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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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

Berries of the Field

Some winemakers and wine drinkers believe that the only wines capable of fully showing their terroir are those made from a single grape varietal from a grand cru vineyard. But consider for a moment the beautiful wines made from humble field blends. These wines, and their mélange of grape varieties grown all together in a winemaker’s back plot or in vineyards within Viennese city limits or in a historic California vineyard or on some of the best vineyard lands in Alsace, turn out to be a far cry from humble. In this post, I’ll look at three examples.

What is a field blend, you ask? It’s a wine made from two or more, and sometimes many more, grape varieties that are interplanted on the same parcel of land and then harvested and vinified together. By contrast, most blended wines are made by growing, harvesting, and vinifying the grape varieties separately, then blending them.

What were the original reasons for planting different grape varieties together? Necessity, perhaps? Maybe winemakers simply did not have sufficient equipment to ferment different varieties separately. Another reason could have been to protect against risk in the event of a poor harvest or unfavorable weather and ensure, as much as possible, quality and quantity from year to year.

In a field blend, one grape variety’s ripe lusciousness balances another’s racy acidic character; another variety adds tannic backbone, and another adds color, such that the resulting wines are not too high in alcohol or too lean on fruit. Because all the grapes are picked at the same time, they are at different levels of maturity, ripeness, and acidity. Some are overripe, some are underripe, but the mixing of all the grapes results in complex blends that are greater than the sum of their separate parts—a whole orchestra, if you will. “The results are more in Nature’s hands,” says Austrian winemaker Fritz Wieninger.

The Compagni Portis Vineyard

The Compagni-Portis Vineyard

One such site where this synergy occurs is the historic Compagni-Portis Vineyard at the western base of Mount Veeder in California’s Sonoma Valley. Part of the original Buena Vista estate of Agoston Haraszthy, an early developer of California’s wine industry, the six-acre field now known as the Compagni-Portis Vineyard (after owners Natalie Compagni and Stephen Portis) was planted in 1954 with a diverse mix of white grapes: Riesling, Burger, Trousseau Gris, Gewürtztraminer, Green Hungarian, and Sylvaner among them. The soil is rich in white volcanic ash, and yields are most often less than one ton per acre.

The vineyard is one of sixty-eight vineyards registered by the Historic Vineyard Society of California and is one of the few mixed-white vineyards remaining. Its vines are dry farmed and organically farmed by Phil Coturri, one of Sonoma Valley’s leading organic viticulturalists and a member of the Coturri winemaking family.

At least six vintners have used grapes from the vineyard: Bedrock Wine Co., Arnot-Roberts, Ravenswood, Carlisle, Bucklin, and Gundlach Bundschu.

Boyhood pals Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, two of my favorite of the low-alcohol, low-interventionist “New California” winemakers, produce their Arnot-Roberts Old Vine White Field Blend from grapes from this site. Grapes are pressed whole cluster, then fermented with native yeast in stainless steel, and aged in neutral French oak barrels for twelve months. I first tasted this sublime wine in 2011 and love its intense aromatics of orange blossom, ripe pear, and lanolin, its bright acidity, and crisp finish. Absolutely delicious! 

Update, April 2014: Observant fans of this beautiful white field blend wine will have noticed that the label on the 2012 bottling does not include the words Compagni-Portis Vineyard, as labels from previous vintages did. Nathan Roberts recently told me the reason for this. He and Duncan Meyers learned last year that the vineyard is divided into three separate parcels that are owned by different families. They had not realized this before, because the Compagni-Portis family was the most active in the vineyard and interactive with Phil Coturri. Because of this divided ownership of the parcels, Arnot-Roberts has stopped using, as of the 2012 bottling, the Compagni-Portis name on the label of the field blend white wine.

The information about this vineyard in the records of the Historic Vineyard Society of California does not yet appear to be updated.

An Urban Field Blend

Vineyards within the city limits of Vienna? Yes! Believe it or not, Vienna has more than 1,700 acres planted to vines. And one of the traditional Viennese wines is Wiener Gemischter Satz (mixed set)—a field blend of white grapes. In 2013, a new Austrian DAC (designation of origin similar to the French AOC) was added: Wiener Gemischter Satz, and the specific geographic region associated with this DAC is the city of Vienna.

By law, a Viennese Gemischter Satz must comprise white grapes only and must include a minimum of three different grape varieties and not more than twenty. The predominant variety must not constitute more than 50 percent of the vineyard. All grapes must be planted, harvested, and vinified together. Typical grapes in a Viennese field blend include Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürtztraminer, and Grauburgunder, among others. Some field blends comprise as many as fifteen different grape varieties.

Fritz Wieninger is an Austrian biodynamic winemaker who has been a stalwart in reviving the traditional Viennese practice of making white wines from field blends. “Especially close to my heart is the Wiener Gemischter Satz,” he says. “This is a Viennese classic that had been nearly forgotten.”

The grapes in this field blend grow in soils of shell limestone and weathered limestone with a high clay content.

I tasted Fritz’s 2012 Wiener Gemischter Satz at a recent seminar with Fritz and his Kamptal winemaking colleague and friend Fred Loimer at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca, 24hubert.com. The complex blend of eleven different white grape varieties was fragrant and floral, with vibrant acidity and fruit, pronounced minerality from the limestone soils, low alcohol (12.5 percent), and was delightful in every way. “All of Vienna in one wine,” as Fritz says.

2012 Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz

Fritz Wieninger’s Wiener Gemischter Satz

“Mixed Blacks”

Not all field blends are made from white grape varieties. Some older Zinfandel vineyards in California are referred to as “mixed blacks” because the Zinfandel grapes were coplanted around 1900–1905 with several other varieties, including Petite Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre. Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs Vineyard is one example of a “mixed blacks” field of heritage varieties.

And Now to France . . . 

Other field blends, like Jean-François Ganevat’s J’en Veux (I want some), combine red and white grapes to make a red wine.

Ganevat’s grapes, a mix of seventeen non-AOC approved varieties indigenous to the Jura region of eastern France, include Petit Béclan, Enfariné, Gueuche, Coreau, Gouais, Argant, Portugais Bleu, and Seyve-Villard. These are some of the “lost” grapes of the Jura, now almost forgotten, that used to be the staple varieties. They are coplanted on a small bit of land behind Ganevat’s house. The vines, on their own rootstock, were planted in 1900. Ganevat’s domaine was certified biodynamic in 2006. His soils are a mix of schist, clay, and marl.

Each year, Ganevat destems the grapes for one of his wines entirely by hand. In 2009, this wine was the J’en Veux. Using scissors, he and his workers cut each berry from the cluster and leave only a trace of the stem still attached to the grape, resulting in intact grapes and no bleeding juice from tugging the grape from its stem. The grapes are then dropped individually into the barrel for a whole-berry fermentation. All grape varieties are cofermented. In 2009 about one hundred cases of J’en Veux were made.

The 2010 J’en Veux that I tasted was complex and pure, with aromas of fresh red fruit, earth, and minerals. Light body, low alcohol, and no added suphur. Bliss in a glass!

Ganevat changes the J'en Veux label design often. This one is an older version. Bottles with the latest version of the "shocking" label are not allowed into the U.S.

Ganevat changes the J’en Veux label design often. This one is an older version. Bottles with the latest version of the “shocking” label are not allowed into the United States. But if you do a Web search, you’ll find it!

Tempest in a Wine Glass

To those who fiercely believe that only a single grape varietal can best express terroir, Alsatian winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss takes the opposite stance. He coplanted his best vineyard sites with white field blends to highlight the site over any particular grape. He calls the resulting wines his vins de terroir. I have yet to taste any of these wines but am certainly eager to.

Personally, I believe that any field-blended wine can express its terroir just as ably as any single-varietal wine.

I am absolutely smitten with field blends and would love to hear about your favorites.

Copyright © 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