Written by Taylor Cameron | AIWS | Wine Brand Manager & Sales
Understanding sulfur with regards to the current wine landscape requires a look back to the earliest experiments with fermentation. While these pioneers of the vinous variety were likely unaware of the existence and function of the compound, sulfur was present in all early wine as a natural byproduct of fermentation. It wasn’t until the late 1400s in Germany that we find record of sulfur being purposely added during the winemaking process, but the Romans were said to have used sulfur in their amphora thousands of years prior. Now in modern industrial winemaking and grape growing sulfur is used at almost every stage of the game. The overuse of sulfur, however, has become a divisive topic in the world of fine wine.
So, why do we care about sulfur in wine?
The Good stuff:
Sulfur stabilizes wine, pure and simple. We live in the most diverse, globally-oriented wine market in the world. Just look at almost any wine list in America, whether it be in New York City or the Green Mountain state, and you will find wines originating from four different continents. This means that wine we drink must be able to travel. Just before the cork (or screw cap) hits the bottle most wines see a dose of sulfur. That sulfur then protects the finished wine from oxidation and bacterial infection. The presence of sulfur will also prohibit a re-fermentation in wines which have residual sugar. Lastly, proper addition of sulfur at bottling will help a wine age gracefully by slowing oxidation.
Some producers spray sulfur in the vineyards to combat mildew and rot during damp stages in the growing cycle. Sulfur is also used, often times gratuitously, between the time the grapes are harvested and the time they arrive and are processed at the winery. Machine harvesting exacerbates the need for sulfur at this stage. Machine harvesting can tear the skin of the grape exposing them to oxidation. Heavy sulfur dosing or chilling the grapes are the only ways to combat oxidation in this scenario.
The Bad stuff:
The overuse of sulfur strips the nuance and character that we as wine drinkers look for in a quality wine. We hold the idea of terroir and typicity as fundamentals of a quality wine. These characteristics can be easily erased or overwhelmed by the heavy reliance of sulfur additions. Last month, we spoke about the differences that industrial yeast and native yeasts can have on a wine. Using large amounts of sulfur during the growing and harvesting stages, the winemaker has no choice but to use industrial yeast because the sulfur has likely killed any yeast strains found on the bloom of the grape, thus further removing any sense of place.
It would be an oversight not to mention sulfur allergies. While they do exist in a small portion of the population, wine is actually not the worst offender. Most fruit juice has up to 10 times the amount of sulfur present than a responsibly-made dry wine. The bottom line is that sulfur can cause allergic reactions but only in rare and extreme cases.
To sulfur or not to sulfur:
Well…that’s a complicated question. If you are a very large producer that looks to the economy of scale in order to be financially sustainable, then sulfur is your friend. Mechanization in the vineyard lowers labor costs and shipping stabilized wine reduces the risk of spoilage. This allows for a consistent product to hit the market at a reasonable price. And the wine world absolutely needs these types of producers.
But, if you are an 8th generation winemaker in Burgundy that makes only a few hundred cases annually, complexity, nuance and terroir are your main selling points. Hand-harvesting and being fastidious in the cellar allows for little to no sulfur addition and the retention of everything the vineyard has to offer. And these are the producers make that keep us in love with the wine world.
Now let’s head to Sicily to experiment, below are a few recommendations to look out for.
Cornelissen Munjabel- This Mount Etna wine made from the native Nerello Mascalese grape is completely free of sulfur additions. There are trace amounts of naturally occurring sulfur in the wine, but that is it. Frank Cornelissen goes to extremes to not need any additions to his wine.
Tami Nero d’Avola- Arianna Occhipinti started this project 5 years ago in southeastern Sicily. She farms organically with no sulfur addition besides a tiny amount at bottling.
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