Eating & Drinking

What’s vegan wine? David Loan talks about egg whites, blood, and sturgeon bladders

David Loan worked as a sommelier for seven years at ZenKitchen — a go-to restaurant for vegans and curious diners — before it closed in 2014. Here, the local food-and-wine guy talks about vegan wines and why you might start seeing some surprising ingredients on wine labels, and offers LCBO wines that are free of animal products.

How did you get into wine?
I got into wine because my ex-wife (chef Caroline Ishii) and I decided we wanted to open a restaurant, and before we opened the restaurant, we started doing monthly dinners — what are now called pop-up restaurants. I realized that while she was focusing on the cooking, somebody needed to focus on the wine service as well. I started taking the sommelier courses at Algonquin College, graduated from there, and became a teacher in that same program while working as a sommelier at ZenKitchen. Since the restaurant closed, I have been working with [wine events group] Savvy Company.

Are people seeking out vegan wines?
At ZenKitchen, it was a conversation I had with customers half a dozen times every day we were open. “What do you mean, vegan wine? How could there be animal products in wine?”

I explained to them that when a winemaker is almost done with the wine, they’ll sometimes decide that it needs to be filtered in a certain way — maybe because it has too many tannins. One of the techniques to get rid of them is to introduce what’s called a fining agent.

In Bordeaux, for example, winemakers sometimes stir egg whites into the barrel of wine. As the wine settles through the egg whites — or other proteins like milk products, gelatin, isinglass (which comes from the swim bladders of sturgeon) — those excess tannins or other compounds will be picked up. That’s the fining process, and it helps to clarify the wine. Now, that all settles to the bottom. There’s really a very, very low amount left in the wine, but for vegans, that use of animal products in the wine makes it unacceptable. I was trying to buy some vegan Italian wine years ago, and the wine rep I was working with got in touch with some wineries in Italy and they essentially said, “Yeah … we don’t really want to talk about that.” Sometimes some old wineries still use some products like blood as a fining agent, but some don’t like to talk about it because it sounds gross.

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

Is the vegan market something that winemakers are tuning into?
I think winemakers are aware that many people are trying to avoid animal products, so they are aware of which of their products are fined with animal products and which aren’t.

Now, there are other things they can use as a fining agent, like bentonite clay. But winemakers say that these are all tools in the toolbox, and for this wine, they’ll use bentonite, and for that wine, they want to use egg whites. It just depends on what they’re trying to achieve. But there are wineries, like Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County, that refuse to use any animal products in their wines, and they’re very proud to be 100 per cent vegan.

Are wineries obligated to put that kind of information on their labels?
Not yet, but many of these fining agents are, in fact, common allergens. There are new labelling requirements that were introduced by the federal government in December of 2016 that require alcohol products that have more than a certain measurable amount of allergens be declared on the label. They gave winemakers and distillers five years to do that — so they have until the end of 2021. You will start to see these things appear on the labels as they are in other countries. I’ve picked up New Zealand wines and the label said Contains Fish, which is such a funny thing to see on a wine label, but this is why.

Do natural wines not use these products?
One of the things that’s usually meant by “natural” wine is that they are doing no fining or excessive filtration. That’s why natural wines might have sediment in the bottom, because they’re unfiltered. So, yes, natural wines should be vegan.

Is it tricky pairing wine with vegan dishes?
One of the things I learned was that the protein actually didn’t matter very much — it was the sauce that was made to go with the protein. At ZenKitchen, if we made ravioli with an exotic mushroom sauce and had those big flavours, it demanded a big wine. A cream sauce, whether it’s made from dairy or cashew cream, needs either a white wine or something a little acidic to cut through the fat. I don’t think it’s more of a challenge to do a food-and-wine pairing with vegan food than it is with any other food.

Dave’s LCBO picks

Karlo Estates 2015 Cabernet Franc
This is Karlo Estates’ flagship wine, produced by renowned winemaker Derek Barnett, and it’s fabulous. Rich, well-ripened fruit, chewy tannins, and just a hint of County limestone make this an easy pairing with late-autumn fare. Vintages 524389/ $31.95

La Ferme du Mont 2016 Première Côte
Wines of the southern Rhône Valley aren’t well known among consumers, so they tend to be very good value — low price, high quality. Typical of the region, this is made with Grenache and Syrah and tastes of strawberries, red licorice, and a whiff of smoke. La Ferme du Mont is a rising star in the region, and this is why. Excellent with barbecue. Vintages 251645/ $18.95

Vieni Estates Sparkling Riesling
Vieni’s second-generation Italian family winemakers do a fantastic job of copying wine styles from the old country. This Prosecco-type sparkler is gentle and fruity, with flavours of fresh apples and lemon zest. A great value for a great wine. Terrific with hors d’oeuvres or just fun at a party. Vintages 520411/ $16.95

Kew Vineyard 2014 Marsanne
An uncommon grape for Ontario, it’s also uncommonly good! This lovely white table wine has won numerous gold awards for Kew because of its complexity and elegance. You’ll find flavours of tropical fruit, pear, lemon, and caramel. Enjoy it with a cream-based soup or starter course. Vintages 485334/ $20.15