At a brunch over the holiday season, I was lucky enough to taste two bottles of 2014 Lapierre Morgon—a much-beloved Beaujolais—side by side. The wines were identical save for one small factor: one had had a small amount of SO2 added at the time of bottling. The other was sans soufre ajouté: no chemical additions, sulfur or otherwise. Lapierre’s importer, the esteemed Kermit Lynch, brings both versions into the country. The only way to know which one you might have in your possession is to check the back label. If a small "S" appears in the lower left-hand corner, it’s the sulfured one. If an "N" appears, no sulfur.
We opted to pour the two bottles blind (that’s wine-speak for not disclosing which glass contained which version of the wine) to see what, if any, preference we had without bias. My seat at the table gave me a unique perspective. To my right sat friends in the trade who are used to these sorts of exercises. To my left, their partners who enjoy wine, but less in the analytical way that their partners might. One brought up a question that seemed to get lost under the animated discussions and clinking of glassware: “What’s the deal with sulfur?”
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Sulfites—a general term that includes free sulfur dioxide (SO2)—are always present in wine. They occur naturally as a byproduct of fermentation, which is why you’ll still see the "Contains Sulfites" warning on labels of even the most stringent of additives-free natural wines. But most conventional winemakers add SO2 at various stages of winemaking (with the caveat that the lesser the quantity, the better) for its preservative and antimicrobial properties. It’s a safeguarding practice that dates back as far as ancient Rome, when sulfur was used to prepare vessels for wine storage. Adding a small amount at bottling can help ensure a wine’s soundness during shipping in case of temperature fluctuations. It can also help to prevent re-fermentation for whites that have a bit of residual sugar. Proponents argue that it helps wine age over longer periods of time, reining in the effects of oxidation and other microbial activity.