In search of pure vegan wines
I received a number of questions about vegan wines. This animal welfare movement started in 1944 but recently has gained significant traction in the food industry and related areas including wines. While organic and biodynamic wines have been around for decades, vegan wines are relative newcomers.
Similar to the ambiguities surrounding natural wines, there exist no official standards on what qualifies a wine to be labeled vegan. Basically, vegan wines like vegan foods use no animal products of any kind in the production process.
Readers may be surprised to learn that many wines are fined or filtered with egg whites or proteins found in milk. Additional animal contamination may be in the form of beeswax used to seal bottles and a dairy-based glue found in agglomerated corks. However, regulations in the EU, the US and most other wine-producing areas do not require producers to list fining agents or use of animal products or by-products on labels.
In reality, many wines are vegan-friendly but are not specifically labeled as such. Therefore, sourcing officially vegan wines is a challenge and particularly difficult in China. Therefore, this week I delve into a related but more pervasive concept of purity in wines.
Purity is a magic word in wine circles. It's even become a buzzword for vegan, natural, organic and biodynamic wine prophets. In the wine world purity is used to describe wines free from anything that debases, contaminates, adulterates, pollutes the natural state of wine. Practically, this usually means minimal intervention in the wine-making process that results in a pure expression of the fruit. Some of the purest, and yes an increasing number of vegan, wines are made in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Last year I wrote about the fine Pinot Noir wines from Willamette Valley. While this region produces many of Oregon's top Pinots, there are several other AVAs and other varieties that produce outstanding wines widely recognized for their purity. Some wines have specific AVAs of origin while many are simply labeled Oregon meaning they can use grapes from all over the state.
While Oregon winemakers are by no means obsessed with creating organic, natural, biodynamic or vegan wines, their unique meso- and micro-climates allow for less intrusive winemaking. So whatever environmentally or animal-friendly designation you may or may not see on the label, most Oregon wines offer our much sought-after quality of purity.
The unofficial nickname of Oregon is The Beaver State, but it could also be called the Pinot Noir State as many of the best USA-made expressions of this variety are made in the state. A mighty fine argument could be made that the best New World regions for Pinot Noir are Oregon AVAs and the Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago regions in New Zealand.
The first vines arrived from Iowa in 1847 and the first winery was established by Swiss immigrant Peter Britt five years later. Commercial winemaking only started in earnest about half a century ago and since then the quantitative and qualitative growth of the industry has been impressive.
Today there are 22 AVA wine regions in five viticultural-diverse areas of the state. Over 80 grape varieties are cultivated with the big three most planted and acclaimed being Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay red wines are also garnering greater attention.
At last count there were 995 officially registered wineries. Like Washington State this is an area of dynamic growth with new wineries being established on a monthly basis. Scale-wise, Oregon is the fourth largest wine-producing state following California, Washington State and New York.
The northerly latitude of Oregon wine regions bequeaths longer days with ample sunshine during the growing season allowing grapes to reach optimal ripeness. The cool evenings prolong the ripening season and help impart freshness, vitality and elegance to the wines.
Like the wines of neighboring Washington State the overall quality of wines produced in Oregon is exceptionally high. Unlike many famous regions in France, Italy, Spain and Australia where excellent but also awful wines are produced, it's very hard to find a bad Oregon wine.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Oregon wines are not well-represented in the China market and finding a pure beauty from the state can be quite challenging. Two well-respected Oregon producers, Elouan and Erath have some of their wines available in Shanghai. The Elouan Pinot Noir is made from grapes sourced from three premium wine regions and offers ripe plum flavors with mocha notes and mouth-coating soft tannins and a long finish. Their Pinot Gris wine beautifully achieves the desirable yet difficult combination of robustness and elegance.
The Erath Oregon Pinot Noir features loads of cherry and red berry aromas and flavors along with a rather sexy tannic finish while the Willamette Valley Selection Pinot Noir offers all of the aforementioned attributes with greater concentration and complexity.
When choosing Oregon wines, vintages matter. The annual weather patterns of most AVAs in Oregon vary far more than regions in Washington State. I recommend choosing wines from the good to excellent vintages of 2021, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2012 and 2010 while avoiding 2020 wines that suffered from uneven weather patterns and were tainted by smoke from wildfires.
Where to buy
Kingbond Wines, 1001, 488 Yaohua Rd, 2023-2990
Elouan Oregon Pinot Noir
Elouan Oregon Pinot Gris
Elouan Oregon Chardonnay
Erath Oregon Pinot Noir
Erath Willamette Valley Selection Pinot Noir