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The science of sulphur in wine

Winemaking – in the hands of an expert (we’re looking at you, Ben) – can easily appear to be some kind of mysterious alchemy. An enchanting mix of magic and lore that transforms humble fruit into glorious nectar.

While that’s an enjoyably romantic image of the whole thing, it does a disservice to the deep technical knowledge, exact chemistry and scientific methodology that goes into making great wines.

Sulphides – a very particular form of sulphur – are a really good example of where this precision and skill can be used to turn what could easily be a negative into a highly positive aspect of a wine.

A million moving parts

Winemaking is a process with what feels like a million variables: the weather, the fruit, the date of harvest, the precise temperature at every stage, the time spent at every stage…you get the idea. The smallest change in any of these variables – intentional or not – can dramatically alter the outcome of the process. This is why consistency and control are two very big watchwords among winemakers.

Really talented winemakers, though, are willing and skilled enough to push the boundaries of that process to see if something wonderful happens before it all falls over. That boundary pushing, in part, is where the deliberate use of sulphides and the concept of “good” reduction (more on that term shortly) come from.

What is reduction?

Reduction has a very specific meaning in winemaking. It’s not the same thing as reducing a good sauce down for your Sunday dinner. In basic terms, reduction in winemaking refers to the levels of volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) in the wine, which are produced by yeasts during the fermentation process.

And sulphur, as we all know, is famous for predominantly smelling like rancid eggs. Definitely not your Sunday gravy. Reduction is therefore usually considered a fault in winemaking.

But – not all reduction is bad, it turns out. When handled very carefully by a skilled winemaker, some of these volatile sulphur compounds can be used to add wonderful complexity and aromas to wines – the most famous example being the now highly-prized “matchstick” profile in Chardonnay.

These struck-match, gun-flint flavours can be found throughout the Penn Croft range– particularly in the Bacchus, with its super-clean and refreshing finish. This chemical conjuring trick is delivered with impressive skill by our very own Ben Smith, and we’re proud of this signature style.

So what about sulphites, then?

We appreciate it’s a little confusing.

Sulphites (note the “t” instead of a “d”) are very different from sulphides. While they’re also naturally produced at low levels during wine production, they act as antioxidants and natural preservatives. When people refer to sulphites in winemaking, they’re generally talking about sulphur dioxide (SO2) – and beyond its natural occurrence, it is often added during the winemaking process to halt fermentation or kill off bacteria.

We’re happy to say that Penn Croft wines require minimal added sulphites – a dry finish, naturally high acidity and low pH all help to keep our wines in their desired finished state, ready for you to enjoy.

Well, that’s quite enough science for one day.

Must be time for a glass or two.