suspect, at least for the time being, impractical. But I also suspect the risk of retribution from the more zealous and extreme factions of the vegan world, should you be found out, would be motivation enough to keep producers on the up-and-up.

I’m sure that in time the LCBO will come out with an official line on vegan certifications. For now, none are recognized, although they are allowed to remain on labels. This is unlike unrecognized organic certifications– for these the winery or agent is required to add a sticker to the bottle stating: “organic certification not recognized in Canada”.

Vino Vegan

Awareness of vegan wines is still extremely low for the time being. Few are certified, even if many would qualify. That will change. But for now, anyone wishing to purchase vegan-friendly wine is advised to contact the producer directly and ask about the processes I’ve listed above, to see if the wine qualifies. Another growing database of information is Barnivore, an online guide to vegan wine, beer and liquor.

Even if you won’t be shopping for vegan wine anytime soon, it’s worth stopping for a moment and considering the motivation behind veganism. As Castiglioni points out: “It’s a thorny matter that should make us reflect on how ubiquitous animal products are in our everyday life. Most people wouldn’t worry about wine (nor about sugar or glue for that matter), but the truth is, veganism has to be the moral baseline of business if we truly want to see change. It’s imperative that consumers demand transparency and clear labelling to companies because the market’s demand is the most efficient way to achieve change, especially in the food sector.”

Vegan Food & Wine

On September 17th I’ll be co-hosting an evening of plant-based foods and vegan-friendly wines with Master Sommelier Jennifer Huether at Planta restaurant – see details below. Tickets can be purchased through the restaurant directly.

An evening with Master Sommeliers

And now, on to this week’s smart buys.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES Sept 15th

Top International White Values

Hirtl 2016 Grüner Veltliner, DAC Weinviertel, Austria ($19.95)
John Szabo – Classic white pepper aromatics lead off over fresh citrus and shaved celery root – complexity here is impressive. The palate is rich and very ripe relative to more typically cool Weinviertel examples, enlivened by some residual CO2, and length is very good.
Sara d’Amato – The DAC of Weinviertel specifies that the wine is made entirely from grüner veltliner, dry with no oak or botrytis influence. This delectably quaffable version from Hirtl is just that, showing distinctive salty, peppery flavours, well balanced acidity and notable harmony. Crisp, expressive and dynamic, this grüner is likely to be a fall-time favourite.

Hirtl Grüner Veltliner 2016Clotilde Davenne Bourgogne Aligoté 2016Pierre Luc Bouchaud Muscadet Sèvre & Maine 2016

Clotilde Davenne 2016 Bourgogne Aligoté, Bourgogne, France ($18.95)
Michael Godel – With time comes inclusion, especially in wine and I’m happy to report that Bourgogne is very much a new leader in this game. That means aligoté releases are increasing and for good reason. The grape can shock and awe but it can also deliver balance between lean and pleasurable, high acidity and ripe fruit. That’s this, right here. You really have to try it.

Pierre–Luc Bouchaud 2016 Sur Lie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, AC Loire, France ($15.95)
John Szabo – I suppose I’ll never tire of recommending great Muscadet, unquestionably one of the best value regions in the world if fresh, crisp, bone dry and minerally whites are the order of the day. This example has added lift and creaminess from ageing on the lees, and there’s a real transparency and purity, and excellent length in the price category.

Avondale 2016 Jonty’s Ducks Pekin White, WO Paarl, South Africa ($16.95)
John Szabo – Another sharp value from organic/biodynamic Avondale winery, this excellent white blend shows a touch of oak spice, and plenty of ripe orchard fruit shifting into tropical. Round and soft on the palate but not flabby, with excellent length – a smart value in the barrel–aged white wine category – think southern Rhône–style whites.
Michael Godel – Still perhaps the best non varietal chenin blanc white blend to come into our market from certainly Paarl if not all of South Africa. The blend of five grapes from land that celebrates organics, biodynamics and ducks is perfectly flinty and ripe from a drought/generous vintage and simply great flavours. The master blending by Johnathan Grieve works magic at such an affordable, case buy price.

Avondale Jonty's Ducks Pekin White 2016Mastroberardino Falanghina Del Sannio 2016A To Z Pinot Gris 2017

Mastroberardino 2016 Falanghina del Sannio, DOC Campania, Italy ($22.95)
John Szabo – Modestly fruity, but this is more about the smoky–stony, earthy character in the volcanic Campanian idiom. Acids are appealing sharp and bright, and a genuine salinity engenders further salivation. No oak present. Solid length, too. A wine of character, regionally representative, well made.
Michael Godel – Take a little trip up to Campania through the lens of this lovely and talented falanghina. The varietal extension is firm and focused with fruit wrapped up tight in its acidulated maritime shell. The style is precise and intent to keep things moving at a slow and deliberate pace. Some secondary notes of savour are on the horizon and I’m betting they too will be worth getting to know.

A To Z Pinot 2017 Gris, Oregon, USA ($19.95)
John Szabo – A well–crafted, nicely lifted, aromatic, varietally accurate example here from the reliable house of A to Z, also keen value in the category. I suggest carafing this just before serving to blow off the touch of remaining reduction, but there’s ample fruit on the slightly off–dry frame. Acids are sharp but balanced by sugar and fruit extract, excellent for Asian–style spicy–aromatic dishes like green curry or sir–fried noodles.

Top International Red Values

Celler de l’Encastell 2014 MARGE, DOQ Priorat, Spain ($29.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a big, bold, ultra–ripe garnacha–based blend from Priorat (with merlot, carignan, cabernet and syrah), an extreme wine from an extreme terroir – far more about the place than the varietal make–up. What should be a jammy and almost raisined palate is instead lifted by firm acids and a superb, juicy–lively streak of acid and above all marked graphite–like mineral character. Alcohol is a warm and generous 14.5% declared, yet it seems to melt into the ensemble seamlessly. Very good to excellent length. Top notch value, best 2018–2026.

Celler de l'Encastell Marge 2014Château La Fleur Des Aubiers 2015

Château La Fleur des Aubiers 2015, Médoc, Bordeaux, France ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – An authentic, unfussy left bank Bordeaux that has matured to a very respectable place. Mid-weight, appealing style with dialed back wood and offering an abundance of plum, cherry and crunchy forest floor. Tannins have mellowed making this wine approachable and ready to enjoy.

De Mancey 2015 Les Cadoles Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, France ($22.95)
Sara d’Amato – A well-priced, notably good quality Bordeaux and Burgundy in a single release is a feat but we have a couple of winners. This lieu-dit designated pinot noir is upbeat and approachable but not simple or pandering. The palate is spicy with a little fruit derived musk and a compelling wildness. Grippy with memorable length. Not to be overlooked.

Inopia 2015 Côtes du Rhône–Villages, AC Rhône, France ($36.95)
John Szabo – Jarring and off–putting at first, this reductive cuvée is, however, right in the wheelhouse of Burgundy–based producers Rotem & Mounir Saouma. Reduction (the opposite of oxidation) is their weapon against the pressure of long macerations and long ageing in old wood (and cement eggs), a practice meant to approximate the wines made in the distant past. This is still very smoky and peppery and needs a violent carafing if serving now, though I’d recommend cellaring at least another 3–5 years for maximum enjoyment, or holding even longer. I love the silky texture, the genuine richness and density, and the exceptional length. Classy and complex, an intellectual wine, also a bit polarizing. Best 2020–2030.

De Mancey Les Cadoles Pinot Noir 2015Inopia Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2015Dona Paula 1350 Red Terroir Blend 2015

Dona Paula 1350 Red Terroir Blend 2015, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($22.95)
Michael Godel – Two things need to be noted from this 1350 blend, the altitude (aforementioned) and the inclusion of casavecchia mixed into cabernet franc and merlot. The latter a Campanian grape variety normally blended with pallagrello nero. The cumulate acidity is daring, dramatic and fine, the fruit outstanding. It’s big-boned, generously oaked and structured. It’s a huge success and offers value to boot.

Viñademoya 2016 Centenaria Mencía, DO Bierzo, Spain ($18.95)
John Szabo – A superb Bierzo from century–old mencía vines, with exceptional florality, deep, dark fruit aromatics, noted but integrated wood spice, and a lick of wet rock for good measure. The palate is fleshy and juicy, generously proportioned, while tannins are supple and acids adequate to ensure vibrancy. Very good length, too. Terrific value, best 2018–2026.
Michael Godel – Take a step up and forward with mencía from really old vines that gift the quality and understanding of intelligent fruit to bring more for your red wine money than most places grapes are grown. These grapes work with wood like few can, absorbing the grain and integrating the potential chocolate so that in the end there is balance.

Viñademoya Centenaria Mencía 2016Alpha Crucis Titan Grenache Tempranillo 2016

Alpha Crucis 2016 Titan Grenache/Tempranillo, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($25.95)
John Szabo – An intriguing blend of Mediterranean grapes, sensible in the warm and dry McLaren Vale climate, full, fleshy, ripe, strawberry jam inflected, juicy and balanced. A very pleasant wine all in all, with all components in equilibrium, and with complexity above the mean. Best 2018–2022.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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New Releases

Tormaresca Trentangeli Rosso 2015