Why Sulfites? Winemakers Sound Off

Why Sulfites? Winemakers Sound Off

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Why Sulfites? Winemakers Sound Off

A less dogmatic approach to sulfite usage is growing among natural winemakers. Will the natural wine community agree?

BY KATHERINE CLARY
PHOTO OF KATHLINE CHERY BY KYLE JOHNSON

In the curious and ever-evolving conversation about natural wine that we’ve been lucky to witness blossom over the past 10 years, there is perhaps no discussion that is more heated than the one about sulfites. (“The sulfite convo! lol,” responded one winemaker when I approached them for an interview. Enough said.)

Thanks to a greater demand to know what's in our food and drink, we're now more equipped with a vocabulary and knowledge that might rival some wine professionals. As a result, we’ve learned about conventional winemaker tricks like adding sugar to spike a wine’s alcohol percent, and using a food coloring called Mega Purple to deepen a red wine's color. And we know a lot about a once-obscure, sulfur-derived preservative called sulfites.

Or do we?

Well, someone does. In 2022, scientific journals like Nature and Food Chemistry published more studies on sulfites than any other year in history. As I dug into some of these studies, words like flavenoids and polyphenols swirling around in my head, I wondered if any of us really knew what we were talking about when we talked about sulfites.

Why does this compound inspire such heated debate? Is the zero sulfites argument about purity in wine, or health (sulfites are a known allergen), or headaches (whose supposed link to sulfites is not proven), or something else? Can’t we all just get along?

In the ever-evolving conversation about natural wine, there is perhaps no discussion that is more heated than the one about sulfites.

Part of what I love about wine is just how subjective the experience can be: no two wine drinkers are alike. Some of my more memorable nights have involved a friendly, tipsy tussle over the merits of a wine or grape (hint: don’t get into it with haters of Gewürztraminer). But the conversation about sulfites has become so “us versus them,” that somewhere along the way, it stopped being fun.

In speaking to winemakers about the merits of using sulfites or abstaining from them completely, I was encouraged by the lack of dogma I heard around its use–and the amount of flexibility each winemaker had in their approach to winemaking. It turns out we’re not so divided after all. Ultimately, the winemakers I spoke with had this in common: they all just want to make, and drink, good wine.

First, the Science

Sulfur dioxide (or S02) is a compound derived from the prehistoric element sulfur, which is mined from the earth, but also occurs naturally in plants, dirt, and even our own bodies. Sulfur dioxide, commonly referred to as sulfites, forms naturally during the fermentation process of wine, cider, beer, and certain foods (small amounts are in every bottle of wine.)

When the wine community talks about these compounds, they’re usually referencing sulfites added during the winemaking process, which winemakers can purchase as tablets or powder. (Editor's note: Sulfur is also commonly used in the vineyard to fight mildew—a topic which we are not addressing in this piece, but will feature in a future article.) Regulatory bodies around the world have rightly decided consumers should be wary of this additive—after all, it is an allergen for some (and, it must be mentioned, is used as a preservative in a lot of food, most commonly dried fruit). In most countries, this means you’ll find a ‘Contains Sulfites’ message on your wine bottle if a producer has added more than 10 milligrams per liter, or 10 parts per million (PPM). For context, wines with sulfites in the United States are legally permitted to have up to 350 PPM.

Evan Lewandowski pressing grapes. [Photo courtesy of Evan Lewandowski]

As for its purpose? “Sulfur is used to eliminate unwanted bacteria that can lead to flaws, and also prevents oxidation,” explains food scientist Philippa Ojimelukwe of the College of Applied Food Sciences in Nigeria. “It shouldn’t hurt a wine—it should only help a wine.” But it depends with whom you speak. For many, “flaws” come on a spectrum: What I find to be an acceptable level of volatile acidity or Brettanomyces (some describe this taste as funk) might turn another person’s nose up. To complicate things even more, a common flaw called mouse (or tetrahydropyridine, also known as THP, which gives wine a certain whiff of hamster cage) that’s fixable by a small dose of sulfites, isn’t even detectable by all wine drinkers.

“I prefer to have a small problem in a wine, like oxidation or reduction or a bit of gas, than to have added a small amount of sulfur,” says Alsatian winemaker Christian Binner of Domaine Binner. “But if there is a lot of mouse or very high levels of volatile acidity or Brett, that’s not my objective. So for sure, if I need to add a bit of sulfur to avoid that, I will do it.”

One thing we can all agree on is what they do: There is little else that will sterilize a bottle, barrel, or a grape to the degree that sulfites do and, in turn, prevent flaws like mouse or volatile acidity (where a wine might taste like vinegar). Sulfites can also prevent a wine from refermenting in the bottle. One winemaker admitted that he uses sulfur to prevent “little guys” from being in his wine.

“Sulfur is a medicine. If the vinification is not sick, then we don’t use it–just like we don’t use antibiotics if we’re not sick.” -Mathieu Lapierre

“I think it's an incredibly useful tool if you can use it respectfully, intentionally, intently,” admits winemaker Evan Lewandowski of California’s Ruth Lewandowski Wines.

That being said, at one point, sulfites use in wine became excessive. Their rise—and overuse—coincided with a boom of industrial practices that became popular in winemaking post-World War II: The fungicide Captan hit the market in 1951 to combat vine-specific diseases like black rot and downy mildew, followed by herbicides like Roundup that farmers considered a cure-all for pesky agricultural problems like weeds and insects. Culturally, we were suddenly more than willing to obliterate our agriculture (and our wine.)

These industrial practices led to a real loss of biodiversity in vineyards: In the pursuit to eradicate anything that would interfere with their vines, many farmers killed off beneficial plants, leading to the monoculture that reigns in many wine regions to this day. With the eventual pushback to some of these industrial practices some 20 years later (spurred by the French, of course—look up who iconic wine importer Kermit Lynch famously dubbed the revered "Gang of Four," if you’re curious), what we now know as natural wine was born. Most of these early practices, including low sulfite additions, hand-harvested grapes, and biodiversity in the vineyard are now baked into the philosophy of natural winemaking.

What Do the Winemakers Think?

Beaujolais-based winemaker Mathieu Lapierre of iconic Domaine Marcel Lapierre—the eponymous winery named after his father, a Gang of Four founding member—believes that “Sulfur is a medicine.” And therefore, “If the vinification is not sick, then we don’t have to use it–just like we don’t use antibiotics if we’re not sick.”

"I wasn’t planning on being strictly zero-zero … But it just so happened that everything was tasting really good without it.” -Kathline Chery

But for some winemakers, bottling a wine without added sulfites is a major risk, though one that comes with great rewards. “Going into winemaking, I wasn’t planning on being strictly zero-zero,” explains winemaker Kathline Chery of Kalchē Wine Co. in Vermont. “But it just so happened that everything was tasting really good without it. And I was like, I think I can pull this off.”

Crucially, she points out that for her first vintage, she was working out of a brand new space that had never had wine made in it before. This, she believes, is what enabled her to make such pristine wine without sulfites. “There’s something to say for that kind of freshness. I inoculated that space.” She explains that her upcoming releases will likely have a small amount of sulfur added to combat mouse, which she detected in 2022. Kathline was careful to not admit defeat at this realization, but her disappointment was palpable.

I spoke to winemaker François de Nicolay of Domaine Chandon de Briailles in Burgundy next. He understands the challenges of working both with sulfur and without it—depending on how the vintage goes, he bottles some cuvées with a small addition (no more than 15-20 PPM.) Those wines, he explains, feel “more serious, more classic. But they’re less expressive [than the wines bottled with no sulfur.]”

Alsatian winemaker Christian Binner of Domaine Binner agrees that aesthetically, wines without sulfur have more life and energy. “Zero-zero wines give more emotion, and are more interesting than something that is considered perfect. I think it requires people to be a little more open-minded,” he says.Binner acknowledges the risk that comes with abstaining from sulfites–including aforementioned flaws like mouse, Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, and more. “If you want to make perfect wines where things are always lovely, you need to add some sulfur, and it will make them lovely quickly.” But, he explains, many of these problems disappear with time, and it’s the responsibility of sommeliers and cavistes to explain this to wine buyers. “Making a great, natural zero-zero wine takes time.”

Binner acknowledges the risk that comes with abstaining from sulfites–including aforementioned flaws like mouse, Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, and more. “If you want to make perfect wines where things are always lovely, you need to add some sulfur, and it will make them lovely quickly.” But, he explains, many of these problems disappear with time, and it’s the responsibility of sommeliers and cavistes to explain this to wine buyers. “Making a great, natural zero-zero wine takes time.”

Above and below: Domaine Chandon de Briailles' barrel room and vineyard. [Photos courtesy of Domaine Chandon de Briailles]

“You have a responsibility, as a winemaker, to not put something in bottle that is subjectively unpleasant.” -Evan Lewandowski

Now on his twelfth vintage, Lewandowski considers it a responsibility to occasionally use a small amount of sulfur to safeguard his wine. His choice to add it when he sees certain microbial issues arise before fermentation (rather than adding it to the fruit or at bottling, which is more common, and requires less consideration) underscores his cautious approach.

Lewandowski monitors the microbial population of his wine, and if he sees it spiking before alcoholic fermentation is complete, he’ll add 10 to 20 milligrams of sulfur. This, he explains, prevents acetic acid, which leads to volatile acidity. The addition “stun[s] or kill[s] that bacteria and knocks it back. So if I don’t make a sulfur-free wine, that’s why I’ve done it.”

He continues: “You owe it to yourself, you owe it to the fruit, you owe it to the grower that grew the fruit, and you owe it to the universe that provided the sunlight. You have a responsibility, as a winemaker, to not put something in bottle that is subjectively unpleasant. I don't want to do that.”

The question of when to add, or not to add, sulfur to a wine is complex, and can rarely be explained as a choice that is purely aesthetic, environmental, or otherwise. But it would benefit all of us to listen to winemakers and to approach the conversation with curiosity and openness, understanding that for most winemakers who add sulfur, it’s done in the interest of creating a beverage that is compelling and enjoyable.

By easing up on some of the more dogmatic aesthetic traditions of the natural wine movement, I wonder if we’re making room to have conversations about things that, frankly, matter more: making sure we’re dismantling wine’s exclusionary and racist history, increasing biodiversity within the fraught monoculture we’ve created with the world’s vineyards, and addressing historically questionable labor practices that have been recently exposed in the industry and culture at large. I trust that we can figure out how to make (and drink!) good wine, while also imagining a future that we’ll actually want to celebrate—perhaps with a nice glass of wine.

[Uncredited photo by Loïc Terrier for Domaine Marcel Lapierre]

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