April 19, 2008

Vins Sans Soufre

Maybe it's me, but it seems like there are more and more red wines out there with no sulfur added. Sure, the number of "sans soufre" bottlings out there is still minimal. Yet I see them on the store shelves, and not always clearly labeled as such.

For example, Marcel Lapierre's delicious Morgon is typcially sans soufre. Unfortunately, the importer's label or the government "health" warning label usually covers up the small back label that tells you in French that the wine has no sulfur added and needs to be keep in cool conditions to be in optimum condition.

Happily, our picture shows that Pierre and Catherine Breton's 2000 Bourgeuil "Nuits d'ivresse" is clearly labeled. Provided you read French, of course. For the monoglots, the label says that the wine was not sulfured or filtered, that the grapes used were certified organic by Ecocert, and that the wine should be kept below 14C, or around 56F.

Of course, I found this bottle and a few of its siblings recently while browsing a local Fred Meyer that's never very warm inside but certainly no less than 68F at any given time. The 2000 vintage was released four or five years ago, and these bottles were simply on the regular shelves, slightly dust covered and suggesting they'd been waiting for a suitor for quite a while.

Everything about the bottles looked fine. Fill levels were perfect. Labels were clean, capsules and corks apparently pristine. What I might expect from fragile wine stored in imperfect conditions would be corks bulging out of the bottle tops, pulling at the capsules, perhaps with dried drips of wine down the sides of the bottles. Any poorly stored wine might look that way, as heat causes wine to expand and push out the cork, allowing spoilage and leaving evidence of the disaster within. But no-sulfur-added wines would seem to be even more likely to show damage, because sulfur is used to inactivate yeast and otherwise harmless bacteria in the wine. No sulfur means there's nothing from keeping chemical reactions from occuring, producing CO2 gas that pushes out the cork a bit an allows the wine to spoil. Cold temperatures slow down or essentially negate the risk, hence the warning to keep non-sulfured wine cold. But no sulfur and room temperature conditions for even just days or weeks is surely doom for wine.

At least, that's the conventional wisdom. Yet here are these bottles that appear in perfect condition depsite obviously imperfect storage. So I buy a bottle and try it out. And wouldn't you know, it's pretty delicious stuff. I don't have a "perfectly" stored bottle to compare it to, so who's to say that one wouldn't show aromas and flavors much more young and primary than our poorly treated bottle. The color was a bit mature, lacking the vibrancy that Loire cabernet franc shows in its youth, but the wine is almost eight years old. The aroma was clean and still pretty fresh, with a nice mix of gravelly cassis and herb aromas and flavors, and a softening tannic structure. There isn't great intensity here, and this bottling (the "drunken nights") doesn't seem to be intended for long aging. But this is still perfectly good wine and either an epiphany for the resiliance of no-sulfur wine or at least evidence that no sulfur, no filtering, and no real concern for storage conditions isn't certain doom for otherwise fragile wine.

I'm left wondering what producers are thinking in bottling wines for export without sulfur. Do they think the wines are less fragile than we typically assume? Are they aware that even the best wine shops might not heed with label warnings? Because it's not just the supermarkets that pay no attention to the warnings on storage conditions. I saw the 2004 version of this same wine on the room temperature shelves of one of the top wine shops in Portland. If any place would pay attention to such details, this shop is the one. Yet, again, no bulging corks, no drip stains on the labels, no evidence that anything's wrong with the wine. Judging by this 2000, I'd bet the 2004 is fine. And considering I'm preparing to sulfur my 2007 wines, maybe I don't need to hit them as hard as I think. Sulfur is a magical thing for winemakers, but perhaps the risks to our wines aren't quite as great as we think.


Bertrand said...

Good post and good question.
I am sometimes wondering if unsulphured wines are THAT fragile. From the many natural-wine vintners that I met, it seems that the opinion is that when a wine has been accustomed to being lightly oxydized in its cask elevage and protected with CO2 only, it gets stronger to resist oxydation and will behave well even without SO2 addition. Of course, it may be better to be a bit more cautious in their storing, but they may stand normal cellar-conditions pretty well. The only thing that could "kill" them could be high-sea transportation in a hot freighter. But which wine would stand it ?

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Exactly. All wines can suffer from poor storage, but are no-sulfur-added wines THAT mugh more fragile? I think there's something to the theory you mention. Certainly the idea of oxidizing something now to prevent oxidation later finds its way into lots of winemaking. Polyphenol oxidation, where you let newly pressed white grape juice oxidize before fermentation, yields clear, vibrant wines because so much of what could oxidize later on in cask or bottle is oxidized immediately and then settles out of the wine. Racking red wines suggests the same thing. You show the wine some oxygen during elevage and, while you might lose some primary fruit character, you end up with a wine that has a balance of fruit and non-fruit components and might age more gracefully than a similar wine kept free from oxygen as much as possible. I can't speak from much experience, but I THINK the phobia of oxygen in "new world" cellars plays a big part in why those "new world" wines tend to show much more fruit and less complexity (and perhaps less ageworthiness) compared to older ways of winemaking that trade from fresh fruit for interest and longevity. Part of my winemaking motivation is to explore that possibility.

Thanks for the comment Bertrand.