Modern Solutions

Stainless-steel fermentation vats at a Californian winery

The tactic of adulturation with sulphur, which is used so extensively for wine preservation today, apparently was tried in the mid-2nd century A.D. by the father of the famous physician, Galen of Pergamum. We know now that the presence of sulfur inhibits the growth of wild yeasts on the grape skins and reduces oxidation, something which is particularly important for maintaining the quality of white wines. Its usage in Roman viticulture surely would have been extremely valuable, yet I am not aware the idea really caught on at the time.

In A.D. 1487, however, a royal decree was issued in Germany, that established sulfur as a wine preservative. Each empty barrel was cleansed with the fumes of burning wood shavings that had been soaked in a mixture of powdered sulfur, herbs, and incense. The position of German wines surely was strengthened in the marketplace by this technical advance, yet for some reason the French did not follow suit until the 18th century, at which point the newly emerging American market also followed suit. Today, in all the major wine-making countries, wineries use special yeast strains that leave nothing to Nature's chance, and they are ultra-careful about keeping every mechanical part sterile.