The Great Wine-Sulfur Debate
A fun way to assess the additive's effects, in a two-bottle taste test.
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?”
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.
While sulfite sensitivity is a thing, it’s also unlikely that sulfites in wine are responsible for those headaches that many people complain of. In the grand scheme of things we consume, we’re far more likely to encounter large quantities of them in processed foods. There are multiple thousand parts per million more sulfites in dried fruit than your standard bottle of red. Fruit juices from concentrate and french fries are also guilty offenders.
So, given all of the benefits of SO2 and comparative lack of health concerns, why would a winemaker choose to forego it? And why would someone prefer a wine that has no sulfur added? Well, it’s not unlike the claim that unpasteurized cheeses are more flavorful than their pasteurized versions. Successful sans soufre wines are said to exhibit more profound aromas and to express their terroir with more purity – not to taste better, per se, but to taste more. The idea is that the preservative might hinder friendly microbes along with the bad and stifle or mute some of a wine’s unique qualities. Plus, why chemically interfere with a wine if it’s perfectly stable on its own? If the grapes are healthy, with a low pH (read: higher natural acidity, which also serves as a stabilizing agent), and if there’s good winery hygiene, SO2 is more of an insurance policy than a necessity. Many winemakers I know use it on a case-by-case basis: eschewing the addition altogether in years when the grapes are close to perfect, adding a little if the harvest proves trickier.
Luckily, we live in an era when great examples exist on both sides of the sulfur fence, for whatever your philosophical or drinking inclinations may be. In the case of the Lapierre bottles, the table almost unanimously preferred the unsulfured version. Both wines tasted perfectly fresh and juicy, but the ‘N’ seemed turned up one notch: more definition, more vivid fruit, lingering longer on the palate after each sip.
Here, 4 other sans soufre wines to try:
NV Valentin Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut Zéro ($25)
Marie Zusslin farms the Pinot Auxerrois, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris for this sparkler in her historic Clos Liebenberg vineyard biodynamically. In addition to being bottled without sulfur, it’s also bottled with zero dosage, resulting in a bone-dry, crisp mouthful of white peach- and stone-driven flavors.
2013 Cascina degli Ulivi Gavi ($20)
This is the bottle to show anyone who thinks of Gavi as bland. Although packed with ripe fruit and the Cortese grape’s inherent green almond-bitterness, it’s more a lesson in texture. Rich and silky on the palate, it’s a great go-to for anything from simple pastas to richer fish dishes.
2011 Benoit Courault ‘Les Rouliers’ Vin de France ($26)
Inspired by his years working with Eric Pfifferling at the famed Domaine L’Anglore in Tavel, Courault set out to work as naturally as possible at his own estate. This bottle is a unique expression of Cabernet Franc grown on schist in France’s Anjou that’s concentrated without feeling overtly tannic and shows the wildness of the grape, tinged with spice and herbs.
2014 Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot ‘DD’ Arbois Rouge ($28)
A cuvée of co-fermented Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir from one of the Jura’s most outspoken winemakers, this tastes as bright and red-fruited as it looks in the glass. Unsulphured, unfined, unfiltered, and vinified without pump-overs or punch-downs, it also carries the hallmark violet scent of the Trousseau grape.