On the road to wine heaven: Argentina wine country tour leads Cuenca expats to unexpected discoveries

Dec 12, 2020 | 4 comments

By John Keeble

John Keeble: Life on the wine tour trail. (Credit: Phyllis Theodos)

A seven-course vegan feast, with seven paired vegan wines, limped with enchanting deliciousness through my mouth. It was a truly stunning experience. Almost unbelievable for me, someone who had turned his face against wine tours in the past and who would have doubted such culinary skill and creativity.

This invitation to visit wine regions in Argentina was different from other wine tour opportunities – my friends Esteban Coobija Arévalo and Gisela Viteri organised the trip and promised me mucho vino vegano con muchas comidas veganas. And some pretty good adventures too, including a crampon walk on an ice glacier in Patagonia with my Cuenca hiking buddies.

Okay, I can hear your mind crunching questions with no immediate answers. Vegan wine? Isn’t all wine vegan? You don’t find lumps of meat floating in your Malbec, do you?

Actually, most wines are not vegan. They are fined – clarified – with fish and animal products. Fish swim bladder. Gelatine. Egg album. Milk products. So, often, they are not even vegetarian. Even “organic” is no guarantee of a winery not using animal products.

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Tasting Bandini wines with lunch.

No one makes specifically vegan wine. As far as I know. But some wines are vegan just because they are produced without using animal products. They are fined with products based on clay, carbon and other non-animal ingredients.

Increasingly, those producers are saying so on their labels, websites and marketing. They have spotted the fast-rising vegan food market as an opportunity for their wines.

Ken March and Roger Theodos contemplate the recent past.

“What we are seeing is an increased awareness from winemakers of the desire for vegan-friendly products (there’s overlap with the allergy community as well) with more showing a clear understanding of the issues and more reports of wine bottles with mention of veganism right on the label,” said Jason Doucette, who runs the vegan-wine listing company Barnivore. “It’s not quantifiable, but as a directional indicator it brings a smile to my face.”

Argentina makes a lot of wines in a vegan way – and they are catching on to the growing vegan market opportunities, usually with no additional marketing cost beyond printing “No animal products” or “Vegano” on their labels.

This kind of promotion is picked up by supermarkets and wine stores struggling to keep up with the rising plant-based food demands around the globe – though, so far, restaurants are slow getting in on the growing market. Even vegan and vegetarian restaurants often fail to guarantee vegan or vegetarian wines.

An exception in Cuenca is El Oasis vegan restaurant. Owner Mico Eagle Feather commented: “I have found some very good vegan wines from Portugal. That’s all I serve at my restaurant. My vegan clients definitely appreciate it.”

Two of the seven vegan dishes paired with vegan wines.

Cuenca has a thriving vegan and vegetarian community. The Cuenca Vegan & Vegetarian page on Facebook recently accepted its 500th member, though maybe 100 members plug in from around the world.

Some other countries – the U.S., European nations and others with strong plant-based food demands and advanced retail sectors – are well-organised to identify cruelty-free wines and bring them to the notice of shoppers.

Fine result: vegan fining agent settles impurities ready for disposal.

Last time I was in the UK, for example, a small Co-op store in a Cambridgeshire village had half a dozen vegan wines to choose from and dozens more on the company list. Five miles away in the nearest town, Waitrose supermarket had a long list of vegan wines and a helpful staffer who walked me around to find something that appealed. It is not so easy in Ecuador.

However, Argentina has many wineries using animal-free products – which was one of the reasons that I was pleased to join friends for a wine tour in the Mendoza and Salta regions.

I travelled in hope and awaited my inquiries when I arrived. What would I find? A couple of vegan wines and the rest not?

We flew into Salta, north-east Argentina, and spent time at wineries there and later at Mendoza. Every winery we visited – and we visited a good few – told the same story of using non-animal products.

Bob Itami and Jolene Wilson-Glah getting the good life in focus.

One of the stars of the show was Mendoza’s Bousquet winery where I had the seven-course vegan meal, each course with a paired vegan wine. Others in our group, vegetarians and carnivores, had the same wines – the winery uses no animal products, so all its four million litres of wine each year are vegan (and it says so on its labels).

Another was the exceptional Finca Bandini, that served us both fine wines and, like Bousquet, fascinating knowledge of wine production.

Bob Itami, one of the Cuenca tour group, commented: “I had never heard of vegan wines nor did I know about the alternative processes for making wine to meet vegan or organic standards. Learning about the differences, finding that you can produce premium wines without animal products or chemical preservatives, was a real eye opener.

“The care and pride we saw in the production of vegan, organic wines in Argentina gave me a real appreciation for the winemakers who take the effort to produce these wonderful wines.”

Gisela Viteri and Esteban Coobija Arévalo.

Jeff Van Pelt, another group member, said: “Mendoza is an amazing place to visit, especially for wine lovers. It is an oasis in the middle of a desert. Water from the Andes mountains allows its 1,000-plus vineyards to produce 3% of the world’s wine, we were told.”

Away from the producing areas, a major difficulty in selecting vegan wine in a shop or restaurant is that most wineries do not state what they use in the production. And finding out can be tediously difficult if it is not listed on Barnivore and you happen not to be in the production area.

Unlike the food industry, the wine industry overall is not far advanced in catering for plant-based diets.

It can come down to taking your best guess – for example, buying a Mendoza or Argentinian wine without knowing the specific production methods but being confident that the probability of vegan methods is high.

Our wine and hiking tour in Argentina came to an abrupt end when Ecuador announced it was closing its borders because of the Covid pandemic.

But most things have a silver lining and this was no exception. I was one of nine from our group to get stuck in the Buenos Aires lockdown … but my Airbnb host was an expert on Mendoza wine.

He kept me well supplied with vegan wines, especially Malbecs, for a few dollars a bottle. It certainly helped to the pass the time.

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