Sunday, December 13, 2009
Sans soufre. It sounds even nicer in French, but a wine claiming to be sulfur free sure seems more, well, serious and committed. And it looks so simple and neat. Sulfur, or potassium metabisulfite in our case, does not really seem like something we should ingest in quantity anyway, though chemical names never really sound very tasty. Contentious winemakers always like to point out that there is always some sulfur in any wine; it is a natural byproduct of yeast fermentation and it usually sits around 6 to 15 parts per million (ppm), though it can be higher. This is equivalent to 26-68 drops in a barrel. That bottle of Brunello you had last night, with its extensive barrel time and likely aging in the bottle probably had around 100ppm of bound sulfur and maybe 65 ppm as free sulfur to protect it during bottling and into years of bottle aging. The formula above works out to about 750 drops of a 50% aqueous sulfur solution in a 225 liter barrel. A little at the crusher helps keeps bad bugs way, while reductively made whites can swallow hundreds of grams a ton. Make no mistake, sulfur is the most important tool in preserving wine quality. It is very predictable, and when conscientiously applied, pretty benign. How can something so boring be so important and contentious, or is it?
Ethically, wines without sulfur additions are fascinating, and virtuous in a dangerous and exciting way. They make a statement. Wines oxidize, and things can grow in wine that cause off flavors (though the acidity keeps them pathogen free, so even though I don’t know where your mouth has been I certainly will try a sip of that Barolo). But, do you want to drink oxidized wine that tastes like nail polish? Sulfur additions used properly can help prevent this. In 1487 royal Prussian decree allowed sulfur additions. The Romans as we know burnt sulfur in various storage vessels, though they also added sea water to overly bitter wines, so maybe sulfur just ain’t all that. Sulfur levels are usually monitored pretty closely in wineries, often with the thought by responsible parties that less is better for the natural evolution of wines. There are also farmer-John types who add so much sulphur that it bleaches the wine color out (which is reversible by the way) thinking that if a little is good, etc.
Without dwelling in numbers too much, we should note that according to the FDA .4% of the population (1,200,000 people) are considered highly allergic to sulfites, though levels vary and 5% of asthmatics are particularly at risk. This is a large number of people to me, and they would very much be a target market. And, contrary to most oldtimers, not everyone interested in unsulfited wine (a more correct term) is a weenie. But, like the MSG monster, a lot of people with a hangover sometimes think they are having a sulfur reaction. Life can be complicated, and my wife’s whole family is clearly sulfur sensitive. But, it is generally accepted that wine ranks quite low on the sulfite danger list
Making a wine without sulfur additions is technically challenging because you do not have an antimicrobial agent to afford wiggle room. In Mendocino County, Frey Vineyards is certified Organic and Biodynamic (that discussion is for another time) and sulfite additive free. They are family owned and operated, great people, and their wines are always interesting and below $20. Frey does not barrel age their wines, the barrels are too much of a microbial and oxidative risk for them, so they are tank-made with oak adjuncts (another discussion for later). Even this is not insurance enough, and the last time I spoke with them, they had just gotten rid of an entire varietal vintage that had gone wrong. These are the risks, and they are very real.
Winemakers around the world are experimenting. In Italy Friuli’s Radikon is a poster member of the new smart kids club, making wine in historical modes without sulfur addition. Many are lowering sulfur levels, eschewing any addition after crushing. These wines are not simply victims of a philosophical notion of naturalness. These wines are also palate-driven. Earlier this year we ran our own little sulfur experiment with two barrels of our Primitivo. One received its inaugural dose after we decided malolactic fermentation had finished. The next evening a sample was pulled from each barrel and evaluated. The result is why this boring entry is being written. The sulfured sample had much broader palate feel, a sense of cohesion and overall integrity. In the mouth it had a sense that it was a real wine with all the trappings of predictability and stability. The nose was focused and as expected. But, the unsulfured sample was fascinating. It lacked palate cohesion and felt like it was completely out of synch with itself in the mouth but it was vibrant and tensely alive. It was thinner, tart, almost unpleasant in its angularity except for its bizarre behavior. But the nose, that was the clincher. It had treble and bass notes that the sulfur completely wiped out of the other sample. It was much more unpredictable and at the same time mineral driven, which is something we have been striving to bring into focus with our Primitivo. It had bizarre candy and earth tones at the same time that just did not exist in the other sample. But, the palate was arguably better, or fuller anyway, with sulfur. We can only imagine how differently a white might present. The sulfur issue is also most likely varietally dependant. Some claim that Sauvignon Blanc without sulfur would be a disaster as its signature aromas are too delicate and would oxidize into off flavors.
Frey’s recently tasted Syrah and Sangiovese seemed to verify our little experiment. But, here Frey is a good example, there is a tendency to conflate sulfur discussions with organic certification, moving what may be a technical stylistic argument into that sticky green quagmire that gets so much marketing mileage right now. From a winemaking point of view unsulfited wine can very easily be made from non-organic grapes in a non-organic certified facility. There are a few orange-colored non-organic white wines from Sicily that are examples of this. It is clearly a stylist approach arguably less holistic than producing organic unsulfited wines. It is a quest for flavor within the winery.
It is interesting to note that many texts and technical articles claim that sulfur enhances both palate and aroma in definitive tone. That may be good if incorrect advice for students, but like cooking all pork to 165 degrees, it is tragically misinformed and brutally anhedonic. Risk management is a completely different type of argument all together. For example, we grow most of our own grapes, we know how safe they are. Our size allows a certain level of risk to be assessed, and we have the luxury of experimenting. We have had a couple of vintages have never seen the light of day, but this is accepted risk with small lots of “boutique” wines (gak, what a horrible word when you are knee deep in mud all winter or working another 14-hour day). When your winery looks like an oil refinery, risk management moves ahead of stylistic experimentation, as does inter-vintage consistency, something anathema to risky wine making.
Will our winery risk an unsulfited red wine attempt next year? Hell no. We can not afford the risk and we do not yet have the knowledge to manage it wisely. Will one be attempted in the future? Yes, absolutely. A tank rosé might be a good candidate. Progress demands it. Knowledge through experimentation requires it. One can experiment with it without committing to a wholesale ideology like biodynamicism. Weird wines need to be made, especially when the market is still recoiling from an overoaked safe and tame homogenization of overripe styles. Authenticity seems to be reestablishing itself, and even failed experiments can be part of this movement.