Wine: Not Always Just Grapes! 

How to Conscientiously Choose Delicious and Healthy, Vegan Wines
by Nicole Campbell

The world is increasingly conscientious of how and where food, clothes and other products are produced. This is a wonderful trend demonstrating consumer empowerment. Increasingly, we can make informed choices to support more sustainable, organic suppliers. These types of purchasing habits supports farmers, ethical production and community.

Wine is a delicious thing with proven health benefits, to boot. It is a joy to discover and share. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to make informed choices when purchasing wine. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen wine-savvy friends making a beautiful organic meal and serving it with a ‘fast food wine’. This breaks my heart because it’s not their fault (or yours)! One of the joys of wine is how complicated it is, but this high barrier of knowledge makes it difficult to distinguish between real wine, made by a real farmer, and mass produced wine, made in a huge factory run by companies who are more concerned with profit than quality or the environment. Happily, with a bit of information it is easy (and tasty) to make better wine choices.

The basics:

There is huge variety in how wine is produced. Unfortunately, wine is not currently treated like food is as far as Canadian labelling requirements go, so you won’t find an ingredients list or calorie content on the labels. It may come as a surprise that most wines are more than just grapes and can contain up to 200 additives and varying amounts of sugar.

Hopefully this will change in the next decade as there has been much demand for it. It’s frustrating for those who like to know where their wine and food comes from, as well as, what’s in it. Often, big companies will use the language of smaller companies (speaking of land and farmers, using pictures of fields on their labels) in an attempt to mislead consumers who are trying to make more informed choices. Smaller family-owned wineries do not have marketing budgets. No wine advertised in the subway, on billboards or in magazines is made using artisanal methods. Imagine your local vegetable farmer taking out an add in Whole Foods…this just isn’t going to happen.

Fortunately, choosing better wines is possible…

Here Are 8 Tips to Help Choose Better Wine

Not all wine is vegetarian

Some white wines use isinglass (fish bladder) to remove particles from wine. Although none remains in the wine, it is no longer a vegetarian product. It is currently very difficult to know if isinglass is used in the production of your white of choice. Check the back label, as many wineries will note this as an allergen if used.

Not all wine is vegan

Some high end wineries producing red wine will use egg whites to remove particles before bottling. Again this is sometimes listed as an allergen on the back label, but not always. It is hard to know, but as egg whites are expensive and chemicals are cheap; this would typically be used for wines over $50.

Sediment is Okay

Unfiltered/ unfined = more flavour, less weird chemicals and 100% vegan! Don’t be afraid of a cloudy wine! Increasingly wineries are releasing unfiltered or unfined wines. The natural sediment that occurs in fermentation is left in bottle. This can leave a wine that looks cloudy or has some particles in it. This is completely healthy! Think of it as pulp from a fresh juice or a healthy kombucha teaming with good life. Many winemakers believe filtration dilutes flavour. Deliciousness and health!

Sweet Wines Contain A Lot Of Sugar!

The biggest growing category in North America is sweet wine. In BC, this includes brands like Apothic and Cupcake. These wines are made in MASSIVE quantities with a large amount of additives and residual sugar to standardize taste and hide winemaking flaws (bad wines taste better when they are sweet! good wines don’t need sweetness to be delicious!). These wines often have 1 tablespoon of sugar PER GLASS. This is an insane amount of sugar!! If you absolutely love this style of wine, that is totally okay, but know the associated sugar intake and treat it like a pop or an ice cream. Having a wine with a lot of sugar and additives will give you a worse hangover and often can result in a headache.

Sulphites Aren’t Necessarily Bad

One of the most common wine-related complaints is a sulphur-induced headache. Sulphur is a natural byproduct of fermentation. Did you know that the amount of sulphur in well-made wines is way lower than the sulphur in most everyday food products, like dried fruits? Some people are certainly more sensitive to sulphur than others, but typically, those wine red wine headaches aren’t from sulphites, they’re from chemical additives. An organic, biodynamic or natural wine will have less sulphur added, as will a wine from a smaller producer. Larger producers typically add more sulphur to their wines during the harvest, fermentation and bottling phases of wine production to kill bacteria and stabilize the wine. Smaller wineries, with better winemaking practices, need less sulphur as their fruit is healthier and treated with more care.

Wine Under $15 Is Likely From a Corporate Winery

Making a real wine is expensive. If a Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet is under $15, it is likely made in large quantities using machine picked fruit and additives and is more likely to be left with residual sugar to hide flaws. It is okay to find a wine you love for this price point! There are some good options, just know production will be on the higher side. Look for old world wineries where labour is cheaper for better quality at this price point. Best bets: cotes du rhone, languedoc/ rousillon, puglia, sicily, spain, greece, argentina and chile. If you love new world wines from places like Canada, California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia, know that you will need to spend a bit more to get the same level of quality.

$20 Can Get You An Awesome Wine From a Real Farmer!

Great wine doesn’t need to be expensive! For $20 you can easily find an interesting, super delicious wine that came from a good place. Seek interesting varietals, new regions and smaller producers that often offer great value. Ask ask ask! Go to your local wine shop or favourite restaurant and tell them your budget and flavour preference. Start with white, red or rose, and then the move onto the body (light, medium or full?). If you prefer a certain varietal (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon), share that, too. There is so much to discover! And don’t be afraid to be honest with your budget. They are there to help! A few Vancouver restaurants with great wine programs include Grapes & Soda, Burdock & Co, L’Abbatoir and Chambar.

Organic Is Not Everything

Just like in food or clothing, organic certification is not everything. A winery can get certified, despite wasteful practices and terrible wine! Many old world wineries (in France and Italy especially) have been organic for many generations, but have never put it on their labels. One Italian winemaker put it to me succinctly, “Twenty years ago they were trying to sell us chemicals, now the same people come to sell us organic certifications! We are just going to keep making real wine.” This type of certification costs a lot of money and it do not always guarantee best practices. For example, a certain ‘certified organic’ Ontario winery I became familiar with was shipping in manure from a certified farm in Quebec, as opposed to using the manure from their neighbour’s uncertified organic farm. They ended up dropping their certification to be more sustainable. If a wine is labelled biodynamic, it is very well made, as this certification takes into account the entire health of the farm.

Appellations matter!

If you are choosing a wine without an expert around to help out, take a look at the appellation on the label. If the appellation refers to a large region like California, South East Australia or Chile, this is because the winery in question is sourcing a large amount of grapes from a massive region (as opposed to one vineyard). Look for regional appellations that reflect the precise place or terroir they are from, for example, instead of California, look for Sonoma, Carneros, Santa Barbera or Napa. Instead of South East Australia look for Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, Margaret River, Barossa etc. When it comes to old world Italian wines, look for ‘classico’ on a label which denotes the original area of production. In France, look for a village name on the bottle. As a bonus, once you find an appellation you love, there is a good chance you will love more wines from that place! Try a few!

If you follow these tips, you will not only drink better, but drink healthier!

Photos: Jenalle Los

Nicole Campbell has a WSET diploma, runs La Petite, a boutique wine agency from Lifford, as well as a witchy wine party the first Monday of every month at Superpoint in Toronto. Follow her on Instagram at @grapewitches or on her website

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