The Sulphur Paradox; or, A Brief History of Natural Wine

Posted by Andrew Yandell on

Sulphur is at once a scapegoat and a tool.

In the cacophonous echo chamber of natural wine, sulphur is often assailed as the root of all evil.  It’s not, but it’s easy to understand, blame, and frame as a one-size-fits all repudiation of the industrialized wine industry by well-intentioned rebels.  I can understand how they got there, but there’s some history and context that’s worth consideration.

I. War, Peace, and Industry (1945-1980s)
The close of the second world war brought inexpensive, effective, and toxic agrichemicals to European vineyards.  Coupled with widely available synthetic fertilizers, these new insecticides, fungicides, herbicides increased yields like never before.  At first, they were a financial boon for farmers who sold to winemakers and merchants by the kilo and liter.  Chemical farming became normalized, so that even today we call it “conventional.”  With time, fruit quality suffered, and the its hollow juice required heavy doctoring, like heavy sulfite additions, so it didn’t rot.  Little has changed at conventional mass-market operations since.  Take note: the problem here is bad farming, not sulfites.

II. Rediscovery and Misdirection (1980s-2000s)
In the early eighties, a ‘gang of four’ winemakers in Beaujolais (Foillard, Lapierre, Breton, Thevenet) famously led by amateur scientist and wine merchant Jules Chauvet began experimenting with pre-war organic farming techniques and quickly converted their estates when they saw the difference in grape quality.  Of course, their higher quality fruit needed less doctoring, including less sulfites.  In the best vintages, the fruit from their best parcels was so robustly healthy they omitted any additions whatsoever to a portion of their production; hence their best cuvees were without sulfur, ‘sans soufre.’

It’s easy to hear ‘the best wines have no sulfur’ and apply it as a rule of thumb, but it’s not that simple.  The real evil the ‘gang of four’ battled was chemical agriculture.  The hard work, expense, and risk that go into organic vineyards year after year to build living soils and grow great grapes separate the best from the rest; it's not as simple as simply omitting sulfites.  Conventionally farmed 'sans soufre' wine puts the cart before the horse.

III. International Agriculture (1980s-2000s)
If sulphur isn’t the problem, why is it framed so?  It’s easy to omit, easy to understand, and easy to sell, of course.  But it also has to do with postmodern wine culture.  Robert Parker and his taste for powerful, doctored international style wines had come to define good taste by the two thousands, and oenologists, not farmers, were the rockstars of the wine world.  In search of a perfect Parker score, wineries on all continents hired the same winemakers to make similar tasting wines.  Winemaking dominated terroir.  With every hard swing to an extreme, there comes a counter-swing.

IV. Rebellion and Adolescence (early 2010s)
The reaction to hyper-manipulation inspired a new generation of minimal intervention winemakers all over the world in the two thousand tens.  Many European newcomers owned small family farms that sold grapes in the past, but young Americans were (and largely remain) landless.  A few of the brave leased vineyards to farm and joined the land-owning Europeans in the years-long slog of converting to organic viticulture.  It takes three years to become certified; global 
certified organic vineyard area doubled growth from 4% yearly increases between 2011 and 2014 to 8% since, with 75% of global production split between France, Italy, and Spain as of 2019.

Meanwhile, winemakers did the best they could with the fruit available to them, prizing personality over homogenous flawlessness, searching for soul by minimizing winemaking.  Minimization or omission of sulfites altogether became synonymous with an idea of newfound terroir, ‘natural’ by virtue of its unmanipulated state.  This new breed of “natural” resonated with a culture thirsty for authenticity, supercharged by instagram and the hype beasts that dwell there.  Sometimes, this game of high-speed cultural telephone led producers, purveyors, and consumers alike into self-affirming worlds of radical ideas about sulfites where the emperor wore no clothes and classic wines weren't really wines at all.

Interestingly, much of the “authentic” quality of this mid-two thousand tens style had little to do with terroir and everything to do with winemaking.  “Natural” wines began tasting remarkably similar, no matter where they were from: low extraction, low alcohol, a little funky, a little cidery, a little hazy, a little fizzy, or some combination of those, and certainly no oak.  The wines tasted every bit as made and homogenous as their doctored predecessors.  Terroir wasn’t to be found in the winery.

V. Coming of Age (mid-2010s to present)
Over the next half decade, the extremes of “natural” became tempered by the quality of fruit coming out of newly certified organic vineyards and the characterful terroir they demonstrated.  
Farmer winemakers, eager to highlight and preserve their toiled-over fruit, reverted to more classic winemaking styles and used small amounts of sulfites to preserve their unique expression of terroir as needed.  “Sans soufre” came to indicate without sulfites in the French sense: very little sulfites added, where “zero-zero” came to mean truly none added for both vinous paragons and natty zealots alike.  It took some time, but the best natural wine today seems a lot like it did for the original gang of four: the best fruit, bottled.

Paradoxically, a little sulphur can taste less like winemaking than none at all.

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