The final sulphur game

Do you remember me playing with sulfites two months ago? It was some kind of a geeky playground at that time. I wanted to find out what the impact on taste and character would actually be adding different dosages. The result at that time was: more than 5mg/l changes the character in a way that we didn’t like the wine anymore. So I kept two bottles, one without and one with 5mg/l added and I stored them inappropriately by intention – in a warm, light room to see how they’ll do if not stored properly.

It was Thursday night when we had a small glass of the Silvaner barrel forgetting about one last sip. Which after a couple of hours had oxidized in an unpleasant way. Which made me panic again. Shouldn’t, no, needn’t a wine to be a bit more stable than that? It was a sleepless night.

Sleepy Michael

So we made yesterday the decision day. Sulphur or not? And how much? There were several bottles to open and compare to come to a solution. I had one bottled in January and stored in the middle of the kitchen, bright and warm. The two bottles from March mentioned above, one without any and one with 5mg/l of SO2. One of our RAW bottles (bottled four weeks ago) and one fresh sample with 20mg/l.

Initial impressions: the RAW bottle tasted wonderful, the 20mg/l bottle was just boo, the January bottle was deeply brown but surprisingly fresh, the 0-sulphur March bottle was similar to the RAW bottle and the 5mg/l bottle as well. With both of the March bottles being a little stinky. This was at 12.45. 90 minutes later the two bottles with added sulphur hadn’t changed at all. The other three had become a little / even browner and the taste started changing – not in an unpleasant way though. At 16.00 the brown ones had become browner again, still not bad but strongly oxidizing. This is how they looked:

Same wine different SO2 dosages

Two hours later the three samples without any sulphur were all shining in the same brown (like the glass in the middle you see on the picture), still no Sherry flavors but quite oxidative. I still liked them but Melanie found them way too weird at that point.

Both of the other samples were still stable. And for the 5mg/l sample it truly surprised me. I was told many times by many people that 5mg/l would be so low that it would just disappear in the wine without any effect. Just reacting with phenols and all that stuff not leaving any free SO2 to protect the wine. Just so you get an idea of the range: In conventional winemaking the limit for white wine is 200mg/l, if it’s organic 150mg/l. I added five. Which seems to be totally enough to fully stabilize color and taste for quite a long time.

Still being quite uncertain what to do I grabbed the phone and called Jean-Pierre Rietsch who is just an unbelievably helpful person and an exceptionally great natural wine maker. I’ve never met him. I just got his number from Torben who is running a natural wine bar and a shop in Bielefeld. And still Jean-Pierre takes as much time as I need to answer my questions about making wine without sulphur revealing to me all his knowledge and experience. He told me many stories about many wines he made while thinking with me about how to make our wine work for now. Thanks for that!

So 5mg/l we’ll go with. It still changes the character a little. And we’re not happy at all to do it. We probably also taste it way more than anybody else would knowing the wine really, really well. But we will add these 5mg/l. I do think that the stability  “problem” would disappear after a while (not knowing how long it would take). We wanted to bottle without any sulphur added but we also need to not totally fuck up our first vintage. But we’re not two kids playing in the sand and we won’t have that many shots. There will be people drinking our wine struggling with this kind of fragile behavior. If you got a bad reputation once it’s hard work to fix it. We have a baby, we have to get things going as our savings are limited and we have only two wines. The risk is simply too big.

As we had a glass of the 5mg/l version in the evening sun last evening I finally calmed down. The color is so cool, it’s smooth and creamy, has a little fizz, is fresh and still very, very vital. I’d still be happy to empty a bottle myself – always a good indicator.

Now we have to change the back label a little and inform the people interested in our wine (which might be you reading this) that the Silvaner is going to get these 5mg/l SO2. It sucks but in the end it is more important to ensure that the journey can go on and we survive the first year. So we can keep growing grapes and translate them into wines which amaze you and us.

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