Wine without sulfites, Roman-style


Two points to begin. First, I don't subscribe to the health arguments. Since the human body produces a gram of sulfites per day -- ten times as much sulfites as you find in a bottle of wine -- how can there be an allergic reaction to sulfites? And second, there are many technical methods to make wine without sulfites -- pasteurization, as is done for Japanese sake, to name one. That's not my interest.

I'm interested in why the Romans planted all those grapes. I'm interested in why Robert Louis Stevenson called wine "bottled poetry" and Franklin's definition of wine as "proof that God loves us and desires us to be happy." Conventional wine doesn't occur to me like that. I got to wondering, as a winemaker, what I was missing.

In his classic "Gods, Men and Wine", William Younger proves that although the Romans had access to sulfites ("blue smoke"), for some reason they didn't use them in wine. My colleagues today poo-poo this by asserting that all Roman wine was full of lead or some other equally unsupported horseshit -- they just can't believe the possibility that 1,000 years of wines were made throughout the European continent without their beloved preservative. And believe you me, I know a lot of conventional winemakers who have had wines spoil by failing to maintain the sulfites.

But what if the initial addition of sulfites at the crusher (combined with bleach in the cellar, stainless steel, innoculated super-yeasts, inert gas and other draconian measures) destroys wine's natural immune system? What if the principles the Germans introduced just after WWII and UC Davis has pushed over the last 40 years actually cause spoilage? What if Brettanomyces spoilage is in reality a hospital disease? Sounds like our contemporary pill-popping medical spiral, doesn't it?

I asked Paul Frey, Tony Norskog and Gideon Beinstock if their no sulfites wines had much Brett -- they all said it was a minor matter. I got to suspecting that Brett is a hospital disease -- that the draconian sanitation and use of preservatives was killing everything else and clearing the way for a one-microbe spoilage potential. Maybe if we let the beneficials alone, they would control the bad guys. It's just Integrated Pest Management applied to the cellar -- simple common sense, really.

To be safe, I began with a wine that could serve as its own preservative, one that would consume oxygen and oppose a microbial takeover on its own, and also a varietal type for which microbial complexity might be regarded as a plus.

I decided to work with a high altitude syrah which had a lot of reductive strength from two sources: tannin and minerality. Raw unpolymerized tannin has the ability to gobble tremendous quantities of oxygen when wine is young. A beneficial side effect of micro-oxygenation is the creation of a rich, light structure which integrates aromas. Oxygen is the wire wisk in creating a tannin soufflé. This is going to keep the wine from smelling spoiled later on when the microbes have their party.

Paradoxically, working properly with oxygen doesn't oxidize the wine -- rather it increases its ability to take up more oxygen. The chemistry of phenolic polymerization is well understood, and in this case, Vern Singleton's 1986 paper on the vicinyl diphenol cascade explains why polymerizing tannins become more reactive than their precursors.

According to Claude Bourgignon, organic practices to promote living soil result in the formation of a symbiotic relationship between grape rootlets and mycorrhizal fungi which permits the uptake of many trace minerals grapes alone can't take up. It's easy to taste the difference between wine grown in living soil vs one where pesticides and herbicides are employed excessively -- the latter have no finish, and the former have a lively energy on the back palate. I see this difference between rieslings from the Mosel and those from California and Australia, and I think it accounts for the ability of the former to age ten times as long despite having no tannin.

In 2001, I selected an organically grown (though they've never bothered to certify) syrah from Renaissance Vineyards, a tannic monster grown at 2400 feet, for an experiment. We picked ripe but not overripe, micro-oxed for a big fine structure, carefully leaving enough grip to age well, and let the microbial equilibrium do what it wished. In 2002 we repeated the experiment.

In 2003 we stopped experimenting. The wines without sulfites were so much better that we went that way 100% sulfite-free on our new Roman Syrah. We're now on our 4th vintage sulfite-free, and the wines are magnificent -- full of mystery and complexity, sort of like Barberesco. You have to try them to get the gist. Compare the WineSmith 2002 Syrah (with sulfites -- a very decent wine, but nothing in comparison) with the WineSmith 2003 Roman Syrah.

Please excuse what may come across as crass commerciality. The wines I make exist primarily as teaching instruments. That stand costs me plenty, believe me.