There was a time, not so long ago, when making quality wines without adding sulphur dioxide (SO2) was widely considered close to impossible, largely the preserve of mavericks. Inspired by the philosophies of natural wine guru Jules Chauvet, a small group of independent-minded producers such as Pierre Overnoy in Jura, Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais, Gramenon in the Rhône and Frank Cornelissen in Sicily sought to relearn ways of making wine without the need to add SO2.
Today, as more and more consumers seek out ‘minimal intervention’ wines and the natural wine movement becomes increasingly mainstream, so-called ‘no sulphites added’ (NSA) wine is made all over the world. But the issue remains divisive. At one end of the spectrum are figures such as Champagne’s enfant terrible Anselme Selosse, arguing that SO2 ‘lobotomises wine’; at the other, Monika Christmann, former president of the International Vine & Wine Organisation (OIV), warning of deteriorating wine stability caused by a ‘downwards spiral’ in the use of SO2 in winemaking.
Sulphur dioxide is naturally produced by yeasts during fermentation, so all wines contain some sulphites. The practice of adding sulphites during the winemaking process to stabilise or preserve wine goes back to at least the 18th century. Conventional producers may add SO at different stages from harvest to bottling in order to prevent microbial spoilage of wine from unwanted bacteria and yeasts and to minimise oxidation.
Sulphite levels tend to be higher in white and rosé wines and much higher in sweet wines than in red or orange wines, which receive more natural antioxidant protection from tannins in the grape skins. Sulphites are also used as preservatives in a wide range of food and drink products, from dried fruit and shellfish to pizza.
Sulphites in wine have long been blamed for causing ‘wine headaches’. The evidence for this is largely anecdotal, but judging by the number of devices on the market for removing sulphites from wine, such as Clean Wine, Drop It, PureWine, SO2Go, Üllo and Winestiq, there are many wine drinkers who feel that sulphites affect them negatively. Some people unquestionably are sensitive to SO2, and sulphite levels in wine are regulated in Europe and other wine-producing regions. In a small proportion of people, high sulphite levels can cause reactions, from shortness of breath to hives, flushing and heart palpitations, or, in very rare cases, anaphylaxis. There is some university-level research suggesting that the liver processes NSA wines better than conventional wines, because SO2 destroys vitamin B and glutathione, which help the body to digest alcohol.
Testing the limits
Making wines with no added SO2 is fraught with challenges. NSA wines are more liable to wine faults, bottle variation and premature ageing. Jancis Robinson MW once famously described ‘unsuccessful’ NSA wine as ‘more like five-day-old cider with more than a hint of mouse droppings’, highlighting the risks of funky aromas, Brettanomyces (brett), high volatile acidity or ‘mousiness’ in wines without a SO2 safety net.
‘Grape juice is a very delicate substance that needs protection from oxidation and bacterial spoilage,’ says David Bird MW, author of Understanding Wine Technology. ‘It is quite possible to make good wine without adding sulphites, but it’s hard and, in my view, unnecessary, because a touch of SO2 has no negative impact on the wine.’ Tiny doses of SO2 added early in the vinification process can prevent wine infections and disappear by the time the wine is bottled.
Given how hard it is to make NSA wines, why do producers bother? Health is certainly a factor. Thierry Allemand started making sans soufre versions of his Cornas wines because he believed his sensitive liver was unaffected by drinking NSA wines. Consumer trends towards ‘cleaner’ wine have undoubtedly played a role. For some producers, it is about the challenge of sailing close to the wind. However, many artisanal producers make such wines mainly from a belief in low-intervention winemaking and a conviction that they just taste better. As Michèle Aubéry-Laurent of Domaine Gramenon put it to me: ‘I do it because I like the taste of wine without sulphites, not for dogmatic reasons. But we add SO2 if necessary: it’s not a religion.’
Frank Cornelissen was long famous for his refusal to add sulphites to his Sicilian wines at any stage. By his own admission, the results were mixed. ‘Vintages like 2011 and 2014, when the fruit was perfect and all elements of the maturation fell together, are still delicious. Others, like 2005, are like Russian roulette: some bottles are great, others not.’ After 20 years, Cornelissen has concluded that the advantages of adding small doses of SO2 outweigh the disadvantages. ‘You don’t know where your limits lie until you go beyond them. I feel comfortable staying close to the boundaries, because I’ve crossed them.’ For the past two years, he has added sulphites and believes this has enabled him to express his volcanic Mount Etna terroir more precisely.
The way to no sulphites added
The key to minimising the need for added sulphites, many organic wine producers argue, lies in natural vineyard practices, which increase acidity and antioxidant levels in grapes. ‘People who make great NSA wines are fanatics in the vineyard,’ says Isabelle Legeron MW, author of Natural Wine. François de Nicolay of Domaine Chandon de Briailles in the Côte de Beaune is a case in point. ‘The primary material in the vineyard must be very high quality to make wines without SO2,’ he says. It requires hands-on biodynamic methods and meticulous sorting at harvest.
Andrew Nielsen of Le Grappin, who also makes wine in Burgundy, agrees. ‘You need a healthy population of microbes that come from the vineyard with the grapes into the winery, and to create an environment where these native yeasts become stronger.
‘The risk in adding sulphites is that you kill off the good microbes as well as the bad ones. You need to help wines to fight for themselves, without the comfort blanket of SO2.’
Great care and precision are also vital in the winery. Nielsen stresses careful management of oxygen, extracting as many antioxidants as possible from the grapes, fermentation at high temperatures, no racking and frequent barrel-tastings. Hygiene must be rigorous throughout the process. Nielsen and de Nicolay both regularly analyse brett counts in the wine and will only bottle where the figure is at zero. Even with the greatest care, things go wrong from time to time. Nielsen admits to losing a tank of Aligoté to microbial infection: ‘If you’re walking on a high wire, you will fall occasionally.’
Given the extra time and effort involved, no- or low-sulphite wine inevitably costs more to make than conventional wine – so it is reasonable to be suspicious of low-price branded NSA wines. As Legeron points out, not all NSA wines on the market are necessarily produced in a ‘natural’ way: ‘If you sell a NSA wine at a low price in large quantities, it could well have been machine harvested, sterile filtered and made with artificial yeasts. The danger is of SO2 being replaced by all sorts of other additives.’
Some innovative producers experiment with natural alternatives. Chandon de Briailles protects its vines by using powdered skimmed milk as a fungicide in the vineyard rather than sulphur. Erica Crawford of Loveblock in New Zealand’s Marlborough region uses green tea powder, which contains lots of antioxidant polyphenols, to make her NSA ‘Tee’ Sauvignon Blanc. ‘We have been really impressed by its protective nature, with no sign of oxidation in the wine,’ says Crawford. South African wine producers such as Audacia and KWV have pioneered the use of rooibos and honeybush, which both have a strong antioxidant capacity.
Highs and lows
My experiences of NSA wines are mixed, but have included lovely wines in past years from Thierry Allemand, Chandon de Briailles and Gramenon in particular. NSA wines tend to have a markedly different flavour profile, with a somewhat funky nose and an initial yeasty taste in the mouth that can be off-putting at first. But they draw you in; and, to a greater extent than conventional wines, they often taste much better 24-48 hours after opening. When tasted alongside sulphited versions of the same wine, there is a sense of greater purity, intensity and liveliness, with rounder, brighter fruit flavours – what Cornelissen describes as a ‘generous’ quality. ‘A well-made no- or low-sulphite wine has a sense of life that you don’t get with conventional wines,’ says Nielsen. ‘You can feel the energy.’
Chandon de Briailles has made sulphited and NSA versions of some cuvées since 2005, to compare. ‘No-sulphite wines can have a yeasty taste when they’re young,’ says de Nicolay, ‘but when they’re older, they are truer to the terroir than SO2 versions, with more aromatic breadth.’ For Cornelissen: ‘The best wines without added sulphites have a boost of energy and fruit upfront. Too much SO2 keeps wines tight, like they don’t want to express themselves.’ Crawford agrees: ‘SO2 tends to grab the flavour and hold on to it,’ whereas NSA wines taste ‘softer and more varietal’.
It is sometimes suggested that NSA wines are more susceptible to spoilage during transport and storage, and age less well. Legeron insists that successful NSA wines are no less robust or ageworthy than comparable conventional wines.
‘I have tasted NSA wines from the 1940s and 1950s that were impeccable,’ Legeron says. ‘There is no doubt they can age; indeed, they should age more gracefully than wines with high sulphite levels, because they are alive.’
Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to add sulphites is about appetite for risk. ‘If you don’t like taking risks, you should just add sulphites,’ says Legeron. Cornelissen likens making NSA wines to free climbing without a rope. ‘You have to know your capacities, otherwise you’ll fall off and die.’
Sulphites protect, but also inhibit: wines with added SO2 are more consistent than NSA wines, but they may also be less intensely aromatic. As David Harvey of Raeburn Fine Wines puts it: ‘Winemakers at the edge always have more to lose. Not one producer of NSA wines is consistently brilliant: there is always a bad year, a bad fermenter, a bad cask, a bad bottling. But the highs are insane.’
Terminology: sulphur, sulphur dioxide, sulphites and sulphides
It is easy to confuse the numerous similar-sounding, but chemically distinct terms relating to sulphur in wine. Sulphur is sprayed on vines as a fungicide to prevent powdery mildew. In the past, it was also burnt in winery buildings and casks to destroy unhelpful bacteria and yeasts, a practice that seems to be on the rise again.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) or sulphites – in liquid, gas or powder form – may be added to grapes or wine during winemaking, from harvesting to fermentation and bottling; yeasts also produce natural SO2 during fermentation.
Sulphites are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in all wine. Sulphides are volatile sulphur compounds (hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans and disulphides) that, when present at high levels in wine, are associated with wine faults such as reduction and rotten egg or rotten vegetable smells.