Sometimes, even vegans are surprised to learn that not all wine is vegan. And that even some vegan wines come from vineyards where animal-based products are used. We catch up with our winemaker Manfred Ing about crafting high-quality vegan wines from the ground up.
At Querciabella, we rigorously avoid animal products from vineyard to cellar since 2010 and produce real terroir-driven wines through a specific bioveganic system.
But how does this work in practice? Winemaker Manfred Ing, originally from South Africa, has held his title at Querciabella since 2010, the year when the estate operations became 100% plant-based. Curious, driven, and profoundly humble, he is flanked by a reliable, well-tenured team in the vineyards, led by agronomist and technical director, Dales D’Alessandro.
What were the reasons behind the decision to switch to vegan production?
The reasons are profoundly ethical and at the same time quality-driven. Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, the owner of Querciabella, is a passionate activist for animal rights. Through the years, he has become increasingly involved as an investor and entrepreneur in changing how we produce and consume our food. Sebastiano firmly believes that an agriculture integrated into the surrounding environment, with no harmful inputs, is ethically correct and necessary to make real terroir-driven wines. The conversion to plant-based was a natural progression in keeping with his principles.
What were the first reactions to Querciabella vegan conversion?
Well, as Sebastiano recalls, we work in a very traditional industry and back in 2010 the conversation about Vegan wines hadn’t picked up, yet. Let’s say that it raised a few eyebrows at the time, especially as we were already an established name in the Tuscan premium wine segment.
How did you deal with this type of scepticism?
Like we always do at Querciabella. By producing the best wine possible. When we first adopted organic farming in the late 1980s, long before it was a certified practice, people thought of it as a fade that was unreconcilable with quality winemaking. The same thing happened when we embraced traditional biodynamics in 2000. Being at the forefront of excellence and innovation often attracts suspicion and criticism.
“Twenty years ago, nobody understood what veganism was. But the original apprehension started to disappear once people realized our wines didn’t suffer from our revolutionary approach. On the contrary, the wines noticeably improved.”
– Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni.
Why is not all wine Vegan?
Many would naturally think that all wine is vegan it’s made from grapes after all. However, most wines are not and that is down to the ‘fining’ process when winemaking. In most wineries, animal-derived products are added to wine to speed up the clarification process. Common fining methods include the use of egg whites, isinglass derived from sturgeon bladder, chitin made from crustacean shells, casein or cow’s or pig’s hoof gelatin, just to name a few.
Are all unfiltered wines vegan?
Not really. The use of animal derivatives has become ubiquitous in wine production; it starts in the vineyards, where manure and fertilizers might be used and continues in the cellar right down to the bottling line. Some corks contain beeswax, and milk-based glues are a standard choice to stick labels and seal packaging. From our perspective, the implications of a vegan choice extend far beyond the exclusion of a few ingredients from winemaking.
So, starting in the vineyard, how do you make vegan wines at Querciabella?
The core principle underlying our methods involves specifically promoting biodiversity, from the ground up. The biological activation of soil life is the key to a stable wine-growing ecosystem and the decisive factor behind terroir quality and a vine’s resistance to disease. From cover-crops to herbal preparations as well as manual tending and careful vine management, we employ only natural solutions restoring to nature what we take out.
Some agricultural experts claim you can’t be biodynamic and vegan because you “need” to use animal fertilizer. What’s your take on this?
According to textbook biodynamics, animal-based preparations, including cow horns filled with manure, must be used in order to boost soil’s fertility. We argue that it is possible to achieve the same or even better results with cover crops, plant-based preparations and green manure. After all natural forests, which we look to as examples of healthy eco-systems, are in no way reliant on domesticated-animal products.
Beyond not hurting animals, what would you say are the most important benefits of vegan farming?
The use of animals and animal products in agriculture is damaging to the planet and is entirely avoidable. Vegan farming helps safeguard the environment by enriching the soil, reducing erosion and pollution and promoting CO2entrapment.
From a technical standpoint, we witness the benefits throughout the life cycle of our vines. All of our vineyards are on steep slopes: usually nutrients and water deposit at the bottom of the hill creating a visible disparity. We, on the other hand, have an incredible balance. The buds burst simultaneously; the shoots grow at the same pace, the veraison, the changing of the colour, the ripening all happen harmoniously.
How does vegan biodynamics shape the flavour profile and structure of Querciabella wines?
At its simplest, it works like this: through cover crops, we encourage a symbiotic interaction between the vine and the soil’s bacteria, microorganisms and fungi. Consequently, the vines thrive and achieve a more homogenous growth and grape ripening. The roots feed deep into a thriving soil, resulting in genuinely site-specific wines. We follow up in the cellar with a meticulous micro-vinification regime that respects and expresses the uniqueness of each vineyard.
How does your winemaking differ from traditional?
Our winemaking focuses on the purity of the fruit that becomes our wines. We limit our intervention to physical and transformative processes that are as natural as possible and eschew any chemical input to preserve the varietal character and tension. For example, we strictly object to using cultured yeasts or any other additives in vinification but carefully follow fermentations to allow indigenous yeasts to work at their best. This requires maximum cleanliness, precision and timing.
What would you say to a fellow winemaker who was resistant to embracing vegan winemaking?
First, they should take a walk in our vineyards. It’s an incredible experience. The hum and buzz of insects are almost deafening. Rare bird species, partridges and wood pigeons, wild animals like hare, and roe dear roam free – the perfect picture of a healthy ecosystem, not the desolate, lifeless sight of commercial vineyards. Then, they should taste our wines. The proof is really in the glass.
What’s the future of Vegan Wines?
With younger consumers, especially, becoming increasingly cautious in their lifestyle and more concerned by the effects of conventional farming and food production on human health, animal exploitation and environmental wellbeing, comes the rise of vegan wines.
We are evidence that cruelty-free winemaking is the way forward to exceptional oenological results. I’m generally pleased to see that more wineries have started to figure out more sustainable practices in the vineyards and in the cellar to get results without compromising quality.