Bosoms, Bubbles, and Bollinger: What Shape Is Your Champagne Glass?

34, a swanky restaurant in the heart of London’s Mayfair district, commissioned British sculptor Jane McAdam Freud (daughter of the celebrated late painter Lucien Freud) to design a Champagne coupe molded from the left breast of supermodel Kate Moss, to celebrate her 40th birthday and her 25 years in the fashion industry. A spokesman for 34 described the glass as “an intricate abstract design reminiscent of Art Deco symmetry which, when held at an angle, shows a beautiful curvy shape.” The coupe has a long, slender stem and “her ‘Kate’ signature accompanied by a small heart at the base.” (The Independent, August 25, 2014)

Photo: British Vogue

Photo: British Vogue

On October 8, 2014, Kate Moss will host the launch of the coupe at 34. Filling the glasses will be Dom Pérignon’s P2-1998 (a rebranding of the latest release of the 1998 vintage from the Oenothèque series). The coupe and a bottle of 1995 Oenothèque will cost £2,123 (US$3,515).

Photo: Wine Spectator

Photo: Wine Spectator

This is not the first time that a Champagne coupe has been modeled from a supermodel’s breast. In 2007, Dom Pérignon commissioned German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to create an advertising campaign for the release of its 1993 vintage Oenothèque. Lagerfeld’s muse, Claudia Schiffer, also happened to be a top model for Dom Pérignon at the time. Lagerfeld honored her and her bosom with a design that has a white breast-shaped bowl with a pink nipple sitting atop three white porcelain miniature replicas of Dom Pérignon bottles on a silver tray bearing Lagerfeld’s and Schiffer’s signatures. This assemblage, accompanied by a bottle of Oenothèque, could be purchased in December 2008 for $3,150.

Why did McAdam Freud and Lagerfeld cast their interpretation of the Champagne coupe from a beautiful woman’s left breast? And why did Lagerfeld make his coupe and miniature Dom Pérignon bottles of milky white porcelain? Here are some possible explanations:

Milk Bowl (Breast Bowl), from the Service for the Dairy, together with tripod base for Queen Marie Antoinette. 1788. Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Painted by Fumez, after design by Jean-Jacques Lagrené and Louis-Simon Boizot. Photo: M. Beck-Coppola (Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres).

Milk Bowl (Breast Bowl) with tripod base, from the Service for the Dairy for Queen Marie Antoinette. 1788. Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Painted by Fumez, after a design by Jean-Jacques Lagrené and Louis-Simon Boizot. Photo: M. Beck-Coppola (Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France).

This Sèvres porcelain milk bowl, complete with a nipple, is one from a set of four made in 1788 by artisans from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory as part of a 65-piece dining set that Louis XVI commissioned for his queen, Marie Antoinette, to use at the royal dairy at the Château de Rambouillet. The tripod base on which the bowl sits features the head and hooves of a goat, the Queen’s favorite animal.

The bowl is modeled after a Greek drinking cup produced by Athenian potters, a mastos (meaning breast, udder), made from terracotta in the shape of a female breast, with nipple.

Attic black-figure mastos cup attributed to Psiax, ca. 520-510 BCE

Attic black-figure mastos cup attributed to Psiax, ca. 520-510 BCE. Photo: Getty Museum

In the early 19th century, Josephine Bonaparte commissioned Sèvres to make an updated version of the breast bowls for her, using the original molds. Hers were of white porcelain and 24-carat gold and were also used in the Rambouillet dairy.

Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France

Photo: Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France

The gift of the Sèvres milk bowl from her husband may have inspired Marie Antoinette with an idea for a reciprocal gift to him: round Champagne glasses made from casts of her breasts (or her left breast in particular, depending on who tells the story)—the first Champagne coupe, so the tale goes—so that Louis XVI and their courtiers could drink to her health from them.

Kate Moss heard this story about “the Marie Antoinette coupe” too. She said, “I was excited to participate in this project. What an honour to be alongside Marie Antoinette—she was a very intriguing and mischievous character.”

Artwork by Lisa Falzon

Artwork by Lisa Falzon

But legend also has it that the saucer-like Champagne coupe was cast from the breasts of—take your pick!—Madame du Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Empress Josephine, Diane de Poitiers, Helen of Troy, and 1930s American model and photographer Lee Miller. Why? Because their men—respectively, Louis XV (twice), Napoleon, Henry II, Paris, and surrealist artist Man Ray—greatly admired their lover’s breasts and fantasized about drinking Champagne from them. In the case of Diane de Poitiers, one version of the story says that her husband, Henry II, cast the mold solely from his wife’s left breast.

Are these tales all born of men’s fantasies, the coincidental shape of a glass, an homage to a beautiful woman’s chest, and celebrity sex symbols, perhaps? In fact, the coupe was designed and made in England around 1663, which predates du Pompadour, du Barry, Josephine, Marie Antoinette, and Lee Miller and postdates de Poitiers and, if she existed at all, Helen of Troy. 

Marketing and celebratory hoopla aside, why all this fuss (and expense) over a glass whose shape is spectacularly ill-suited to drinking sparkling wine, especially a sparkling wine as miraculous as Champagne?

Photo: The Vintage Type

Photo: The Vintage Type

The large surface area of the wide, shallow coupe dissipates Champagne’s bubbles, warms the wine, and quickly renders it flat. As Benoît Gouez, chief winemaker for Moët & Chandon since 2005, says about drinking Champagne from a coupe, “You won’t have enough focus. The effervescence will go everywhere, the flavors will go everywhere, and you’re going to lose a lot of it.” (Ironically, the Dom Pérignon being served in those modern-day reinterpretations of the “Marie Antoinette coupe” is a Moët brand.)

But when the coupe was invented in the 17th century, sparkling wines were not nearly as effervescent as they are today. Sparkling wine was bottled before the initial fermentation had finished because bottles had not yet been invented that could withstand the internal pressure created by a secondary fermentation. Exploding bottles and popping corks led to the wine being called “the devil’s wine.” For those more sedate sparkling wines of the late 17th century, the design of the coupe was probably very appropriate.

The coupe was popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, thanks in part to the Stork Club, black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s such as Casablanca, Shall We Dance, and The Thin Man, and the penchant at wedding receptions for stacking layers of coupes into a “tower,” with Champagne poured continuously into the top glass and flowing down to fill the others below.

Personally, though I acknowledge that it’s far from the ideal glass from which to drink Champagne, I love the look and shape of the coupe. Yes, some are very plain, sturdy, and workmanlike, but those with a beautifully faceted stem, a diamond-shaped capital atop the stem, a graceful bowl, and a thin lip are exquisite to me, aesthetically. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the 1940s glamour that I associate with them. My parents’ vintage Champagne coupes have a hollow stem, all the way to the base—a design feature that visually highlights the upward-spiraling bubbles in a most delightful way (even while the drinker’s fingers around the stem warm the wine prematurely, alas). Coupes are great for cocktails, and, when beautiful, are both fun and sophisticated to drink from!

FluteThe stemmed tall, narrow, very unbreastlike flute (so named because of its resemblance to the musical instrument) replaced the coupe as the preferred Champagne glass in the 1960s (although Audrey Hepburn was drinking from a flute as early as 1954 in Sabrina). Designed to remedy all the problems of drinking Champagne from a wide, shallow coupe, the purpose of the tall, slender flute was to preserve carbonation (and, as a side benefit, to allow more glasses to fit on a tray). There’s a much higher concentration of carbon dioxide Shoulder Flutein a tall, narrow flute than in a broad saucer. The bottom of the flute’s bowl can either taper into the stem or sit perpendicular atop it. Holding the glass by the stem prevents warming the wine, and the narrow opening at the top of the glass exposes less surface to air, retaining the effervescence and reducing spillage.

The better flutes have a rough spot deliberately etched inside the bottom center of the bowl that acts as a nucleation point for the bubbles to gather and then stream continuously upward to the top. In this way, the effervescence remains in the wine longer, which is probably why the flute is the best glass to display a sparkling wine’s bubbles. The flute will keep the wine bubbly longer than any other shape of glass. Supposedly, the narrow diameter of the top of the flute concentrates the wine’s aromatics, opposite to the way that the coupe’s wide bowl dissipates them, but I’ve never been able to discern much, if any, of a Champagne’s aromatics in a flute. Inside such a narrow diameter, the wine has no room to breathe, open, or develop. The diameter of some flutes is so ridiculously narrow that it’s impossible to drink from them without one’s nose getting in the way. Others are so tall that they become top heavy. Decorative arts and furniture appraiser Soodie Beasley said that “flutes, the extra tall ones anyway, remind me of big hair and the 1980s and ’90s.”

Trumpet fluteThe trumpet flute, with its wider mouth tapering outward from a slender stem, is a variation on the straight up-and-down flute. Because its wider opening at the top of the glass diffuses aromas rather than focusing them toward the nose, I can’t see that this design is an improvement over the standard flute, except that its wider mouth allows sipping without bumping one’s nose against the rim.

An improvement over the flute’s constricted aromatics, the tulip glass features a bowl that curves outward slightly above the midpoint, enabling some space for swirling, then curves back in at the top, directing the aromatics toward the nose.

Tulip2

Tulip

Starting around 2010, sommeliers and heads of Champagne houses such as Krug began advocating drinking Champagne, which is a white wine, out of a white wine glass, in order to taste the wine’s fullness in a way that’s impossible in a flute. The wine glass’s bowl is wide enough (and wider than the tulip glass) for the wine to breathe, open, and develop, and release its aromas and flavors. The inward-sloping sides at the top of the glass deliver the aromas into the nose and the flavors onto the palate in a much richer way than a flute can. Because of this, the wine’s finish is longer as well.

This past week a friend and I shared a bottle of Agrapart Les 7 Crus Brut Blanc de Blancs NV at the newly opened Chelsea Market (Manhattan) location of Laura Maniec’s Corkbuzz wine bar. (The “7” in the wine’s name refers not to the seven permitted grape varieties in the Champagne AOC but to the seven villages from which the grapes come: Avize, Cramant, Oger, Oiry, Avenay Val d’Or, Bergères-les-Vertus, and Mardeuil.) When the sommelier asked if we wanted the wine poured into flutes or white wine glasses, we replied, “Both, please.” We wanted to conduct our own taste test of the two glasses. As we expected, the white wine glass was far superior to the flute. We could not really smell anything in the wine in the narrow flute because its slender shape prevented the wine from coming into contact with oxygen; consequently, the aromas could not open or develop. In contrast, the white wine glass gave the wine room to open, breathe, and release its concentration of aromas. And the wider opening at the top of the glass gave each of us the room to swirl the wine and tilt the glass toward our face without spilling the contents; we had room to really put our nose into the glass and smell the aromas. Because more than 70 percent of what you taste with your mouth comes from your olfactory sense, being able to smell the wine is very important to your overall enjoyment and appreciation of Champagne!

If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to drink older, more complex, vintage Champagnes, then you owe it to yourself and to the wine to pour that precious liquid into a white wine glass in order to savor its elegance, depth, and aromas. Remember, that wine has spent anywhere from six to twenty years or more inside a bottle. How else will it open and reveal its concentration of complex aromas of yeastiness, toastiness, and brioche unless it’s allowed to come into contact with oxygen? And served at the right temperature, by the way (50°F/10°C)! Serve your Champagne too cold, and you will suppress its aromatics.

Dom Pérignon      P2-1998

Kate Moss’s festivities aside, Richard Geoffroy, cellar master at Dom Pérignon, must have to turn a blind eye to the colossal lost opportunity represented by pouring P2-1998 into a coupe, even one modeled on Kate Moss’s left breast. P2-1998 spent 12 years aging and maturing on its lees (the spent cells of the yeast that gave their bodies to the wine) and an additional two years resting postdisgorgement (after the yeast plug is removed) in the Dom Pérignon cellars. Earlier this year, Geoffroy described P2-1998 like this: “The 1998 is about energy: the wine is already 16 years to the vintage. You could well expect the maturity of the wine to be based on weight and power—paradoxically, it is not. It is full, packed with energy—so lifted, so Dom Pérignon, so penetrating; energetic and dancing, nothing weighty, nothing tired or oxidative.” I hope the guests at 34 at the christening of Kate Moss’s coupe in October will appreciate these characteristics of the remarkable wine they are privileged to drink, coupe or no. 

Benoît Gouez observed that “if you pour one bottle [of Champagne] into ten different glasses, you will have ten different wines. The glassware does affect a lot the tasting experience.”

But if your budget, as does mine, prevents you from regularly spending a minimum of $45 for a bottle of more complex Champagne, then it’s perfectly fine to drink your more simple sparkling wine from something other than a white wine glass! Personally, I’m on the lookout for a hybrid glass—something between a narrow flute and a small white wine glass. A Riesling glass, perhaps, or else a voluptuous tulip glass, both of which are wider than a flute. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way! My most important considerations, as I evaluate glasses, are: How does the glass feel in my hand? Is it beautiful to look at? Do I enjoy holding it and drinking from it? I want my chosen glass to feel special—and playing into that equation of elegance are overall aesthetics: the lightness and thinness of the glass and the lip, and the glass’s height. And most important: Does its shape allow the wine’s aromas and flavors to develop?

While I’m looking for my ideal glass, I’d like everyone to take a minute to remember Lily Bollinger, who ran the Bollinger Champagne house from 1941 to 1971, and what she said about drinking her Champagne. I wonder what shape of glass she used?

I drink my Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.

Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.

When I have company, I consider it obligatory.

I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.

Otherwise I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.

Madame Lily Bollinger

Madame Lily Bollinger

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

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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!

Martin Texier: On Making Wine Without Added Sulfur

Thanks to Brooklyn Wine Exchange for this great image!

Thanks to Brooklyn Wine Exchange for this great image!

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 Texier

Martin Texier

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. 

Eric Texier is a cool guy-1

Eric Texier (Photo by Jarred Gild; Louis/Dressner Selections website)

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):

3 bottles

Left to right: Anahi, Eluney, and Yelen

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 TTB-Approved Label

The TTB-Approved Label

The Unofficial Label

The Unofficial Label

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!

Martin 2Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Like Sitting Inside a Jewel Box: The Astoundingly Pure Wines of Alphonse Mellot

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513.

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513

My notion of what Sauvignon Blanc is was blown off its rocker by a tasting at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca of four exquisite wines from Alphonse Mellot of Sancerre, in the Loire. Was it just me, or did you too dismiss wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape (one of the seven noble grape varieties notwithstanding) as smelling and tasting like “cat piss” or, in my experience, canned peas?

Last night, Alphonse Mellot, the nineteenth member of his historic winemaking family to bear that name, showed me the essence of Sauvignon Blanc in my glass.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The town of Sancerre traces its origins to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. The Mellot family’s roots in Sancerre wine date to 1513, when they were vine growers and wine producers of excellent reputation. Ancestor César Mellot was the wine advisor to Louis XIV in 1698. By 1881 the family was shipping its wines throughout France and the world. Ever since then, the eldest son has continued to bear the name Alphonse.

All farming and grape growing at the Mellot vineyard, La Moussière, is organic and certified biodynamic (since 1999), with only copper and sulfur being used on the vines—copper to combat peronospera (downy mildew) and sulfur to guard against oidium (powdery mildew). Alphonse Mellot is one of only five biodynamic producers in Sancerre. In a region where some 98 percent of fruit is machine harvested, Mellot meticulously picks his grapes by hand into small 25-kilogram (about 55 pounds) cases.

The large percentage of old low-yielding vines, with some parcels planted in 1931, 1948, and 1951, grow in soils of limestone, flint (silex), clay, and chalk, which lend tremendous complexity to the wines.

Each one of the three whites we tasted—2012 Pouilly-Fumé, 2012 La Moussière Sancerre, and 2011 Satellite Sancerre (from vines planted in 1951)—was such a precise and refined expression of lemon, lime, and grapefruit, and of its minerals, acidity, and soil. I was stunned. Complexity, structure, substance, balance, and pure deliciousness. These wines have so much energy; you can almost feel the vibrations zinging off your glass, as if it were a tuning fork.

The last wine, 2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge, was made from Pinot Noir and had all the beautiful, mind-altering aromas and tastes of that grape’s red and black fruit and earth. Move over, Burgundy!

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

The fastidious attention to detail that Alphonse Mellot displays in making his wines is so evident in their expression. The impression his wines leave you with is indelible. 

Thanks to Rom Toulon for hosting another exceptional seminar at 24 Hubert Wines. These outstanding events with the winemakers provide a terrific learning experience in an intimate setting and allow for thoughtful interaction with the wine in one’s glass.

 Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland