Natural Wine: Choosing Your Priorities
by Clark Smith
Reader Comments... [16]

Jim Adelman, Today I'm a chemist
Qupe Wine Cellars,
How is your sulfite-free wine superior? A wine that tastes great at a very young age does not make it superior. That assumption makes you sound like the great Parker and Laube.

Craig Pinhey, Wine Writer
freelancer, New Brunswick, Canada
If I recall correctly, at a tasting a few weeks ago of wines from Perrin et Fils, Thomas Perrin explained that for most of their wines they use no sulfites and farm organically or buy from organic farmers (not sure about the Le Vielle Ferme brands, but certainly for the more premium wines), which caught me off guard. The only other sulfite free wine I have had was microbiologically unstable - had gone cloudy and tasted sour & phenolic (wild yeast I assume, and bacteria maybe).

All the Perrin wines I tasted were excellent and, perhaps on an unrelated note, or perhaps not, I noticed none of the screwcapped wines had any sulphury notes, a problem I've been encountering far too often on S/C wines.

So, will these Perrin wines age?

Oh, and by the way, if I have to pick 2 of those categories in your article, I am mostly H.) Terroir Enthusiast, but also am a bit of F.) Collector (for the few aging wines I do have, and buy for work events).

Dan Thompson, CEO
Thompson Wine Group, Southeast USA
Hey Clark: Awesome story and I plan on studying your table and getting on your blog later this week. Bringing winemakers and consumers together through honesty is what it's all about!
P.S. - I've enjoyed your WineSmith
wines thoroughly since purchasing a mixed case through Appellation America late last year!!

Victor Gallegos, GM/Director of Winemaking
Sea Smoke, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, CA
Mr. Smith,

Not like you to shun a controversial topic, but it seems to me a discussion of the currently vogue practice of adding poison to wine prior to bottling (e.g. Velcorin, aka dimethyl dicarbonate) would have been in order.

Consumer information seems to be the touchstone for your article... I can't imagine a subject that would be of more interest. For those doubting the level of interest on the part of their consumers, a good test might be to invite a key customer to bottling and put them in charge of the Velcorin dosing. The required hazmat suit would be such a fashion statement! And the memorable photos they would have of their time making wine would be cherished by friends and family alike.


Victor Gallegos

Mark Beaman
It is clear that a lot of time went into producing this article and the chart within. Well done.

Wine drinkers are constantly educating themselves and information in an easy-to-read format is a useful tool. I am a little confused on the scores for the Environmentalist, Traditionalist, and Health Conscious groups. It seems Biodynamic scored lower than Organic Certification. No disrespect or slight to Organic certification or practices, however, it is my understanding that Biodynamic farming and winemaking practices meet and/or exceeds Organic certification requirements. The main difference being that “Organic Wine” has no added sulfites, where “Wines made with Organically Grown Grapes” or wines made in Demeter Biodynamic Wine classification may have up to 100ppm Total measurable sulfites at bottling.

From an environmental, traditional, and health conscious perspective I would think a self-contained system of natural input farming such as Biodynamic Farming would satisfy those positions lending to higher score on your chart.

Overall an interesting read.

Clark Smith, Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
To Jim [comment #1]:

You are a very good winemaker and know better than to critique a wine you haven't actually tried. I would not say that a 2004 Syrah is at a very young age. Further, any wine of four years which improves from a week of breathing is doing pretty well. The wine does not owe its charm to its forwardness.

To Craig [comment #2]:

I am the same as you -- mostly Terroir Enthusiast and a bit Collector. But I'm less skeptical about the ageworthiness of properly made sulfite-free wines and MOx wines because I have much more experience with them than most collectors, so my chart looks a lot different than what I put down for the typical collector. To me, looking at ageworthiness of these experimental wines is, for the true connoisseur, one of the best reasons to collect wine. Not as an investment, but as an adventure.

To Victor [comment #4]:

We have been developing other methods to sterilize wines without sterile filtration. Velcorin definitely presents a hazard in the workplace, though not at all to the consumer, and so we'd like to replace it with another method such as pressurization, high tech pasteurization or liquid CO2 injection / degassing / recapture. These methods rate much higher for Health Conscious and Environmentalists, and satisfy the Collectors and Terroirists. Only the Traditionalists get left out, and for these, a Non-Interventionist microbial balance makes, to me, the very best wine (as embodied in Roman Syrah) though in an antique style not every conventional palate will appreciate.

Thank you to all the commentors for their thoughtful contributions.

Craig Pinhey, Wine Writer
freelancer, New Brunswick, Canada

Do you know how Perrin keeps their wine stable if they use no sulfites, as they claim?

I had a glass of their Vaqueyras last night at our local wine bar, and it was fantastic!

~ Craig

Jim Adelman, Today-pest control
Qupe Wine Cellars, Santa Maria Valley, CA

I didn't see the vintage date in the article. Secondly – The wine industry has to be completely transparent. Knowledge about winemaking is empowering to consumers. There are some misconceptions about why certain products are added to wine.

Clark Smith, Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
Craig [comment #7],
I owe to Paul Frey and Patrick Ducournau the keys to good sulfite-free production. From Paul I learned the preservative power of wines grown in living soil. Associated with mineral energy in the finish, it explains why Mosels last so long without tannin. From Patrick I learned the anti-oxidative strength of tannins picked ripe but not overripe, and how to harness that energy (paradoxically with oxygen) to create a structure that integrates microbial flavors into the wine. Perrin follows these principles and so do I.

For a more complete discussion, see my blog

Daniel O'Byrne
Clark, rock on man!
What’s your position on acidulation?

Clark Smith, Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
Any Certification Mark for Natural Wine, if it is to have any winery adherents, will need to present a commercially viable proposition. Proponents will need to choose wisely the mountains they want to die on, leaving winemakers enough leeway for commercial practicality. The Organic rules failed to do this, which is why there are so few players. I'm unclear why acidulation would be a major issue. But I'm not the best person to ask what those issues are, since my winemaking experience has afforded me with many practices a comfort level to which consumers have no access. (As an example, to my surprise, it was clear from the audience response at the Indie Wine Festival panel discussion that yeast inoculation is a no-no.) Until recently, acidulation was banned in France, but it is also unnecessary, just as chaptalization is banned in California. Acidulation enhances wine taste balance and stability. If I were a soup chef, I would not expect customers to take exception if I salted the soup.

Ray Suzanne, MBA Candidate
University Canada West, Victoria, BC, Canada
Sulfite free wines? How can that be, since sulfite is a by product of fermentation, how can any wine be free of sulfites?


Clark Smith, Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
Dear Ray:

Not all wines have yeast-created bisulfite. That's determined by strain and conditions (and is of course one of the factors which is left uncontrolled by fermenting on natural yeast). However, it's usually a trivial amount; around 5-10 ppm total, all of it present as the bound form. Properly carried out oxygenation at a very slow rate below the wine's phenolic appetite creates tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide which attack bound sulfites and convert them to sulfates, which are ubiquitous and pretty inert. The resulting wine has no detectable sulfites. I blogged the whole recipe for this wine here.



Robert Camuto, Author
In France, FRANCE
Dear Clark: An excellent article. I have been speaking about the problems of natural wine advocacy being taken over by some pretty shrill people who know little about winemaking. My approach is this: I start with expression of TERROIR as the first priority: (Why? Because I like variation. Wine is not a drink but a food and I don't like to eat the same thing everynight). Once you consider TERROIR as the top priority a lot of the factors follow: For terroir to express itself you need to respect the environment, use indigenous yeasts, and shouldn't dramatically alter the wine or take away from its character with fining or filtering. (If you are acidfying or adding enzymes you are not picking at the right time or you are trying to rush the wine in the cellar.)
As for tradition--in Europe anyway local traditions (from the cultivation of vines to raising the wine, etc) are part of the terroir. When it comes to sulfur, I enjoy wines that use it and that don't. They are different animals-- both have their places in the cellar.
As American winelovers we often leave out another POV: the issue of affordability. that is because in America is too often thought as A LUXURY PRODUCT.
It Europe, again, wine is as important as bread= food. Here its very interesting to see how regional coops are evolving to make vineyards sustainable and wines reflective of place at a low price point that is unimaginable in the states.
Best to you.
"Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country"

Clark Smith
Appellation America,
Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you brought up the point about value. In surveying AVA’s outside the mainstream, both as a winemaker and as a columnist, I have found the benefit of seeking out dedicated winegrowers in unusual places. Not only are their wines less likely to be the same old same old, the absence of consumer feeding frenzy keeps prices reasonable.

Chad Hardesty, winegrower
Hardesty Cellars, Willow Creek, Humboldt CA
Great article. Nice to see some sort of clarification on the natural wine movement. I drank a bottle of 1981 Cotturri zinfandel from sonoma the other night. The wine was made using native/wild yeast and without the addition of any chemicals including sulfites. A beautiful wine, having traded fruit bouquet for cellar bouquet and softening tannins to a smooth drinking experience. No off flavors or smells. I have also had a 1977 zin a few years before(2007). 30 years old and incredible though color was starting to go. Great wine contains acid, tannins, and alcohol in the perfect balance. All of which are natural preservatives. If this balance is made in the vineyard there is no need to make adjustments in the winery. Too many "experts" are so brainwashed to believe it is simply not possible to make stable wine without sulfites. My question to them is Have you made natural wine? How do you know it doesn't work? All of my wine comes back from the lab with flying colors in the volatile acid catagory, and never had a stuck fermentation. "Clean fruit and clean equipment makes clean wine" something Tony Cotturri told me that I feel is a good mantra for all wine makers. I challenge all who are skeptical to try a good bottle of wine made without the use of sulfites. ($13 is not generally a good wine but a budget wine) Try any of Cotturri and Sons wines maybe cellar some for ten years and you will see that there is real merit to wine made using minimal intervention. Wine that speaks true to terrior, vintage and variety.
Also "Grupo Vini veri" is a large group of winemakers in europe focusing on traditional, natural wine making techniques founded by Giussepi Bea of Paolo Bea in montefalco umbria italy. Something european winemakers have been doing for thousands of years long before the "technological" influence of the New World.