Is low-sulfite, minimal-intervention winemaking the future of wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Some winemakers are dramatically reducing if not eliminating the use of sulfites. Is this the future of winemaking?

—Alexei, Rockville, Md.

Dear Alexei,

You’re correct that minimal-intervention winemaking is a popular trend right now (so-called “natural” wines are part of that trend). Limiting or omitting the addition of sulfur/sulfites is frequently a part of that trend.

Let me get my sulfite rap out of the way: Sulfites are a naturally occurring byproduct of winemaking, and are found in dried fruits and molasses and many other things we consume. Winemakers typically add additional sulfites because they act as a stabilizer and preservative.

Sulfites are often maligned because of the warning label that’s required on all bottles of wine sold in the U.S. (but not other countries) that wine contains sulfites. There is a small percentage of people who are allergic to sulfites, and the asthmalike reactions they have can be scary. But no, sulfites are not connected to headaches or hangovers.

Even for winemakers working in the low-intervention style, there’s no consensus about sulfites. Some might add a little bit before bottling, others won’t use any at all. The lack of sulfites combined with unfined and unfiltered bottles can result in some funky wines with some strange flavors and aromas. The wines can taste reductive and skunky, or cabbagelike, or get a bit barnyardy or even vinegary. Sometimes these notes can blow off with a bit of decanting, but not always.

I’ve tried some wonderful minimal-intervention wines. I’ve also tried my share that I can’t get past the first sip or sniff because they seem flawed to me. I know they can be susceptible to bottle variation, or even wines starting to re-ferment in the bottle. And despite the intention to have the wines show their uniqueness, when they start getting into that funky territory, they somehow all start tasting the same to me.

I think the movement is here to stay—there are wine shops and restaurant wine lists dedicated to these wines. I think that’s a good thing. Like any movement in art, it’s leading to new expressions and innovations, even if the “innovation” is to do nothing. I appreciate that there’s a wine for every taste out there.

—Dr. Vinny

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