A fine time to be vegan

The demand for a plant-based diet is rising in Europe and the USA, with vegan and vegetarian restaurants springing up across the Americas. Sophie Kevany looks at how this is translating into wine demand.

Laurent Fortin, Château Dauzac
Laurent Fortin, Château Dauzac

Hard statistics for vegan wine production and sales, as with all nascent trends, are tricky to pin down. But the circumstantial evidence is powerful. Barnivore, a US-based vegan beer, wine and spirits listing complied by users, now has 3,000 wineries listed, up from one vegan-friendly winery in 2003. In the UK, leading supermarket chain Tesco — most recently in the news for appointing chef Derek Sarno as its first director of plant-based innovation — now stocks about 30 own-brand vegan wines. And in France, the news that Bordeaux’s Château Dauzac had become Bordeaux’s first vegan-classified growth triggered requests from retailers including US health food outlets Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, as well as more mainstream European supermarket chains such as Switzerland’s Migros and France’s Casino. 

Growing market

Vegans now make up six percent of the US population, up from one percent in 2014, according to 2017’s “Top Trends in Prepared Foods”. Asked why there is such burgeoning interest in vegan wines, Barnivore founder Jason Doucette said that vegans and those with food intolerances are interested in wines made without animal products. In the UK, where the Vegan Society estimates that 542,000 people are now vegan — up 260 percent from 10 years ago — Tesco’s wine developer Alexandra Runciman also sees growing demand mainly driven by vegans. 

But there is a bigger picture, argues Elisabeth Laville, CEO of Paris-based sustainability consultancy Utopies, with vegan offerings appealing for a number of reasons, including personal health, fears about livestock-related environmental damage and animal welfare. She also feels that French consumers, whether vegan or not, are becoming more conscious of the last two issues, citing a study called “Food and Climate”, conducted by pollster Mediaprism for the GoodPlanet Foundation in 2015. In this study 35 percent of respondents limited or avoided meat for farm animal welfare reasons, while another 10 percent refused to eat animals at all. Other reasons for avoiding meat were cited as expense (46 percent), health (31 percent), food scandals (26 percent) and concern over the environmental damage done by livestock farming (19 percent). 

On the producer side, Laville, who is seeing a number of French wineries go vegan, said drivers include awareness that “…as long as they do it without losing quality and it does not fundamentally change the product”, the switch only adds to the number of potential buyers. It also helps French producers stand out from competitors internationally and is a relatively easy change, involving, at its most basic, a switch from animal-based fining agents like egg white or pig gelatin to ones made from pea, potato or yeast. 

Asked about his motivations, Château Dauzac director Laurent Fortin is firmly on the planetary and animal wellbeing side, saying the transformation began when he asked their organic egg-white supplier about the hens: “He was embarrassed. Those hens were being fed organic food and they were allowed outside for an hour a day but, other than that, they were basically intensively farmed.” Although that would not contravene Dauzac’s biodynamic farming principles, the ill-treatment of the animals, the intensive nature of the farming and the resulting environmental pollution were all out of tune with the estate’s strategy to improve sustainable farming techniques and protect global biodiversity. 

After three years of research, Fortin found a local supplier who could produce a pea-and-potato fining agent. “There was a lot of testing to make sure we were adhering to classified growth standards but finally, in 2015, we asked critics to blind taste both versions and they all preferred the plant-based one. The tannins were smoother, deeper and more linear.” Fortin believes this result is down to vegetable protein fining taking 24 to 48 hours, while egg whites take 12 hours. “So it’s much gentler and that means the tannins are rounder.”

New fining agents

The switch appears to go well beyond Dauzac, with one of Bordeaux’s main oenological suppliers, Laffort, saying in an email that it has seen a sharp jump in demand for plant-based fining agents, although egg albumen remains the most used product for classified wines. 

Pork gelatin is also popular, said Julien Lavenu, who works with one of Bordeaux’s leading wine consultancies, Derenoncourt. He believes that despite ongoing plant fining developments, egg whites and pork gelatin will remain centre stage, at least for Bordeaux’s classified growths. He also voiced a certain cynicism about the reasons for producers switching to plant-based agents, saying it might be more of a marketing side effort. Which could well be true, given that consumers are likely to prefer conversations about plant-based versus organic egg white fining to ones about pig gelatin. Regardless, the coming of the vegans is definitely having a knock-on effect in wine. 

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