Gary Steel finds some wine that’s safe to drink for vegetarians and vegans… in moderation, of course!
IT’S SOMETHING THAT vegetarians tend to put in a little box under the bed and forget about, figuratively speaking. Some of us choose to ignore the fact that cheese is laced with rennet, or that most commercial yoghurt brands contain gelatine. And those of us who enjoy the odd tipple just don’t want to know (who would?) that wine, more often than not, isn’t just the bounty of pressed and fermented grapes, but is contaminated with animal products.
A small but growing number of New Zealand wineries have dedicated themselves to making vegan wine, although each has its own philosophy and differences in the way they approach the product and the market.
Moana Park Winery started out with organic intentions, and ended up not only as an accredited organic operation, but one that promotes its wines as both vegan and ‘low allergen’. In a quest to find out exactly what that meant, and to discover what evils conventional wine makers are perpetuating, we spoke to Moana Park’s owner and chief winemaker, Dan Barker.
Doctor Feelgood – What I’m after is more information about the stated vegan nature of the wines. When did you get into organic wine in the first place?
Dan – We bought the Kingsley Tobin vineyard, the gravel site, in 2005, and that was the beginning of it. Previously the business was entirely around commercial grape growing, certainly parts of the winery anyway, and it’s been a natural evolution as we went forward, really.
Doctor Feelgood – How did you get into the idea of low allergen wine?
Dan – We sort of fell into it. The winery itself was a small component of a larger business where we had the pick of several hundred hectares of viticulture land in Hawkes Bay, and because we were only choosing perfect fruit, we didn’t need to have any fining agents and so forth. In the worst years we wouldn’t have issues with the fruit, we’d just be choosing the best of the lot with the balance sold on. That being said, that’s how it was initially, now we’ve just continued that programme on with all our vineyards, and we use all our fruit entirely through the winery. It’s been one of those things where we’ve been really amped up over the last few years, and it’s become a real focus for us. Not only in grape growing, but certainly in wine production.
Doctor Feelgood – What exactly does low allergen mean?
Dan – Well, for us, and we’re the only New Zealand winery marketing under that banner. For us it just means less is more. It means we’re just not adding, we’re simply avoiding any allergen source we can in our wine growing, in our wine making.
Doctor Feelgood – What does that mean in real terms?
Dan – Okay, so, the common misconception with organic farming is that it’s spray free. There was a thread going through Twitter a few days ago where they were talking about the emergence, or re-emergence of something like MSG in food products in New Zealand, and how not everyone knew that 621 was MSG. The misconception for me with organic farming is that people are unaware that copper and sulphur are sprayed in organic farming, and people don’t understand that these products… they think organic products are completely spray free, when actually it couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ll find with most organic farms that often there’s no sheep allowed in the vineyard, because the copper levels in the vineyard far exceed what the sheep or meat farmers will allow in their meat. We like to go beyond that organic scenario because… we don’t put copper pipes in our houses anymore, do we? It’s not because of the cost of copper, it’s because of the poison. So for us, no copper and no sulphur sprayed in the vineyard.
Doctor Feelgood – So it really is based on the principle that if you’re adding anything that it could be bad for health.
Dan – Certainly. The global term is really ‘natural wine’. The issue we have with the term ‘natural wine’ is that there are a lot of really average natural wines out there and for Moana, we were the most awarded Hawkes Bay winery at the world wine awards last year.
Doctor Feelgood – So you don’t really market the wine in a full-on way as organic. I imagine you market it as organic to the organic market, but not to the conventional market.
Dan – That’s correct, because of course marketing it as an organic product can actually be detrimental to the product. Organics is a great excuse for producing low quality product.
Doctor Feelgood– Moana is the only producer in New Zealand literally going the route that you’re going – not only organic, but no additives. What’s behind the vegan thing?
Dan – The whole vegan thing is simply elimination. It’s pretty easy process really. Traditionally in wine we add egg, milk, fish, gelatine and carbon (sugar), none of which are vegan products. Sugar may not be obvious, but it’s fined – made white – using carbon made from cattle. That’s why sugar is not a vegan product. For us really it’s not because any of us are vegan or vegetarian, but if you open up a thousand litre drum of gelatine, and you smell it, there’s no way you want to add that to your wine. A better question to ask here is ‘why do you need these products in your wine?’ And the answer for me is you add these products because you want to fix the wine. So… the reality for me is if we don’t screw it up, we don’t need to fix it. The animal products – the way I liken it is if you take a young wine and put it on your palate, your palate gets very quickly dry if it’s a red wine. What’s happening there is the tannin in the wine is breaking down the protein in your saliva. So by adding the egg white for example, some of it’s going to attach to the wine, and some of it’s going to fall out. But what it is effectively doing is attaching itself to those tannin molecules, the same as what’s happening on your palate. But it just means we’ve either got to add less tannin, or more carefully manage our extraction rate from our skin when we’re pressing our fruit, so… If it’s a white wine we don’t take as much yield, so we don’t press the skins and the seeds as much, which is where all the bitterness in the wine is. You would have bitten into a grape seed at some stage in your life, and understand how bitter they are. So for us it’s about not squashing them. We have a bit of tech in the winery, and I don’t know if we still are, but for the past few years we’ve been the only people operating one, and that’s our grape press, and it operates in a vacuum, and that means we have no oxygen into the wine, and therefore no preservative, but the advantage of the vacuum press is that it operates at much lower pressure, so a traditional bag press works on about 3 bar gauge, whereas we operate, our maximum pressure is negative point .1/ so significantly reduced pressure, so much less broken skins and seeds, and less bitterness in the wine.
Doctor Feelgood – If you can get away without using fish or gelatine in the wines, why is it so rare to find that?
Dan – Wine’s a traditional product, and these are traditional additives. The people making wine in New Zealand have been making wine for a good 20 or 30 years, and have been making wine this way, whereas a relatively new player in the market has looked at things differently. Plus from a marketing perspective also, we’re trying to create a niche. But really the niche came along after we started making our wines, rather than trying to do it from the outset. It’s just that we enjoy wines this way… wines that don’t ruin your Saturday morning.
Doctor Feelgood – So using fish, egg and gelatine is traditional?
Dan – Yes. I have no idea how it was first invented, but certainly adding egg, milk, fish, gelatine, these are traditional methods. The labeling law says that gelatine doesn’t have to be on the back label.
Doctor Feelgood – That’s one thing that astonishes me, because any vegetarian would want to avoid gelatine.
Dan – I know. It’s amazing really, isn’t it? And gelatine of all things. But there are probably wineries that do produce a wine that they get right occasionally, that they don’t have to fine. However, for us, it’s across the board on every product, it’s a blanket across our entire portfolio, rather than having one vintage that was or wasn’t.
Doctor Feelgood – Effectively avoiding using those products would boost the cost, wouldn’t it?
Dan – Well, I don’t think we get the yield. We don’t fit in that 80 percent yield. We’re down to about 65 percent. It means it takes longer for the wine to settle out. Let’s be fair, we are still using the latest technology. We are using tangential flow filtration, we use a porous ceramic filter, which is state of the art. But it means we have no wastage. So we’ve invested heavily in technology. But it can take longer, and we do have slightly lower yields than everybody else. But that also stems from… not just in the winery. So we also have to run with a lower crop per hectare, because we can’t go out and spray everything like everybody else does.
Doctor Feelgood – How would you describe the size of your operation?
Dan – We were about 2000 cartons in 2008, but now we’re a little under 15,000. As far as New Zealand goes we’re still right down in the tiny boutique category. We’re still well within Category 3 in New Zealand, which is a boutique. But we are growing, and we’re growing at about 100 percent a year.
Doctor Feelgood – And what about overseas? Is that a sizeable part of your market?
Dan – Oh, it’s about 70 percent. Certainly in the UK, this is the largest growing sector of the market. Not necessarily organic, but clean, products that are transparent about their production methodology.
Doctor Feelgood – I’ve noticed when drinking your wine that I just don’t seem to get hangovers.
Dan – We joke about that all the time actually, and something that we joke about with our clients, we joke about the two-bottle rule. If you drink less than three bottles and we can guarantee you won’t get a hangover. And I always give out my business card. I haven’t had a phone call yet, but I’m sure I will one day! It’s because there’s nothing in the wine. It’s not that we’re 100 percent free from everything… of course there’s always going to be something in there. But there’s just less, and we’re very conscious, we want to look after our clientele.
Doctor Feelgood – Is it primarily the sulphites that cause bad next days?
Dan – I certainly think it’s an effect on some people. Red wine is the biggest baddy for most people, and there’s a couple of things here. One I think, drinking red wine dehydrates you because of the anticyanin levels combined with it being a slightly higher PH product, so therefore traditional winemaking would suggest that it needs to have a higher preservative level. And the third thing is that red wine, along with chardonnay, has always gone for a malolactic fermentation, so that’s a secondary ferment where the – technically it’s not a ferment, but we convert malic acid to lactic acid gas using a bacteria called lucinos agenos, and several strains of that bacteria can create very high levels of histamine… levels of histamine that… technically the product is illegal. But nobody, including NZFSA, tests for histamine in wine, so for us, we use a product from CHR Hanson in Hamilton that guarantees no histamine production in our wine, so you don’t get that hayfevery sharp pain between the eyes after half a glass of wine. It certainly effects me.
Doctor Feelgood – I’ll often drink half a glass of red wine and get a headache within an hour.
Dan– Yep, I’m exactly the same.
Doctor Feelgood – But so far – touch wood – I haven’t had that with yours.
Dan – Well, I don’t get it with mine either. It’s about being careful and understanding these sciences, and it does make a difference to the consumer at the end of the day.
Doctor Feelgood – I notice one of your very nice wines, Syrah… I was talking about it with the wife the other night and she was saying it’s one of the wines that complements well with various meats. And of course we’re both vegetarians, and we started to wonder… are you aware of any kind of vegetarian foods that wines complement well?
Dan – That’s a really good point and it’s certainly something we are working on, and Matt who works here in the office is currently working on a wine makers dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Auckland to do just that, to promote vegetarian food and wine matching. So yes, we’re not quite there yet, but we will get there.
Doctor Feelgood – It’s one of those things you never read about – it’s always a meat dish that the wine goes with.
Dan – That’s so true. Actually, something like sauvignon blanc pairs perfectly with feta, so that’s a vegetarian option. But there are so many vegetarian options that work so well with wine.
Doctor Feelgood – I know you provided some wines recently for an Animal Sanctuary dinner.
Dan – Yeah, we’ve supported PETA in the past, and we’re sponsors of Project Jonah as well.