Zeroing in on zero sulphur

Here’s the science bit…

Sulphur ye the little wines and forbid them to be sold otherwise, for of such is the kingdom of homogeneity. And it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get a wine that tastes a bit different past the consumer tasting panel.

Admirers of no-lo are accused of being nonplussed by the ignis-fatuus of eldritch liquids and of conducting a fine romance with dead wines – a necromance, if you will – for the only wine we should all be drinking is surely a faultily faultless stable one (rather than wine that smells as if it comes from a stable), with that cleansing match-stick tick of certainty. Oh yeah. And if you can even countenance drinking a no-lo wine then you must either have no taste buds to speak of, or be possessed by a kind of morbid zeal. The term lunacy is most readily ascribed to the druidical followers of perceived natural “movement” by those very people who don’t believe that the activity of the moon governs our moods or distorts our logic – which is somewhat ironic. But then logic has never governed their pronouncements either.No added sulphur. Three little words. Total winemaking heresy.

Despite the best and the worst efforts of the consigliere to characterise it otherwise the truth is invariably more complicated than opposing good methodology with doggone madness. As Pierre Overnoy, mentored by Emmanuel Houillon, and one of the archdeacons of no-sulphur, notes: “To work without sulphur ‘it’s not the little birds that sing and then one goes on vacation’. It’s very technical with a lot of analysis, it’s not a small business! If one wants to make “sans souffre” it’s enough to not add any, but then you see the results…” Even for Overnoy making good wine without added sulphur-dioxide relies on a series of factors which begin in the vineyard. He would never recommend it blithely to any grower who has not created all the preconditions to begin to make zero-sulphur wines. One should parenthetically add that the wines will probably make a little sulphur during the fermentation in any case so this notion of a wine with absolute zero-sulphur does not apply. The most important prerequisite for low sulphur wines are soils that have been untreated with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides for many years. This allows the flora and fauna of the soil to produce the micro-nutrients needed by the vine, which, in turn, results in juice less needy of the crutches and corrections of modern winemaking. A robust population of wild-yeasts will also be present which will minimize the effects of “bad” yeasts which can produce high volatile acidity and unpleasant aromas. High acidity, high malic acid and low temperature vinification help retard bacterial activity and a long elevage with careful bottling can minimize the flavours of yeast autolysis in wines that have not been racked (to avoid contact with oxygen). Scrupulous hygiene and painstaking monitoring – natural wine is an exacting, hands-on, lips-on process. Some growers work with oenologists who analyze the wine to determine whether it can be bottled without sulphur, while others, like Pierre Frick or Jean-Pierre Robinot, simply draw a glass from the barrel and leave it out for a week or so, periodically tasting to see how the wine reacts. Whatever the technique, a well-made zero sulphur wine can be beautifully complex and pure, mutable and alive, providing a tasting and drinking experience that can make conventional wines seem simple and one-dimensional. The growers do great work in the vineyard, and in the cellar, with living soils producing living wines of great character.
Vinicultural funambulism inevitably means that you will not end up with something monolithic, but a wine that shifts in the glass and the bottle. No sulphur wines are a conundrum for the average critic who wants to (or needs to?) have fixed opinions about wines. How, after all, can you recommend something which may be in constant state of flux? How do you judge when your conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false are being challenged by a wine that refuses to conform to expectations? This is where we have to abandon the inert conventional language of response and come up with more fluid analogies. To sulphur or not to sulphur is not really the question; it is about understanding that one can be one thing or it can be myriad things.

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