: History

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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Sulfur has been used as a cleansing agent and wine preservative since antiquity. Among the various substances, such as pitch and resin, used by the Romans to prepare vessels in which wine was stored and to assist in the preservation of wines, authors such as cato and pliny also mention the use of sulfur. It seems probable that the pungent smells given off when ores containing sulfur were burned led to their association with a cleansing action, and experimentation would then have revealed the most efficacious methods of use. In the late 15th century, a German decree specifically refers to the use of sulfur, with wood shavings, powdered sulfur, herbs, and incense being burned in barrels before they were filled. By the 18th century, sulfur wicks were being regularly used to sterilize barrels in the best châteaux of Bordeaux (having been introduced by the dutch), and advances in chemistry had also led to the synthesis of derivatives of elemental sulfur, thus enabling inorganic salts containing sulfur to become widely used in winemaking. Sulfur dioxide is today used in the production of virtually all wines, albeit kept to a minimum in high-quality winemaking. and in many natural wines. In the vineyard, sulfur products are widely used to protect vines against powdery mildew.