For those of us who prefer to drink nonmanipulated wines made with organic grapes and minimal intervention and that express their varietal and place of origin—so-called natural wines—the addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2) to our wines is a controversial topic. We prefer wines that taste as fresh and pure as possible, with beautiful aromatics, and made by conscientious and attentive winemakers. Most of us do not want wines flawed by the yeast Brettanomyces (Brett, for short), which imparts smells of barnyard, “sweaty saddle,” or gamey animal aromas. Nor do we want our wine to smell like nail polish or a mouse cage—a fault of volatile acidity (VA). The conventional remedy for these faults in wine is to add sulfur during grape harvesting and winemaking and at bottling (to protect the wines for transportation).
Sulfur has a bad rep in the natural wine world. A naturally occurring compound, sulfur is an antioxidant, a preservative, and an antibacterial agent. Because sulfites absorb oxygen, they inhibit aerobic bacterial growth that can cause flaws and faults in wine. But some people claim that sulfites give them headaches (though I’ve also heard that it’s the histamines, not sulfites, that can cause headaches) or an allergy-like reaction. Others say they can detect an excess of sulfur in wine by a characteristic “burned” smell, like burned matches.
Last week I attended a very interesting talk at Brooklyn Wine Exchange presented by Martin Texier on the subject of making wine without added sulfur. This welcoming and neighborly wine shop offers tastings and weekly free classes in its spacious learning center. We tasted three of Martin’s 2012 wines, all made without added sulfur, not even at bottling.
Martin is the son of Eric Texier, who makes renowned natural wines from the Rhône Valley, in southeastern France. Eric has always worked organically. His grapes come from about 95 percent old vines, and in his quest to make pure, clear, precise wines that express where they come from, he strives to intervene as little as possible. Eric is a careful winemaker who aspires to use no chemicals. However, he is not dogmatic about using sulfur. If the wine needs a little help to be safe in the bottle, Eric will add some sulfur.
Martin told us that winemakers have been using sulfur for at least two centuries. In the vineyard, they spray sulfur on the grape leaves as a fungicide against oidium (powdery mildew). Inside the winery, they clean barrels with sulfur to kill Brettanomyces yeast, and during winemaking sulfur can be used at several times when the grapes and/or liquid are most vulnerable to being damaged by exposure to air:
- Immediately after the grapes are picked and placed in the open vat
- Before transferring the stable wine from the fermentation tank to the barrel
- During racking—the process of transferring the wine from one barrel (off its lees, or dead yeast cells) into a new, clean barrel
- Just before bottling, as a conservative agent
Could Winemakers Use Less Sulfur? Was It Possible to Make Wines in a More Natural Way, Without Chemicals?
In 1967, a microbiologist named Jules Chauvet, who was living in the Beaujolais and making wine with his friends, asked himself these questions and decided to find out. Now known as the father of the natural wine movement, Chauvet realized that the prevailing practice of adding sulfur to the just-harvested grapes in the vat was killing a lot of the indigenous yeast—naturally present on the grape skins—that eat the sugars in the grape juice and start the fermentation. Some vignerons used so much sulfur that they had to add cultivated, commercial yeast to the grapes to get the fermentation started.
Chauvet understood that killing the indigenous yeast of the region meant that the winemakers were removing terroir characteristics from their wine. Martin defines terroir as “history, the soil and climate, the grape varietals, and the tradition of the region, which is very closely linked to the soil. People grow the particular grape varietals and use the winemaking techniques that fit the soil and climate of the specific place. In this way, their wines are a nice expression of the fruit and the soil.” The indigenous yeast present on the grapes of any region are part of that terroir equation too.
Chauvet realized that although not using sulfur would preserve the indigenous yeast and allow the wines to express their terroir, other problems would result—namely, Brett, VA, and oxidation. Chauvet never said, however, that winemakers should use zero sulfur. He was not dogmatic in that way. In fact, he believed that using sulfur before bottling was a good thing.
In the years since 1967, vignerons who share a philosophy of wanting to make wines that express their terroir and use few to no chemicals have been experimenting and perfecting various techniques and methods, one of which is to use the enzyme lysozyme. Lysozyme, which is found in large amounts in egg white, kills bacteria, particularly the bacteria that are responsible for malolactic fermentation, or “malo.” Just after alcoholic fermentation stops, a second fermentation—malolactic fermentation—starts. This process transforms malic acid, which is green and racy, into lactic acid, which is more round and soft and imparts a butteriness to wine. In itself, malo is not a bad thing. However, if the bacteria don’t have enough malic acid to attack, and if there is still some residual sugar left in the wine, then the bacteria will attack the sugar. This process creates VA, which is the main problem for winemakers who don’t use sulfur.
If not using sulfur or lysozyme, there are other things that winemakers can do to avoid VA and other wine faults:
Cool down the fermentation tanks: The bacteria that attack malic acid can only do so at a certain temperature, around 30°C (86°F). In cooler tanks, the yeast that start alcoholic fermentation will still do their work (though more slowly), but malolactic fermentation will not start. A lot of cellars are built underground for this reason, to ensure that the temperature is not too high during fermentation.
Harvest some of the grapes a little bit earlier, when they’re still green and contain a lot of malic acid. If the fermenting juice lacks enough malic acid for the bacteria to attack, thus leaving the wine vulnerable to VA, then winemakers, including Martin’s father, Eric, will add these unripe green grapes, rich in malic acid, to the juice.
Use carbonic maceration: This fermentation technique was originally used only by winemakers in the Beaujolais. Small quantities of whole clusters of uncrushed grapes are placed inside a sealed tank, into which carbon dioxide is pumped, creating an anaerobic environment (that is, without oxygen). The carbon dioxide stimulates fermentation at an intracellular level, inside the grapes. Rather than being pressed, as in a traditional fermentation, the grapes burst as the sugar and malic acid are converted into alcohol. Wines made in this way tend to be light, fresh, low in alcohol, and very aromatic and fruity.
Carbonic maceration makes the wine a little more reductive than a regular fermentation, which means that the wine could smell very slightly of sulfur compounds. But as Martin explains, “That, for the winemaker, is a safety because you have a higher risk of the wine getting oxidized when not using sulfur [sulfur is an antioxidant]. By using carbonic maceration, you’re adding a little reduction to prevent oxidation.”
Harvest the grapes by hand. Machine harvesting can crush the grapes, and fermentation can start prematurely by the yeast present on the grape skins. Machine harvesting can also enable the juice to come into contact with air, causing problems with oxidation. These are two reasons why industrial winemakers add sulfur to just-harvested grapes. “The juice is in contact with the air, it’s starting to ferment, and you can have problems with cleanliness,” Martin said. With hand harvesting, the grapes are more likely to stay intact, and fermentation will not start early.
“These ways to save your wines are very artisanal,” Martin said. “I know very few people who do this. Ninety-five percent or more of wine is made using sulfur in the ways that I outlined. Wine is the only product in Europe that doesn’t need to specify its list of ingredients on the back label. The only things that are mandatory to include are sulfites and anything that comes from animal products, such as lysozyme.”
Martin said that some wines made without added sulfur are appearing in European supermarkets, but they can be full of chemicals.
“Just because a wine has no sulfur added doesn’t mean it’s good or ‘natural,’” he said. “Don’t assume that ‘natural wine’ has no added sulfur, and don’t assume that wine made without added sulfur is better. Making wine without adding sulfur is not easy. It’s a big risk that you take. It can lead to a lot of faults and problems. Most natural winemakers do use sulfur, but in 99 percent of cases, they use it only before bottling.”
Martin himself does not avoid wines made with added sulfur, but only when it’s used at bottling. Not before.
The reason many natural winemakers use sulfur at bottling is to protect the wine against temperature fluctuations during transportation, handling, and storage. Wine, being a living product, is sensitive to rough handling and high temperatures, and naturally made wines with little or no added sulfur are especially so. They must be transported and stored at a cool temperature, preferably 55°F (13°C).
How do you know what the winemaker’s vineyard and cellar practices are? You must ask. Ask the winemaker, ask the importer, ask at the wine shop. But even then, you may not be given correct or truthful information. Read the back label on the bottle, which in the case of artisanally made wines, often includes a statement from the winemaker about his or her vineyard and cellar practices.
Accepting What the Vintage Brings You
If you’re a vigneron aspiring to make clean wines that express their terroir, then the vintage will tell you whether you need to add sulfur, according to Martin. 2011 and 2012 were good vintages, giving nice fruit and high acidity. In fact, 2012 was a dream year for every winemaker: “2012 was such a perfect year that we didn’t have much to do. Everything was perfect: We put the grapes in the vat, fermentation happened, we took the juice out of the vat and put it into a tank, and at no moment was the temperature too high, or Brett too high, or fermentation happening too fast. We didn’t have to filter. There was no problem.”
But not every vintage is like 2012. In other years, rain, hail, or humidity can cause high levels of oidium or rot in the vineyard. Or temperatures can get too high. The grapes are already in bad condition. “Using sulfur in the vineyard won’t help you then,” Martin said. Inside the winery, malolactic fermentation can start early, before alcoholic fermentation is finished, leading to VA. In a bad year, Martin prefers to drink wine made by a winemaker who is honest in saying that he or she used sulfur at times other than just before bottling to make sure the wine is clean: “In the end, maybe the wine has lost some terroir, but it is clean and there’s a nice perfume. I prefer that to a wine from that same hard year that wasn’t controlled at all, and all you smell is Brett or VA. Both Brett and VA are very common in natural wines that aren’t made properly, and both destroy terroir.”
Martin observed that, fortunately for winemakers in the Rhône, the region’s strong mistral wind dries the vineyards, giving healthy grapes without much effort on the farmers’ part. He said that in the Loire, which is colder and lacks a mistral of its own, it’s much harder to keep grapes healthy without using chemicals in the vineyards. “It’s easier being a winemaker in the Rhône Valley than in the Loire Valley,” he said.
Sulfur Is Everywhere
There is actually no such thing as sulfur-free wine. Sulfur is always naturally present in wine and is a byproduct of fermentation. European regulations authorize winemakers to add up to 160 milligrams per liter of sulfur for reds and 200 milligrams per liter for whites. For makers of Rieslings and Alsatian wines, which have a lot of residual sugar and thus a high risk of refermenting if the yeast are not killed, the allowable limit of sulfur is up to 400 milligrams per liter. In contrast, natural winemakers like Martin’s father, Eric, and winemakers in the Beaujolais use between 5 and 20 milligrams per liter.
Martin added no sulfur at all, not even at bottling, to his three 2012 wines that we tasted at Brooklyn Wine Exchange. Some might read that statement and conclude that he is a hard-core natural winemaker. But he says that is not the case: “I am not a defender of crazy wines just for the sake of being sulfur free.” He cautioned us not to associate wines made with no added sulfur as being either necessarily a good thing “or always kind of funky. A lot of Grand Cru wines are made without added sulfur. It’s a matter of being careful and believing that it’s not OK to have faults in your ‘natural’ wine.”
Martin is striving to make wine without any added sulfur, not even at bottling. He started experimenting with making wine in 2009, but “the wines were so bad that I couldn’t drink them.” He learned from his mistakes and continued to improve through the 2010 and 2011 vintages.
What Does Wine Made Without Added Sulfur Taste Like?
Martin suggests that the best way to experience what sulfur does to a wine is to try a wine that has had two bottlings, one sulfured and the other not, such as Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon. Both versions of this wine are unfiltered. On Domaine Lapierre’s website the bottling with no added sulfur is described like this: “No filtration or added sulphur in order to guarantee a ‘pure grape’ wine. This very fine wine must be conserved at less than 14°C [57°F].” The sulfured wine is described like this: “A small amount of added sulphur in order to stabilise the wine microbiologically. This wine is designed for those of you without a cellar.”
Of these two Morgon bottlings, Martin says, “You can taste the difference, the no-sulfur one having more fruit and seems more lively right now. I had the same experience with a rosé I made back home with my brother: one bottling with sulfur and the other not, and the same result. After two years, the no-sulfur one is still better.” Martin acknowledged, however, that with more years of bottle age, or with transportation abroad, that could change.
We tasted Martin’s three wines from the 2012 vintage, all made with his father’s grapes from the Rhône and all aged in stainless steel (to prevent contact with oxygen and preserve the fresh, fruity characteristics):
Anahi: 100 percent Marsanne, alc. 12.5 percent. Marsanne is a grape from the northern Rhône and is almost always used in small amounts and paired with its sister grape, Roussanne. For me, it was a rare treat to try a wine made from 100 percent Marsanne. The grape has a more apply character than Roussanne and is a bit softer, with lower acidity.
Eluney: 50 percent Grenache and 50 percent Cinsault, alc. 12.5 percent, made using carbonic maceration. Grenache and Cinsault are very common varietals in the southern Rhône. Both are fruity and have a bit of spice; Cinsault has higher acidity than Grenache.
Yelen: 100 percent Syrah (a richer grape than either Grenache or Cinsault), alc. 13 percent, made using carbonic maceration, which is not traditional in the northern Rhône.
All three wines were beautifully clean and pure, and tasted very fresh, with good acidity (“but not crazy acidity,” as Martin commented), low alcohol, and low tannins. Both reds, despite going through carbonic maceration and being aged in stainless steel, showed no signs of reduction. All three wines had no added sulfur, not even at bottling. All were completely naturally made and very delicious.
But Martin stressed that these wines are not in the style of his father’s wines. “These are the simpler version, and these are carbonic maceration, which my father doesn’t do. The wines are fresh in taste, easy to drink, but not complex like my father’s wines.”
The good acidity in the wines may have been due to his father’s practice of always harvesting a little early—“a matter of only one or two days, but it’s very important. My father likes to have more acidity in his wines because he thinks acidity is a better indicator of terroir than ripeness or alcohol. In only two days, you have a big difference.”
When asked how long his wines would age, Martin explained that it’s the alcohol, acidity, and tannins that help wines to age, and because his wines are low in those components, and also because no sulfur was added at bottling, they will not age much beyond five years.
What’s in a Name?
The label design on Martin’s wines raised many questions for me. First, the meaning of the wine’s name, L’indigène Sulfureux. He explained that the name came about during a family brainstorming dinner. Eric and his wife, Laurence, and their three children (Martin, his brother, and sister) had been discussing French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s classic 1955 memoir, Tristes Tropiques, which is partly an account of the time he spent with some of the indigenous tribes of Brazil’s Amazon Basin. The family had already decided on the wine’s name, L’indigène Sulfureux. L’indigène refers to the indigenous people in Lévi-Strauss’s book and also to the indigenous yeast naturally present on the grapes used in Martin’s wines, which start the fermentation. As for Sulfureux, Martin explained: “It’s a pun. In French, sulfureux means ‘has a lot of character,’ strongly opinionated, and sulfurous like the Devil. There’s no sulfur in the wines, so obviously, they are not that sulfurous. This wine is a little bit like this—a rebellious wine, a wine with a lot of character, yet no sulfur.”
I asked Martin whether the wine’s name could also refer to “native sulfur”—that is, the sulfur naturally produced during the fermentation of grapes. He replied that although the family was aware of that meaning, in French the name L’indigène Sulfureux could be understood only as a noun (l’indigène) and an adjective (Sulfureux).
The drawing on the label: This was done by a friend of his mother’s. The original drawing depicted a nude woman, but the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) would not approve that version, so the “official” label was redrawn with the woman covered up. But once the wines reach the US, they will bear the “unofficial” label, with the nude woman.
The names of the individual bottlings (Anahi, Eluney, Yelen): During their discussion of Tristes Tropiques, the Texier family was trying to invent names that sounded like names of indigenous tribal people from Brazil. The names are made up, but they were inspired by names found in Lévi-Strauss’s book.
Sui Generis: This is the company name as given on the label. The Latin translation is, loosely, giving birth to itself, something so unique that it does not fit into the broader context and cannot be compared with anything else. The reference here is to the native yeast and the wine generating itself.
What’s Next for Martin?
For the past year, Martin has been living in Brooklyn and working two jobs: for the New York–based importer and distributor David Bowler Wine, which specializes in naturally made, small-batch “wines that reflect something about where they are made and who made them” and also at the excellent Manhattan wine shop Flatiron Wines & Spirits, whose mission is to provide artisanally made wines that convey a sense of place and tradition.
Martin is soon to return to France and in the fall will enter enology school in Beaune, located in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. He will also continue his own personal study of permaculture, the philosophy developed by Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan and Bill Mollison from Australia, which Martin believes is one of the next big things in viticulture. Permaculture’s goal is to increase yields in agriculture without using any kind of forced activity: no monoculture, no plowing, no chemicals or insecticides. Weeds and invasive plants and insects are kept in check by planting clover or other complementary plants between rows and vines, a practice that also gives nitrogen to the soil, revitalizing it and encouraging microorganisms. Martin said that a handful of soil from this kind of “living” vineyard smells rich and good, whereas soil from a vineyard that has had chemicals applied is extremely dry and smells like dust.
To me, the tenets of permaculture seem very closely related to those of biodynamics, in that the farm or vineyard is regarded as one integrated, living, breathing organism (plants, animals, insects, trees) working with nature in perfect equilibrium. Where the two methods differ, however, is in biodynamics’ emphasis on the lunar calendar to guide the timing of farming activities, as well as the use of copper and sulfur to combat downy mildew and powdery mildew, respectively, and the use of animal dung as compost.
Martin realizes that he is only at the beginning of his winemaking journey and says that “as I continue making wine, I’m not necessarily going to be a no-sulfur person.” When he starts making “more serious” wine, he will probably stop using carbonic maceration or do less of it. He agrees that carbonic maceration masks terroir because it puts the fruit forward and leaves less space for minerality or herbaceousness—two qualities that one especially looks for in northern Rhône Syrah. “If I plant vineyards, it’s going to be Syrah,” he said. “Something that’s more traditional of northern Rhône, a more serious project.”
We are grateful to have had Martin’s spirited, thoughtful, and articulate presence in New York this past year, and we wish him well on his next adventures. We also look forward to tasting how his winemaking evolves as a result of his studies and deeper involvement with permaculture.
Merci beaucoup, Martin, et bon voyage!