When it comes to natural wine, sulfur can be a point of contention.
Even those who agree on a basic definition of natural wine – something along the lines of Alice Feiring‘s “nothing added, nothing taken away” – don’t always agree on the role that sulfur should play in a winemaking process considered to be natural. Sulfur is sometimes the one exception to the “nothing added” rule.
I’m not talking about sulfur used throughout the winemaking process, of course, but just about a minimal amount added at bottling, which many feel is necessary to preserve the wine for shipping. I think most would agree that you should use as little sulfur as possible in natural winemaking, but to use absolutely none at all is a definite risk, one that not everyone is willing to take.
The solution proposed by Domaine Marcel Lapierre? Let the customer decide.
Marcel Lapierre is well known for his role not only in spurring the natural wine movement, but also in reestablishing the reputation of Beaujolais wines in general. Following his untimely death in 2010, Marcel Lapierre’s son Mathieu took over the domaine in Villié-Morgon.
Mathieu Lapierre in the vineyard
Mathieu Lapierre is keeping up his father’s legacy by working as naturally as possible. “To be natural is to be unsystematic, to be very focused on the vintage and what it can be,” he said.
I met Mathieu Lapierre recently while on a trip to Beaujolais sponsored by Wines of France. Since I have long been a fan of Lapierre’s Morgon wines, it was an exciting moment. Mathieu took us on a brief tour of the 17-hectare vineyard and the cellar before we sat down in the courtyard to taste.
Since Lapierre makes a version of each vintage both with and without sulfur, we were able to do a unique tasting: two wines with the same vintage, the same winemaker, and the same grapes – the only different being that a very small amount of sulfur was added to one of the cuvées at bottling.
If customers are going to drink the wine quickly or have a good cellar, they can take the version without sulfur, Mathieu explained. But if they aren’t sure, he prefers that they take the version with sulfur. We tried both versions of several vintages.
First of all, I was surprised by what a noticeable difference that tiny amount of sulfur made in each vintage. What surprised me the most, however, was that there was no conclusion to be made in terms of which version I personally preferred.
The effects of sulfur seemed to really depend on the vintage: in some vintages (2011, 2007), I preferred the version without sulfur because it was more expressive, complex, and alive, while in one vintage (2009), I preferred the version with sulfur because it seems fresher, while the one without had gone a little flat and one dimensional.
I leave you with a few tasting notes in an attempt to let the wines speak for themselves:
Morgon 2012: 2012 was a small, complicated vintage in Beaujolais, with many problems with diseases in the vineyards. Yet, Mathieu Lapierre still managed to produce a beautiful wine. It had only been bottled three weeks before my visit, so it was of course extremely fresh and fruity (cherries!), with a dash of pepper. In comparison to the version without sulfur, the sulfured version was more restrained, the fruit less exuberant.
Morgon 2011: The version without sulfur was extremely juicy and fresh, with concentrated flavours of cranberry, raspberry, and pomegranate, and underlying dusty pepper flavours. The sulfured version tasted a bit cleaner, more mineral and straightforward. At the time I tasted, the version without sulfur felt more complex and smoky, more aromatic.
Morgon 2009: The version with sulfur was very fresh, with an emphasis on blackberries, cherries, and raspberries. Without sulfur, it tasted less rich and a bit thinner, with high acid showing through more clearly. This was the vintage where I preferred the version with sulfur for its fruit and freshness.
Morgon 2007: The difference in colour due to a bit more age was immediately apparent; it had developed more orange and brown highlights. Yet the sulfured version was still fresh, with strawberry fruit and a more developed, complex taste that had less emphasis on fresh fruit and more emphasis on savory notes of spice, pepper, and earth. The version without sulfur was similar, but with a bit more of everything: more savoriness, more spice, more darkness and complexity. A fine example of the way Gamay can start to taste like Pinot Noir as it ages. I only wish I had a few bottles in my cellar.