Natural Wine, Yes. But Not Too Natural.
Paul Einbund is the wine director of the Slanted Door restaurant group. He's also worked as the sommelier at Frances, Coi and more. Look for him here every Tuesday.
The hippest trend in wine these days is to be associated with the natural wine movement. I love it! Go green, baby, in every way that you can.
But part of the honor of using that term now requires low to no sulfur dioxide additions to your wine. You know sulfur dioxide—that thing that causes all those headaches out there, the one that can cause a nose bleed or at least hurt a little if used with too heavy a hand?
The issue is that sulfur is a natural part of wine-making, there is sulfur in all wine whether we put it there or not. While it is true that too much sulfur can make your head hurt or make the wine smell like a burnt matchstick, I still feel that I would rather have a little too much then a little too little; and here are some reasons why.
1. Sulfur cleans the tanks, wine barrels and bottles and helps maintain cleanliness in wine as well. Without properly maintained sulfur levels in wine we get louses that make the wine taste bad – and bad is not good.
2. Madeira (from the island of, meant for drinking, not just cooking, and often with the color of a copper penny due to oxygen contact) is one of my favorite wines, but not all wine is supposed to look or taste like it. Guess what key element helps keep a wine from oxidizing? That’s right my friends, sulfur. Not to say that all wine has to be bright and shiny, but if you want to hold onto a bottle of wine for longer then a few months, you really should consider having some sulfur in there.
3. Terroir is the French word for ‘a sense of place’. It can be defined a hundred different ways and is another term that's very controversial. I would argue that part of the terroir of Burgundy (such an important region that the restaurant RN74 is named after an auto-route that runs through it) is sulfur. When I pop the cork on a great bottle of Comte Lafon Meursault, I know that I am going to smell incredible depth of minerality. Aromas of wet stones, marble, slate, fennel, anise, fresh spring water all could have some basis in sulfur. Sure, there are tons of other elements to those great wines being as good as they are, but sulfur doesn’t hurt, and maybe it helps.
Sulfur dioxide, my poor disrespected friend, all you wanted to do was help. I don’t think that white wine should be made without you and most reds really would benefit from you, too. So, to all the haters of sulfur dioxide, please take another look.