By Peter Richards
Master of Wine and award-winning, UK-based writer and broadcaster Peter Richards is no stranger to alternative wines. Having ventured into the world of ‘eating clean and going green’, we asked Peter to share what he’s learned about how wine fits into the ‘drink well, eat well’ ethos.
A few years ago, inspired by YouTube, our daughter (then 11) asked us what it would be like to go vegan. For a family of committed omnivores, with married Masters of Wine as parents, this was never going to be easy.
But we were interested. After all, The Economist identified 2019 as, ‘the year veganism goes mainstream’, fuelled not just by ethics but also environmental and health concerns. We resolved to try it out for a limited time — while also taking an active interest in the drinks (and wine) side of things. Surely veganism and fermented grape juice would go together hand-in-hand?
The reality is, of course, more complex. Not all wine is vegan, just as not all wine is organic or sustainable. For wine lovers, then, the question becomes: how to identify wines that are vegan, vegetarian, natural, organic or sustainable in the first place — and then how to find the best ones in the context of personal taste and the food on the table?
According to the Vegan Society, ‘Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.’ Many drinks, including wine, are vegan because they fit within these parameters. Some, however, do not. Identifying which is not always easy.
In wine, certain processing agents used for clarification can render the wine non-vegan, such as lysozyme or albumin (from egg white), casein (from milk) or animal-derived gelatine. While little or no trace of these products may remain in the final drink (they are filtered out during processing), their use will nonetheless be objectionable to vegans. These products are often used on larger volume wines destined for swift processing and sale. Vegan-friendly alternatives, it should be noted, are available.
Then there are other issues. Within biodynamic farming — an extension of organic viticulture — animals are encouraged as part of the system, with vine treatments buried in hollowed cow horns. Elsewhere, beeswax can crop up — for example in sealing corks or as an emulsion in some agglomerate corks. Some glues used in labelling can be animal-derived.
It’s fair to say that wine has been slow to react to consumer demand for clarity of communication on these matters. But more and more producers, distributors and retailers are starting to engage responsibly, enabling consumers to make informed choices. Those who are taking the lead on this deserve support.
The same is true when it comes to vegetarianism, organics, biodynamics and sustainability. As we demand and expect more clarity and information from our wines, so responsible producers are rising to the challenge.
In a world facing a ‘catastrophic collapse of natural ecosystems’ (Biological Conservation), it’s heartening to see many wine producers rejecting synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and organic sales growth significantly outpacing conventional wine. Research also shows drinkers are happy to pay 38 per cent more more for organic wine. Certifying as organic or biodynamic can be time-consuming and costly for producers but the value to the planet, and potentially drinkers’ health, is increasingly relevant.
Forward-thinking wine producers are minimising their environmental footprint in many ways. These include using renewable energy, recycling water, capturing carbon emissions from ferments, light-weighting bottles (or shipping in bulk) and supporting environmental causes. The best tip? Avoid big, heavy bottles or superfluous packaging, don’t be afraid of alternative formats (like bag-in-box, pouches or refills) and find out from whoever’s selling the wine what the wine’s credentials truly are. Oh, and don’t waste wine — another sustainability no-no.
As for how these wines tie in with what’s on your plate — that’s a matter for experimentation, an open mind and a healthy thirst. Vegan, vegetarian, natural, organic and sustainable wines come in all styles so it’s about taking your (informed) pick of the bunch, according to what you — and perhaps your guests — like best.
With meals that feature lots of varied flavours and textures, it’s best to go with easy-going wine styles that discreetly refresh the palate between mouthfuls rather than seeking to dominate.
In terms of white wine, a subtle but fresh style of Pinot Gris, for example, from New Zealand or Alsace can work well. For spicier dishes, go for an off-dry Riesling from Germany or Australia.
When it comes to lighter reds, a supple Pinot Noir from Chile, California or Germany is an option — or alternatively a Pais from Chile or Cinsault from South Africa. An apassimento style from southern Italy is a good option for a fuller-bodied red. And don’t forget the versatility of many rosé and sparkling styles.
Wine’s first duty is to refresh and delight. But now its secondary values — like whether it’s vegan, vegetarian, organic, natural or sustainable — are rightly gaining in importance. We wine lovers should take an interest, ask the questions, and seek out those wines that chime with our own values. That way, wine can not only delight the senses but also nurture the soul.
Peter Richards is a Master of Wine and award-winning writer and broadcaster. Based in the UK, Peter co-hosts the acclaimed Wine Blast podcast, a top-10 show in the UK, US and across the globe together with his wife and fellow Master of Wine Susie Barrie. The duo also co-host the celebrated Wine Festival Winchester.