Rethinking sulfur

Joch Bosworth & Louise Hemsley-Smith (Photo: Michael Major)

There’s a belief among wine lovers and professionals that wines which have never had sulfur dioxide added to them will not age.

I’m no longer of that opinion.

The wine that changed my mind more than any others was a back-tasting of Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz, from 2010 to 2016. The 2010 was labelled Preservative Free but since 2011 the wines are named Puritan, with the words ‘no added preservative’ in smaller print.

Battle of Bosworth is an organically farmed vineyard in McLaren Vale. Joch Bosworth and Louise Hemsley-Smith produce a range of wines with customary sulfur added, in addition to the annual release of unsulfured shiraz.

The back-tasting was an eye-opener. All the wines had aged quite well and were drinking well, the 2010 perhaps starting to tire a fraction, but the others still bright and lively. My favourite on the day was the 2014, while the ’15 was also very good and the ’16 just needed a little time to settle. This was back in September so it should be fine by now.

McLaren Vale has become arguably Australia’s leading region for organic and biodynamic viticulture. Paxton (tastings) is perhaps the best-known and one of the bigger grape-growers and winemakers. Yangarra (tastings), Gemtree (tastings) and Inkwell (tastings) are others, Yangarra and Inkwell also producing very good unsulfured red wines.

The phrase preservative-free (often PF on the label) is a little misleading. The description should be No Added Preservative, except it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well. The reason is that yeasts always produce some sulfites during fermentation, so strictly speaking wine is never preservative-free. Unsulfured reds are always more successful than whites because their tannins and colour pigments act as preservatives. Unsulfured whites are usually some shade of brown with ‘brown-apple’ staleness.

The jury is still out on long-term age-ability of unsulfured reds. The oldest Bosworth shiraz is only just turning seven, which is not very old for a shiraz. I’d be keen to taste older examples if there are any out there.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking sulfur”

  1. Frank says:

    Thanks Huon. I was also thinking of the term ‘unsulfured shiraz’. When we interchange the use of sulphur and sulphite/SO2, some people imagine that the ‘sulphur’ added by the winemaker is why they smell ‘sulphur’, meaning sulphide…

  2. Huon Hooke
    Huon Hooke says:

    You’re right Frank, I shouldn’t have used ‘sulfite’ without explaining that it’s another way of saying sulfur dioxide. The warning ‘Contains sulphites’ on wine back-labels must also confuse people. There is an important difference between sulfites and sulfides, as you explained. (By the way, I use ‘f’ but ‘ph’ is equally acceptable)

  3. Frank says:

    Huon, we can hardly blame drinkers for confusing sulphite and sulphide when in your article you used sulphur and sulphite interchangeably.
    Just to be clear for everyone:
    Sulphur is S is elemental sulphur used (by many) as a fungicide in the vineyard.
    Sulphite aka SO2 is used as an antioxidant and antimicrobial in winemaking and has a sharp, as you say acrid sensation, rarely perceived except in low-pH whites.
    Sulphide aka H2S as you say is a reductive aroma, rotten egg gas, caused by poorly fed ferments or fermenting whites on high solids.
    Using the word sulphur for all three is just plain confusing, and sometimes even results in big problems, like the time the winemaker asked the grower to add sulphur to the grapes at picking, so he did. Yeast plus sulphur makes sulphide you can smell well outside the winery!

  4. Mark Hubbard says:

    I love wine, but I have no expertise, despite drinking lots of it 🙂 Many of NZ’s chardonnays taste sulfur(y) to me, and I avoid those. Is that the sulfur, or a coincidence of taste? (That is, can you taste the sulfur in wine?)

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      Many lay tasters/drinkers confuse sulfur dioxide (which is more an acrid sensation than an aroma) with hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg gas), which is most commonly caused by yeasts during fermentation. I find many current Kiwi chardonnays have a reductive or sulfidic character on the nose, and I think that is probably what you’re referring to. There seems to be a trend over there to awarding such wines highly at wine shows. A little bit can add to the wine’s complexity, but too much is just plain grubby. And we all have out own particular tolerance limits. I think the winemakers have gotten carried away with it and a lot of consumers, like you, are left disenchanted and puzzled.

      1. Mark Hubbard says:

        That’s it, exactly. I know as soon as I unscrew cap. Mainly some Marlborough chardonnays, I know the ones now, and luckily by same wineries that do great other grapes, esp the sauvs (obviously).

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