We know that organic produce is good, but what about wine made from organic grapes? The dedicated Whole Foods shoppers among us know that "organic" means "grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers," and that is mostly what it means for wine as well.
Yet wine that is grown organically is one thing, and whether the wine adheres to a natural ethos is something else. Just as organic Frosted Flakes still have a lot of high fructose corn syrup in them, wine made from organic grapes can still have additives. Whether the wine is made with the preservative sulfur dioxide is a key part of the concept. Wine is a fresh product, and just like cheese or tomatoes it will spoil. Sulfur dioxide has been used by winemakers for centuries to preserve a wine. A fresh sauvignon blanc might not be as bright and grassy without it, and unsulfured reds might smell skunky instead of rich, berried and profound.
What sulfites don't do, however, is cause your head to hurt. Those who complain of "red wine headache" aren't getting from the sulfites in red wine, as all of the wine they drink contains it. If it isn't stirred in by the winemaker its added by the yeast, as fermentation creates sulfites. Dried fruit, it should be noted, has a lot of added sulfites, yet no one complains about a "prune headache," right?
Yet Fear Of Sulfates persists, and "contains sulfates" is printed in scary, all-caps typeface on most wine labels. The sulfates issues has confused the designation of organic wines to the point where a winemaker who is religious about growing his vines organically can't sport the USDA organic seal on the label in the U.S. if he gives a quick blast of sulfur dioxide to his wine; Intentionally-added sulfur dioxide is forbidden in the USDA organic standards. Contrary to the spirit of organic labeling - namely, the label is there so people can know that their food is honestly organic - honestly organic wine can't be labeled as such.
Though sulfates are not completely harmless. A winemaker who wants to kill bacteria that could harm her wine might spray it on the vines, give the grapes another spritz at harvest, administer a final dose at bottling, and end up muting the aroma and flavor of the wine, making it smell a bit like a spent matchstick.
Wine that is made with indigenous yeasts and the minimum amount of sulfates and technical fiddling is called "natural" wine. Some say that wines produced this way taste more alive, allowing for other flavors and aromas aside from fruit and oak to take center stage. So I stopped by a store in Manhattan that specializes in wines from small producers to taste a few natural wines in all of their funky glory.
The Cuvee du Domaine 2006 from Joel Taluau in Bourgueil, Loire Valley, France has the classic cabernet franc nose, which is very much like Windex at first whiff. I'll call it blue spruce, with maybe a bit of rotting strawberry and anise. The wine has some serious stuffing, mostly leather and earth with a bit of red fruit. It would go very well with hearty country fare, like sausages. Cabernet franc shouldn't be confused with its better-known brother cabernet sauvignon, so drinkers who see only the "cabernet" and expect well-mannered currant and vanilla flavors are in for a surprise.
I had similar aromatic pleasures with the Peter Jakob Kuhn Riesling, which is from the Rhiengau in Germany. The wine was dry (trocken, for you German speakers) and therefore rather light with a delicate nose of almond, honey and citrus with a bit of the gasoline smell characteristic of Riesling. Both this and the Taluau changed plenty in the glass, getting richer and more complex as they sat.
Cabernet franc and Riesling are aromatic grapes, but I'd still venture a guess that the fact that the lack of added sulfur really lets the aroma run rampant, as other natural wines I've had since then have been a real treat for the nose. I tasted three cuvées from Domaine des Deux Ânes in Corbières recently and all three had some serious barnyard funk. These are serious (and seriously interesting) wines, but my guess is that not a few drinkers would find the ashy, earthy aroma off-putting if they didn't know that the scent blows off after it is decanted.
This level of fuss in wine drinking might not to be every consumer's taste - or every winemaker's vision of what his wines should be. Imagine how fast buyers would flee from their Rancho Zabacco zinfandel if the wine smelled like horse manure instead of sweet fruit. To be able to make clean wine without sulfates a winemaker has to be extra attentive to her vines and winemaking process. She also depends on a drinking public that appreciates craftsmanship in the vineyard and complexity in the glass. For my part, as long as natural wine producers keep making good wines I'll keep drinking them.