Natural wines and wines with no sulphur

Challenges and differences

There are not currently any laws or specifications defining natural wine. Instead, it is more a production philosophy that is not set in stone. For wines with no sulphur, legislation requires the phrase ‘contains sulphites’ to be displayed if the sulphite level is higher than 10mg/l. However, yeast naturally produces SO2 during the fermentation process, which means that more often than not, what we are talking about is wines with no added sulphur.

Before we start looking at natural wines and wines with no sulphur, here is a non-exhaustive list of oenological additives, beginning with a focus on sulphur.

Sulphur, used in wine as sulphites (SO2), has the following properties:

  • Antiseptic: reduces the activity of micro-organisms (bacteria, apiculate yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and thus enables only those of most interest to winemaking to be selected.
  • Antioxidasic: inhibits enzymatic oxidation caused by tyrosinase in healthy grapes and laccase in spoiled grapes.
  • Antioxidant: not significant during fermentation because it affects chemical oxidation, which is much slower than enzymatic oxidation. In the finished wine, this characteristic is vital for whites and rosés, but in red wines it is less important that the grape’s procyanidins and catechins.
  • Dissolving capacity: relevant for releasing phenolic compounds in red wines.
  • Removes musty elements resulting from the presence of free acetaldehyde (when combined with acetaldehyde, SO2 produces a neutral compound).
  • A high level of SO2 leaves wines harsher and drier. What the scientific literature does not tell us is that SO2 serves as an aroma mask that reduces aromatic intensity.
    Here is a short list of the additives used in oenology:
  • Active dry yeast: yeast selected by laboratories to enable fermentation.
  • Nitrogen nutrients: enabling the yeast to ferment correctly if there is not sufficient nitrogen in the grapes.
  • Mannoproteins and yeast hulls: adding volume on the palate.
  • Tartaric and malic acid: correcting lack of acidity in the grapes.

Making a wine without SO2 is therefore a risk: aroma deviations due to undesirable micro-organisms, uncontrolled oxidation, and other phenomena may occur. These defects make wines uniform. Nevertheless, good hygiene and rigorous protection against oxygen for the wines enable the production of examples with no added sulphur that express the radiant fruit of the terroir with no mask over their aromas.

For natural wines, it is important to remember that wine does not occur naturally but is instead created by the work of human hands, which makes defining natural wine tricky. Is it a wine without any oenological additives of chemical origin? Not just that, because that also describes organic wine. A natural wine would therefore be one with no additives whatsoever. From what point onwards should additives be avoided? From the vine? On the grapes, or just during fermentation? Can oak barrels be used? Can the wines be filtered?

Our philosophy is to use as few oenological additives as possible, correct nitrogen deficiencies at the vine rather than the grape, make starters from our vines’ grapes, and use cultivation techniques that preserve the acidity of the grapes (we retain the lees so that they can be reincorporated to benefit from their wealth of mannoproteins). Similarly, we adapt filtration to our needs and the level of micro-organisms in the wines. In short, we fully respect the raw materials we gain from the vines, but we do not accept deviations or contaminations that would leave our wines all tasting the same.

The ‘fashion’ for natural wines appeared on the French market getting on for a decade ago and has recently gained real traction, particularly in more urban areas. Every market has a different understanding of ‘natural’ wines, which often results in debate regarding their definition and reason for being. Some large, well-known estates are ‘natural’, whilst other small, lesser known estates are considered examples of ‘incorrect’ products by some counterparts due to their differing features.

‘Natural’ wines often have no added sulphur (or very low sulphur levels), but wines with no added sulphur are not necessarily ‘natural’ wines. Our Mas Janeil Sans Soufre, which we have been marketing since 2012, was one of the first wines with no added sulphur that was not a ‘natural’ wine. We wanted to present a wine with greater aromatic intensity and juicy, gourmet fruit. The lack of added sulphur enabled us to do so, and offer a full expression of the work we undertake in the vineyard. Today, there is growing and increasingly widespread demand for wines with no added sulphur, both in France and abroad.

By Julien Fernandez, Domaines du Languedoc Manager – Loïc Parola, Director of Pardela Wines