What to make of wines with no added sulphites? Stellenzicht winemaker Guy Webber ended his launch presentation of a Chardonnay 2009 and Petit Verdot 2008 made according to this method under the Cellarmaster’s Release label by asking his audience the question as to whether or not the initiative was worth pursuing.
“It’s not by mistake but by design that the wines taste the way they do,” he remarked, and it has to be said that they were a little weird: the Chardonnay somewhat non-descript with a very hard line of acidity, the Petit Verdot rather awkward and unbalanced with tart acidity and astringent tannins, the result of a full 12 months on the skins.
Later, Natalee Hamilton, who has just joined the Stellenbosch winery as assistant winemaker, declared herself glad to be involved in “frontier work” and suggested that in 20 years time we might well look back at the launch of the two wines as a turning point regarding how all wines are made.
Wines with no added sulphites seem to be a growing category. Why is this? One reason is that some consumers perceive them to offer health benefits while another is that they can also be positioned as a more authentic product, a significant part of human intervention removed from the winemaking process.
Let’s get the nitty-gritty about sulphites in wine out of the way: Sulphites, in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO₂), are almost universally added to wines to protect against microbial growth and oxidation. It is very difficult to make wine without adding a minimum at various key stages of wine production and those that do tend to make “natural wine” which involves organically grown grapes, wild ferment and so on.
SO₂ is generally considered harmless at the levels typically found in wine, but some asthmatics react badly to it. While sulphur compounds are widely and often more liberally used in the preparation of other food and drinks (particularly fruit juices and dried fruit), there is a stigma attached to their appearance in wine. Sulphur is often blamed for the negative side effect of wine consumption while in reality alcohol, histamines and phenols are all taking their toll.
Very small quantities of the two wines were produced: 1 700 bottles in the case of the Petit Verdot and 2 000 in the case of the Chardonnay. The Petit Verdot is expected to sell for about R115 a bottle and the Chardonnay for about R89, and I think they possess enough of a curiosity factor that Stellenzicht will have no trouble getting rid of them. I, however, was delighted to be able to drink Stellenzicht’s conventionally made (and very good) wines with my Test Kitchen by Luke Dale Roberts lunch.