What a Little Sulfur Can Do

Those of you who read my post about Martin Texier and making wine with no added sulfur will remember his suggestion that the best way to understand what sulfur does to a wine is to taste one that has had two bottlings, one sulfured and the other not. I don’t know how common it is for producers to bottle two versions of the same wine, but happily for the purposes of my tasting experiment, Domaine Lapierre (be sure to watch the video on the home page, which includes a look at the vineyards and winemaking, and footage with both Marcel and Mathieu Lapierre), located in the Beaujolais cru of Morgon, is one such producer. 

Cru Beaujolais is the highest quality category of classification of wine from this region. Gamay grapes grow in granite-based soils of ten specific areas in the northern part of the district, seven of which are villages: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, and Régnié. The crus of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly are not villages but vineyard areas around Mont Brouilly (a small mountain), and the tenth cru, Moulin-à-Vent, was named for the local windmill. For an amusing lesson with winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt on the correct pronunciation of the ten crus, watch this short video from Ask a Winemaker. (Ask a Winemaker is an excellent library of hundreds of video interviews with winemakers speaking about their craft.)

The Lapierre family has been making wine in Beaujolais for more than 100 years. Marcel Lapierre (1950–2010) took over from his father in 1973. In 1981 he met Jules Chauvet, now regarded as the father of the natural wine movement. Inspired by Chauvet, who became like a spiritual godfather to him, Marcel Lapierre converted the family vineyards to organic and biodynamic production and began making wine with indigenous yeasts and little to no added sulfur. The average age of the domaine’s vines is 70 years. Since Marcel’s death in 2010, his son, Mathieu (now the fourth-generation winemaker in the family), runs the domaine and continues to make “natural, authentic, living wines from pure [Gamay] grapes . . . that express the specificity of the Morgon terroir.

Both bottlings of the Lapierre Morgon are unfiltered. According to the domaine’s website, one has a small amount of sulfur dioxide added “in order to stabilise the wine microbiologically” for purchasers who do not have a wine cellar (or, I suppose, a wine refrigerator), and the other has no added sulfur “in order to guarantee a ‘pure grape’ wine.” This no-sulfur version must be stored at 55°F (13°C).

A by-product of fermentation, sulfur is always naturally present in wine. Because it is also a preservative, an antioxidant, and an antibacterial agent, winemakers have used sulfur—in varying quantities—for centuries. Sulfites absorb oxygen and inhibit aerobic bacterial growth that can cause flaws and faults in wine. A bit of sulfur added at bottling protects wine during transportation and storage, when harmful temperature fluctuations can occur.

But sulfur has also been overused by some winemakers as a way to cover flaws and problems in their wines. Some people claim they can taste or smell an excess use of sulfur in a wine, especially by the presence of a characteristic “burned” smell, like burned matches.

To grow grapes and make wine without sulfur, except perhaps for a small amount added at bottling, requires that the grower and winemaker be absolutely rigorous, exacting, and very clean in all of their vineyard and cellar practices. The majority of producers who make wine in this way, including Marcel Lapierre and now his son, Mathieu, also use organically or biodynamically grown grapes and minimal intervention in both vineyard and cellar. The result is clean, nonmanipulated wine that tastes pure and expresses its grape varietal and place of origin.

To go a step further and not use sulfur at bottling requires even more conscientiousness and artisanal care from the grower and winemaker at every step in the process.

A Blind Tasting

I have tasted wine made without added sulfur but had never had the opportunity to taste and compare two bottlings of the same wine, one sulfured and one not. Earlier this month I was fortunate to find two such bottles of Lapierre’s 2012 Morgon. The front labels are identical:

Front labels

The back labels reveal the difference between the two. The sulfured bottling has a label from importer Kermit Lynch and a capital letter S in the lower left corner, which I assume indicates that it’s the sulfured version.

Kermit

The back label on the unsulfured bottling says “Sans sulfite ajouté ni filtration” [Without added sulfite or filtration], and there is a small capital letter N in the lower left corner of the label, indicating, perhaps, nonsulfitée.

Sans sulfur

Both bottles were sealed with red wax. I opened them and then sheathed each one in a black bag taped closed at the top. When my friend arrived to taste with me, I asked her to rotate the two now-covered bottles around and around each other and then place them side-by-side on the table. We labeled them #1 and #2. I poured a couple of ounces of each wine into our glasses. Here’s what we observed:

APPEARANCE

Wine #1: A medium-intensity, clear, and bright ruby color, tinged with purple. Brighter than wine #2, more vibrant. Even though the wine was unfiltered, it was transparent. I held the glass in front of a page of text, and I could read the text through the wine, all the way from the rim through the core.

Wine #2: Darker and duller than #1; a more garnet red. I could read text through the wine only at the rim.

NOSE

Wine #1: Youthful and very fragrant. The wine smelled of fresh red fruits: red cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. Unexpectedly, the wine also smelled earthy and herbal. This finding surprised us because from its vibrant color, we were expecting to smell only fruit. There was a lot going on in this glass!

Wine #2: We had difficulty smelling anything at all in this wine, other than a bit of spice—cinnamon, perhaps. No fruit. The nose seemed closed and tight.

PALATE

Wine #1: Tasted fresh, lively, vibrant, and pure, with a lip-smacking acidity, which carried the finish through. Acid, tannin, and alcohol were in balance.

Wine #2: Tasted duller than #1. The body was heavier as well, because the wine lacked wine #1’s acidity. The wine tasted of dried flowers (violets, roses), in contrast to the fresh flowers of wine #1. Wine #2 also tasted to us as though it were higher in alcohol than #1; we could feel a slight bit of heat from alcohol. This made no sense to us, because we knew that both wines were a low 12.5 percent alcohol, according to the front labels on the bottles.

CONCLUSION

The wines tasted like two completely different wines.

On both the nose and the palate, it seemed to us that wine #2 had a veil over it—as though we couldn’t get directly to the wine itself because it was being obscured by something. We could taste it only at a remove. It was not revealing its full self to us. We thought that with time and air, wine #2 might become more expressive and more similar to wine #1, but it did not.

However, we both liked wine #2 and agreed that if we had tried it on its own, without comparison to wine #1, we would have been happy with it.

But when it came to choosing a favorite, we both preferred wine #1 because of its vibrancy, freshness, presence of fruit, and good acidity.

We concluded that wine #1 had to be the nonsulfured bottling.

Which Wine Was Which?

We removed the black bags and saw that, indeed, the bottling with no added sulfur was wine #1.

Domaine Lapierre’s website does not specify what quantity of sulfur was used, other than to say that “only limited amounts of sulfur are added.” But knowing how committed this domaine is to producing wines that are as natural as possible, I’m sure that the quantity would have been minimal. If that’s true, then our blind tasting experiment was very instructive in showing how much the addition of even a small amount of sulfur can completely alter a wine’s color, aroma, and taste.

But again, this contrast was very marked because we were mindfully comparing two bottlings of the same wine. Had I tasted the sulfured Morgon on its own, without comparison to its unsulfured kin, I would not have been able to discern the presence of sulfur in it.

Try our experiment for yourself and taste firsthand what a little sulfur can do.

Does anyone know of other producers who make two bottlings of the same wine, one sulfured and one not?

Updates, July 2014: I want to share with everyone some interesting information I received from readers after I published this post.

One reader, Andrew, was fortunate to taste the 2013 Morgon with Mathieu Lapierre this past May. Andrew’s experience and tasting of the unsulfured version of the wine was similar to mine. He said that “the vegetative and mineral elements were very nicely present and accounted for, both on the nose and palate.” He found the wine “fairly big and almost lacy in structure,” by which he meant that underneath the fruit and vegetation was a structure that had a lightness that tied everything together.

In contrast, Andrew thought the sulfured Morgon was “jittery, not focused; it had a bitter element, almost a bit grenachy.” Mathieu told Andrew that the fruit masks the taste of the sulfur, and also that he thought the sulfured version might age better.

Damien Casten, coproducer of “Ask a Winemaker,” sent this link to a series of interviews with winemakers on both sides of the sulfur question. Particularly enlightening for me was Frank Cornelissen’s segment titled “Is Sulfur Needed in Winemaking?” In the interview, Frank says, “Sulfur stabilizes a wine, but stabilizing a wine is, in some ways, putting a wine in prison. The wines will never have the same development in the glass. A wine made without any sulfur added—from vinification up to bottling—has an incredible change in aromas.” Frank believes that not using sulfur enables his wines to more precisely express their terroir. He does not want to put anything in his wines that will cover up something or push something else out.

Damien also sent a link to some additional engaging video pronunciation lessons of regional grapes with Jo Landron from Muscadet, Alessandra Bera from Piedmont, and Sophie and Maxime Barmès Buecher from Alsace.

And finally, Jeff Patten of Flatiron Wines told me that Thierry Allemand bottles sulfured and unsulfured versions of his Syrah from his holdings in Reynard in the northern Rhône. Jeff visited Allemand a year ago and tasted his sulfured and unsulfured 2002 Reynard. Jeff told me, “Initially, the result was exactly the same as yours: the non-sulphured bottling was more expressive. But after about 15 minutes of swirling, the sulphured bottling caught up to the other bottling, and it became very difficult to distinguish the two.”

Many thanks to Andrew, Damien, and Jeff for sharing their information and experiences, from which we can all learn a lot!

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