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

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

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

Ask Dr. Vinny Wine Flaws Winemaking Techniques Explained Natural Wine

More In Dr. Vinny

What’s the difference between Brix, Baumé, Oechsle and residual sugar?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why measuring sugar content in grapes is so …

Jan 18, 2021

Will my wines get too cold in the garage?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny covers the pitfalls of storing wine in the garage, …

Jan 11, 2021

Dr. Vinny's 25 Top Answers to 'What's the Difference Between …?'

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers disambiguations for wine topics far and wide.

Jan 4, 2021

Dr. Vinny's Most Interesting Questions of 2020

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, revisits the most thoughtful questions …

Dec 31, 2020

Dr. Vinny Answers Your Pandemic Questions (About Wine)

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, revisits all your questions about wine …

Dec 28, 2020

Why is the name “Sauvignon” attached to both red Cabernet Sauvignon and white Sauvignon Blanc?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the relationship between Cabernet Sauvignon and …

Dec 21, 2020