The hot topics occupying wine professionals can sometimes get a little disconnected from those that are actually on the lips of “normal” wine lovers—by which I mean the greater wine-buying public at large.
One theme that has obsessed journalists, sommeliers, and retailers over the last few years is the discussion about “natural wine”—how can we define it, is it a positive or a negative development, and who’s buying it? But when I discussed this with independent wine merchant Paola Tich, owner of Park + Bridge in West London (UK) she cautioned, “People never come into the shop and ask for a natural wine—but I get asked all the time if we have sulfur-free wines.”
In an age of allergies, intolerances, and hypochondriasis, sulfur has become a modern-day boogeyman—due in part perhaps to the slightly threatening “contains sulfites” labeling that must appear on any bottle of wine with 10mg/L or more. A discussion of how sulfites are used, and why they are almost certainly harmless in wine is beyond the scope of this short article. To keep it brief, despite 99 percent of the population being unaffected by the minuscule amounts found in wine, many consumers have decided it must be good to avoid them.
Enter South African giant Stellar Organics, who in 2004 launched a range of no-added sulfur red wines. These are not niche “natural wines,” made in tiny quantities and sold for a premium price, but rather budget-priced supermarket gluggers. At their price point, they are an excellent value, undemanding, and pretty vibrant.
Stellar didn’t have a great deal of competition back in 2004, but the market for “no-added sulfites” wine appears to be growing exponentially. Larger producers are responding to this slightly bizarre, arguably misinformed customer demand by developing no-sulfur ranges for their portfolios.
Take Gerald Bertrand, a major producer in the Languedoc, bottling under nine different estate labels plus a clutch of non-geographical budget offerings. Their “Naturae” range is a new initiative, featuring nine varietal wines made with “no added sulfur or any other additives.” Bertrand told me “I wanted to improve the quality of this category of wines. We have first focused on research in order to guarantee the maturity of the grapes and the sustainability of the wines. After three years of development and research, we have launched the Naturae range on the market.”
The wines are low/mid-priced, at around $12 in the U.S. market. Although definitely designed to have mass appeal, I saw them divide opinion at a recent consumer tasting. The Chardonnay had excellent concentration, and delivered quite a punch for the price—but for those unused to “no sulfur” bottlings, the nose may have seemed a bit wild, with pungent herbal notes that might be unexpected in more mass produced wine.
Slightly “funky” aromas are undoubtedly a calling card for no sulfur wines—even those made under very strict commercial conditions, such as Stellar Organic’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Winemaking know-how has definitely progressed since Stellar first introduced their range. In 2008, UK supermarket Sainsbury’s worked with Stellar to introduce its own label no-sulfur range. The wines came with a warning “once opened, do not store this wine.” While it’s true that wines made without sulfite inputs can be less stable, starting with top quality fruit and modifying cellar practices accordingly can mitigate this quite considerably. Bertrand confidently states, “We guarantee a potential of aging of four years minimum for the Naturae red wines and two years for Naturae rosé and white wines.”
Larger cooperatives haven’t always been known for innovation, but having serious scale and plentiful availability of fruit allows for experimentation. Les Vignerons de Buzet, in Southwest France, started with a number of trial micro-vinifications before eventually launching their “sans sulfites” range in 2013.
Ribero del Duero’s Virgen de la Asunción is a cooperative made up of 100 growers and some 325 hectares. Their “Zarzuela Joven” 2014 is a joyful, unoaked Tempranillo packed with lively fruit, even if it also comes with a pigeon English caution on the back label: “Warning: not contains added sulphites.”
There’s more than just still whites, reds, and rosés in the “no sulfur” marketplace—a small but increasing number of Champagne producers are also climbing on board the no-sulfur-dioxide bandwagon. Drappier’s “Brut Nature Sans Souffre” is a beautiful example, with a finely judged balance between toasty, yeasty complexity, and the freshness of the fruit. In the U.S. this cuvée will set you back about $40 to $60.
It’s important to note that the vast majority of these wines are made in a conventional way, apart from the lack of sulfur dioxide input. Large producers such as Gerard Bertrand, Les Vignerons de Buzet, and Stellar Organics favor tight control over their ferments, and this invariably means inoculation with selected lab yeasts, control or restriction of the malolactic fermentation, followed by filtering and fining to ensure that the finished wines are “supermarket” starbright and clear.
There’s nothing wrong with these techniques—indeed they are absolutely standard for mass-market winemaking, but consumers shouldn’t confuse these ranges with the parallel trend for low-intervention winemaking (AKA “natural wine”). The natural wine world is fueled by small artisan producers and wine fairs such as Raw (coming to New York later this year) or The Big Glou. These are idealists, market disruptors, and iconoclasts, generally working with wild fermentation and eschewing filtration or fining. Their wines span a huge range of styles and idiosyncrasies, and won’t normally be seen on supermarket shelves, or at budget prices.
The more mass-produced wines discussed in this article are a response to consumer health concerns about sulfur, more than they are attempts to make fine wine. That these concerns are almost certainly unwarranted does add a slight note of cynicism. That said, making wine with no added sulfites requires producers to advance their craft and push the boundaries. Those gains in knowledge and experience are surely valuable for the whole industry.
Photo credit: Unsplash.com/@timmossholder.