Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Vegetarian Wines

I was asked recently - minutes ago, in fact - if it's true that there are fish guts in wine. Simply put, the answer is no. But it reminded me of an article I wrote recently, which may or may not be of interest to some of you, so I'll post it here:

With around four million vegetarians in the UK, it should come as no surprise that there is in ever increasing number of vegetarian wines and beers available on the market. Unless, of course, you were unaware that there even was such a thing as vegetarian wines, as many people are. If you are one of that number, you will doubtless be wondering what on earth a vegetarian wine could be: what makes one wine vegetarian, when others are not?
Quite simply, a vegetarian wine is denoted by the fact that no animal products are used at any point in the wine’s production.  In most wines, the process of filtering out dead yeast is completed with the addition of filtering agents. These filtering agents bind with the unwanted components, then fall to the bottom of the vessel as a sediment, so that the clarified wine can be siphoned off.

Traditionally, the fining agent would be either gelatine, bull’s blood, or isinglass – which is a substance obtained from dried sturgeon bladders (yum!). Before I put the non-vegetarians off wine for life, fear not; none of these fining agents remains in the wine. The whole point of them is that they are heavier than the wine, and sink to the bottom taking any impurities with them.

However, the use of any animal product renders the wine or beer unsuitable for vegetarians, if they are particularly strict in their dietary choices. The good news is that there are alternative fining substances, such as an algae known as Irish Moss, which do the job just as well, and are of course vegetarian friendly.

So are these wines and beers any good? In short, yes. In fact, you would literally never be able to tell the difference. Bold words, you might think, but this is not like saying Quorn nuggets taste just like chicken. Once the sediment is removed, there is no way of telling these products apart from there carnivorous counterparts. And to prove it, I tried a good many vegetarian wines (how I suffer for you!), and had a rather jolly time doing so.

The first wine I tried was the Argento Chardonnay Viognier. Argentina is famous for enormous barbeques, so it is testament to their knowledge of their export market in the UK than they produce a vegetarian wine. This lively, light bodied wine is bursting with crisp, tropical fruit, and a touch of oak. It would make a fantastic aperitif or accompaniment to any salad with a vinaigrette dressing.
Next was the Hawksburn Pinot Noir, from Central Otago in New Zealand. This is a real gem of a wine, providing everything a Pinot Noir should: rich, smoky, spicy notes with loads of jammy dark fruit character. Often recommended with meat dishes, this would work fantastically well with flavoursome vegetarian dishes such as a three bean chilli.

If you’re in the mood for celebrating, then there’s more good news. Almost all of the major Champagne houses use vegetarian (and, often, vegan) production methods. A personal favourite sparkling wine of mine, which also happens to be vegetarian, is the Chapel Down Brut NV. This delicious English sparkler uses precisely the same traditional production method as they do in France, and has become recognised for routinely coming out on top in blind tastings above its French counterparts. Light and elegant with delicate oak character, the crisp citrus works well with simple canap├ęs with fruity acidity, such as bruschetta.
For those of you with a sweeter tooth, there are also vegetarian dessert wines available. An absolute stunner comes in the form of the Muscat de Rivesaltes from Els Pyreneus in the south of France. This sticky wine is a brilliant, bright yellow, and the flavour is equally intense. It is relatively light bodied for a dessert wine, which helps it to retain its refreshing nature, and delivers notes of honey and Turkish delight.

There are a great many more wines we could go through, time permitting, but the important point is that there is a wealth of choice available. Vegetarian products are by no means inferior to their non-vegetarian counterparts, and with a little research you will easily be able to find the right ones for you.

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