Why Did Romans Use Sulfur Inside Their Wine Vessels?

The first people to employ sulfur in winemaking were the Romans. To stop infections, they utilized it,[1] which were common and detrimental to the wine industry. The sulfur would kill bacteria and maintain the integrity of their wines. 

They burned sulfur candles inside their wine vessels to protect the wine from oxidation[2]. Sulfur reacts with oxygen to form sulfites, which prevents the oxidization process. The reaction is so quick that it takes place within minutes of adding the sulfur. As the sulfur burned, it produced a gas that interacted with the wine.

The Romans found out that burning the sulfur candles inside empty wine vessels keeps them fresh and free from a vinegar smell.

This interaction resulted in a chemical reaction that changed the taste of the wine, making it more acidic and reducing its alcohol content. This was considered beneficial because it made the wine less likely to spoil and allowed it to be stored for extended periods without spoiling. While ancient Romans knew that sulfur was not so safe, they also believed their gods would protect them from any harm caused by drinking sulfur wine.

In modern times, sulfur is still used in winemaking and can be added as a preservative to enhance flavors. Manufacturers use sulfites in foods to help preserve them, but they can harm some people.

Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt

The use of sulfur started in Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt. It is believed that the Romans used it to combat microbial spoilage, but its complete function in winemaking has not been understood. The Romans used a form of natural sulfur dioxide called pyrosulfite, and they would often boil the wine before adding it.

This process would kill any existing microbes and prevent new ones from forming. The Egyptians also added sulfur dioxide to their wines, which they believed would help preserve them longer. They would often add it directly during or after fermentation so that no new microbes could grow [3].

Sulfur dioxide is added to wine primarily to prevent oxidation and protect it from developing off-flavors. In addition to preventing oxidation, sulfur dioxide also helps prevent bacterial growth and preserves the color of the wine.

The complete function of sulfur dioxide in winemaking has not been fully understood.  However, most scientists agree that it does not inhibit yeast activity and protects the wine from unwanted bacteria, which could spoil the flavor profile.

three clear beakers placed on tabletop

About the chemical

Sulfur is a chemical element that occurs naturally as a pure element and as different types of minerals like sulfide. Elemental sulfur is unique for its polyhedron shape and bright color commonly found in nature.

Of the well-known varieties, the most common is “native sulfur,” in which the sulfur atoms form a covalent network of sulfur-to-sulfur bonds[4]. Sulfur functions in wine as an antioxidant, an antibacterial, and a preservative.

The use of sulfur in winemaking is a historical practice dating back to ancient Rome. Today, it is still used by many winemakers to preserve their wines and keep them from spoiling. Sulfur was first used for preservation purposes. However, it has also been found to act as an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent (Alice Shawbrook, 2020).

Sulfur dioxide in winemaking

The primary role of sulfur dioxide in winemaking is as an antioxidant. The oxidation could otherwise cause wines to turn brown or have an unpleasant aroma and flavor.

The secondary role of sulfur dioxide in winemaking is as a preservative for freshness and safety. Sulfur dioxide inhibits the growth of spoilage yeast, bacteria, and molds that can lead to off-flavors in wine if left unchecked[5].

man in orange t-shirt holding black and white textile in orange plastic crate

Candles of sulfur dioxide

People in ancient Greece, Italy, and Rome burned candles made with sulfur dioxide to help preserve wine[6]. Sulfur candles were used to keep the wine fresh and prevent it from turning sour. They were also used for other purposes.

For example, sulfur candles were used as a way to preserve wine that was poured into glass jars with wooden lids. The sulfur candle would be ignited under the jar, which would heat the liquid inside to preserve it.

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Want to read more about Ancient Rome? Try reading these books!

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of An Empire

Ancient Rome: A History From Beginning to End

This day in wine history

March 25th, 1935: Jean Michel Cazes, a French winemaker, was born in Bordeaux, France. He graduated from the Paris School of Mines in 1959 and then attended the University of Texas M.S. program, where he studied chemical engineering. Cazes worked as a food products executive before becoming an insurance executive in 1969.

He served on the board of directors for Bordeaux Wine Council (1976), Compagnie Medocaine, Bordeaux (1976), ID Systemes, Bordeaux (1979), Château de Cordeillan-Bages, Pauillac (1987), and Axa millesimal in Pauillac (1987).

In 1968 he got married to Maria Thereza. His children were Anne Christine, Marina, Catherine, and Jean Charles. He was bestowed the title “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” in recognition of his contributions to French culture.[7]

August 30th, 1812:  On this day, Count Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman, writer, vintner, town-builder, farmer, livestock owner, store owner, brickmaker, and steamboat operator who helped pioneer modern winemaking in California, was born in Pest (now Budapest), Hungary. He went to the University of Vienna to study economics and law. After graduation, he returned home to marry Elenora Dedinszky.

He then worked as a lawyer until 1839, when he moved with his wife to America after President Martin Van Buren invited him to help settle issues with Mexico over land rights for immigrants from Europe. After arriving in New York, Haraszthy met John Sutter.

He hired Haraszthy to be the manager of his lumber mill near Sacramento City, which had been operating since 1839 but had suffered financial troubles since its inception. Haraszthy became interested in agriculture, so he planted grapevines, eventually becoming one of California’s first winemakers[8].

March 21st, 1959: Francesco Marone Cinzano was born on this day. Later, he became a vineyard owner. Three children have been born into his and Marcella Pittaluga’s marriage, which dates back to 1981.

References

[1] Xu, Zhen, et al. “Exploring the diversity of bacteriophage specific to Oenococcus oeni and Lactobacillus spp and their role in wine production.” Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 105.23 (2021): 8575-8592.

[2] Pat Henderson, Pract. Winery Vineyard J, 1-6, 2009

[3] Boulton, R.B., Singleton, V.L., Bisson, L.F., Kunkee, R.E. (1999). The Role of Sulfur Dioxide in Wine. In: Principles and Practices of Winemaking. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-6255-6_12

[4] “Sulfur.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 May 2022, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur.

[5] Usseglio‐Tomasset, L. “Properties and use of sulfur dioxide.” Food Additives & Contaminants 9.5 (1992): 399-404.

[6] Tattersall, Ian, and Rob DeSalle. “A natural history of wine.” A Natural History of Wine. Yale University Press, 2015.

[7] “Jean-Michel Cazes.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Jan. 2022, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Michel_Cazes.

[8] “Agoston Haraszthy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Nov. 2021, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agoston_Haraszthy.

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