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Can Burgundy’s Low-Sulfite Wines Reshape Tradition?

There’s a sense of awe among those who attend Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, a five-day tasting event that brings together members of the wine trade and media to discover new and library vintages across Bourgogne’s 84 appellations. Taking place every two years, this year’s event included 13 tastings across 10 different venues featuring more than 1,000 exhibitors who poured around 6,000 wines. It was like drinking from the firehose, only the firehose was spewing Bourgogne.

While impressions of the current vintage is usually a hot topic, something else stood out at this year’s event: an increasing number of producers were showcasing wines with no or next-to-no added sulfites. What emerged in discussions about these wines is that this shift is not merely a nod to market trends but signifies a deeper, more substantive transformation within the storied winemaking traditions of this celebrated region that cannot be ignored.

“The fermentations on all our wines start without any sulfites, with natural yeasts, [as these are] much more diverse than selective ones, therefore producing more complex, emotional wines.” explains Pierre Prost, winemaker for Château de Javernand, who poured a selection of wines at Les Grands Jours. “Then during aging, we don’t use sulfites if the wine can bear it. On the contrary, we prefer only adding small quantities of sulfites if the wine needs it. But the global and final quantity is always very low, sometimes zero.”

And yet the wineries that are embracing this next-to-no-intervention approach are by no means fringe, nor are they “natty.” Many are well-known brands, and the wines are focused, clean, and delicious. But beyond taste, they’re exciting because they suggest a shift in mentality that touches on a number of things, namely a desire to meet consumers where they are, offer diversity in their portfolios, and do something perhaps unexpected when it comes to the wines of Bourgogne. And it’s a shift that could have a lasting effect on the region.

The Smallest Difference Can Be Huge

Intriguingly, some vignerons presented these natural-style wines alongside their more traditional counterparts — two versions of the same wine; one with sulfites and one without. Many of the wines with low or no added sulfites also featured attention-grabbing labels that were blatantly more modern than what we’ve come to expect with the wines of Bourgogne.

Maison de la Chapelle poured a lineup that included its 2022 Irancy “Les Bâtardes” as well as its 2022 Irancy “Version Libre,” which was made entirely without sulfites. The wines are virtually identical except for this sulfite omission. And yet the labels are completely different; the Version Libre bright and punchy next to the more classic Les Bâtardes. Similarly, Meursault producer Domaine Rougeot Père et Fils offers several wines in its otherwise classic portfolio marked by distinctive, diagonal sash-like labels to indicate that these wines are made “sans soufre” — without added sulfites.

Why create these separate lines, and, in some cases, two versions of practically the same wine? In 2020, Eléonore Moreau, winemaker for Domaine de Pérégrins, a family-run estate in the Petit Chablis and Chablis appellations, launched a tiny, experimental line of wines affectionately called “Pérégrinations,” or “wanderings.” The flagship wine, a Chablis, is a natural cuvée, harvested by hand, vinified with indigenous yeasts, a portion of which is bottled directly without filtration, and only the tiniest amount (0.5 g/L) of added SO2. Moreau notes that there are two different customers for these wines. “For [our classic wines], it’s people who are looking for traditional Chablis, classic, and straight, and for [trade buyers] looking for volume,” she says. “The second brand is for people who want to go outside of tradition. It is often for people who like wine, who know wine, and they want to find something quite different.”

As wineries are working to stay relevant in the changing landscape of alcohol consumption, dipping a toe into something more experimental without completely abandoning what you’re known for — and what sells — seems to be a compelling approach for many winemakers.

Putting a Flag in the Sand

But there is something else at play here, beyond catering to different audiences. “We wanted to introduce ourselves to this practice to see how our wine would react and whether we would be able to master this process,” Moreau says. “It is indeed a growing demand today, and in Burgundy, these wines are still quite rare. So, we wanted to launch Pérégrinations as an experiment, which distinguishes what we like. This cuvée is produced in small quantities, but we want to develop it to make it a real entity in our range of wines.”

This is a common theme among producers dabbling in this extremely low-intervention style of winemaking — to stand out and do something true to themselves versus their parents and grandparents. Particularly noticeable among some of the younger winemakers is a desire to differentiate their offerings from those of their predecessors, marking a gentle yet definitive shift in a region deeply rooted in tradition and generational continuity.

“Making healthier wines shouldn’t be a trend, it should be the norm,” says Michaut. “I want to show respect for biodiversity and plants. I like to see this environment flourish in my vineyards. It’s a question of philosophy, of values, which I apply in my vines and in my life.”

Guillaume Michaut grew up among the vines of Chablis. When his father passed away, he founded Domaine 47˚N 3˚E — named for the longitude and latitude of his hometown in Beines — and developed a distinct winemaking philosophy focused on low-intervention techniques that emphasized the unique characteristics of his vineyard locations. “For me, the main work is with the plants, respecting the living world,” he says. “When it comes to winemaking, I try to intervene as little as possible, in keeping with my values and the continuity of my approach.” This includes using native yeasts for fermentation, minimal to no added sulfites, and a commitment to stainless steel and oak aging processes that highlight the natural qualities of the Chablis and premier cru vines he cultivates.

Part of this philosophy came from the desire to operate independently from his long-established winemaking family. “My approach was self-evident, and it stood out from what previous generations were doing, and which is still widely practiced,” says Michaut. “Over and above my desire to set up my own domaine, making wines in line with my philosophy was my main motivation when I left the family business. I produce wines that I like to drink. … The best reward I can receive is to hear customers say that they are tasting a wine that is like no other.”

Getting on the Clean and Transparent Train

The trend toward sulfite-free wines is of course partly driven by the demands of newer generations for “cleaner” wines — no matter how much that term feels like a gut-punch to some in the industry.

However, there appears to be no obvious desire to hitch one’s wagon to any sort of natural or raw wine trend among these producers. “Making healthier wines shouldn’t be a trend, it should be the norm,” says Michaut. “I want to show respect for biodiversity and plants. I like to see this environment flourish in my vineyards. It’s a question of philosophy, of values, which I apply in my vines and in my life.” While mentioning “health” and “wine” in the same sentence is tricky business these days, there are plenty of consumers who eschew additives, at least from a wellness perspective. And producers have taken notice.

“If we need it, we use the minimum required to ensure purity, terroir expression, and long aging capacity, but we don’t use it as a commercial argument.”

“We can definitely observe a change in the mindset of winemakers from previous generations when health and chemicals were not widely discussed,” explains Arnaud Boué of Maison Arnaud Boué. “There is a reflection on how we can produce better and cleaner wines and the fact is, we can, so why not do it? Maybe before it was more a question of applying a ‘recipe’ in the winemaking. Now we think more about adapting our practices to each vintage and each terroir.”

Making information available about what’s in (or not in) a wine also continues to appeal to the next generation of consumers. “Most of our wines are below the biodynamic levels of sulfites and we are completely transparent about this as each level is written on our back labels,” says Boué. For him, this practice was second nature, long before the EU’s new labeling laws entered the conversation.

Letting the Terroir Sing

For more progressive winemakers, transparency and authenticity are not new concepts. However, for these Burgundian winemakers, another word kept coming up: “precision.” Their effort to limit the use of sulfites also reflects a broader aim to craft more focused wines that articulate a more distinct expression of terroir. “We are not limiting the SO2 level in our wines for the trend or for consumers, but SO2 is treated as all inputs in our winery,” says Boué. “If we need it, we use the minimum required to ensure purity, terroir expression, and long aging capacity, but we don’t use it as a commercial argument.”

Léa Schaller, who took over Domaine Orion in Préhy after her father retired in 2019, believes in this rudimentary approach. “I like to take the grapes, press them, and just wait for the beginning of alcoholic fermentation,” she says. “I’m simple, it’s simple. I just want the juice and the wine to be the fruit of our work in the vineyard. I intervene only in case of need.”

Looking Ahead

While some of these moves feel modern, there is an element of throwback to older and simpler times. Moreau is quick to note that before industrialization, what we are seeing among these young producers was the norm, until the focus became aging wines and making “clear wines, sometimes even standardized to obtain the same wine every year,” she says. While the backlash against standardization and overly processed anything is nothing new, something about this movement in Bourgogne of all places feels almost revolutionary.

“As everywhere, Burgundy must evolve with its time, not be satisfied with its current reputation and we must constantly seek to improve to meet the challenges of tomorrow, namely the climate, the decline in world wine consumption, and the future of our small farms,” says Moreau. “I think that in Burgundy today there is room for everyone, those who want to continue to make technical wines, to offer age-worthy wines, or those who want to go a little off the beaten track to propose different things, more atypical.”

The article Can Burgundy’s Low-Sulfite Wines Reshape Tradition? appeared first on VinePair.

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