The History of Sulfite Use in Wine: Guest Post by Emily Kate

Hello, readers!  As you may or may not know, I am recently got married to my best friend and am away on

Photo by E. Goff. Copyright 2014.

Photo by E. Goff. Copyright 2014.

my honeymoon for a bit!  As a reminder, if you comment and don’t see it immediately, it may have been accidentally caught in my spam filter.  I will only be checking on the site periodically while I’m gone, so if you don’t see your comment, please have patience while I get around to approving it 😉

The following is a guest post by Emily Kate from the History of Wine Channel on YouTube.  You may also visit her website, The Wine Historian. Please see the end of this post for her full bio.

Consumers are constantly complaining about the sulfites in wine.  This can be largely attributed to the fact that the media has done a great job of convincing the public that sulfites are the cause of headaches and hangovers leading consumers to request sulfite-free wines.  But in actuality, even if a vintner doesn’t use additional sulfites in the making of a wine, there are still naturally occurring sulfites on the grapes themselves.  Sulfur acts as an antimicrobial, antiseptic preservative and is integral to the winemaking process.  So, how is it that we came to use sulfur as an additive in wine?  For the answer, we must look back to classical Antiquity.

The Homeric Greeks knew of sulfur’s antiseptic qualities and as a volcanic country they had an abundance of it, which they used in their everyday lives.  From the venting of volcanic sulfur dioxide through mines, the ancients observed that it exterminated the population of vermin.  As far back as the 8th Century BC, ancients utilized sulfur’s power by using it to fumigate dwellings and ships.  It is even written that when

Photo by John [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by John [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ulysses returned from Troy, he commanded that his home be fumigated with disinfecting sulfur and a fire.  It is believed that the preservative powers of sulfur were discovered when food such as fresh fruits and decorations including flowers remained in a room that was being fumigated for vermin.

At this time, pitch created by heated resin was being used as a preservative in wine to stop it from spoiling into vinegar.  It was originally used for the purpose of filling cracks in amphorae, but when used on the inside of the clay jars, it was found to be alcohol soluble and the ancients quickly noted its preservative qualities. The pitch, not immune to its own headache backlash, was added in solid, powdered or liquid form.  Thus, it follows that when sulfur was seen as a viable option for experimentation on preserving wine, it was added into the wine in those forms.  Unfortunately, Sulfur in powdered form actually produces hydrogen sulfide if left in the vat during fermentation.  This creates an incredibly off-putting smell that could have stopped the use of sulfur in food forever, had it not been for the enterprising idea of harnessing the antiseptic qualities through fumigation.

Even throughout the use of pitch in the shipping amphorae, at Columella’s recommendation, storage amphorae were often fumigated with rosemary or laurel, both of which were heralded for their antibacterial and antifungal characteristics.  So it was a natural, if not readily apparent, leap from the fumigation of one’s house to the fumigation of an amphora.  In an effort to get the sulfuric properties to benefit the wine itself and not just the container, the must or already fermented wine was quickly added to the amphora as soon as it was filled with newly burned smoke and this dissolved a high content of the sulfur dioxide into

Photo By Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

the liquid.

Nowadays we can dissolve and liquefy sulfur dioxide and use it to preserve our wines.  It seems, however, that whether it is pitch or sulfur dioxide, people will always be skeptical that the additives used to preserve wine are impacting their experience and causing them discomfort.  The path that we took towards using sulfur dioxide in wine was a logical one but just as pitch fell out of use in favor of sulfur dioxide, perhaps a new preservative will gain popularity and sulfur will fall out of fashion.  One thing is certain, people will assuredly blame whatever is used as a preservative for their headaches.

Emily Kate is a History student at Columbia University with a specialization in the history of wine.  In addition to her studies at Columbia, she has attended the Wine and Spirit Education Trust: International Wine Center where she has earned her Intermediate and Advanced certification with honors.  Emily has interned at wineries in the United States and Australia, and will learn about the retail aspect of the wine industry this summer in New York City.  She has combined her passion for wine,education and technology to create her YouTube channel, History of Wine and the Vine

3 comments for “The History of Sulfite Use in Wine: Guest Post by Emily Kate

  1. gdfo
    September 26, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    “Consumers are constantly complaining about the sulfites in wine.”

    Gross oversimplification for effect, but the rest is accurate. I have heard people complain that some wines give them headaches and blame sulfites for it when it could be the artificial oak or the oak chunks or just oak the is the persons problem.

    • WineKnurd
      September 27, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Sulfites are blamed because that is all that the producers are required to list as an “ingredient” on a wine label. I am constantly telling folks that eggs have more sulfites than wine but until producers list “artificial oak extract” on a wine label sulfites take the rap!

  2. Marcello
    October 7, 2014 at 3:39 am

    I’m just spitballing here, but maybe, just maybe, it’s the ethanol that gives them the headache, hmm? Wines are a lot more alcoholic than they used to be with reds now hitting the mid 15s by volume on a regular basis. When you look at how tiny most SO2 additions are to wine from crushing through to bottling, it’s actually amazing what so little can do to preserve the awesomeness of the original fruit. Sure, if you snort a line of PMS, it’ll hurt bad, and if you’re asthmatic, probably put you in hospital. But that little line would be enough to add 5ppm to a barrique – and that’s 300 bottles worth! That’s a minuscule amount per bottle. There’s more mg/L of SO2 in many processed foods that people don’t bat an eyelid at buying everyday. But put some in wine and it’s “oh THAT’s why I get headaches!”. It couldn’t possibly the half a bottle of Barossa Blockbuster Shiraz they had the night before…

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