At the recent launch of South African icon wine producer, Kanonkop’s prestigious “Black Label” Pinotage, owner Johann Krige pulled out a few older vintages to show the maturation potential of these wines. The chemical analyses of all the wines were proudly presented and the different sulphur levels were particularly interesting.

The older vintages were bottled at significantly lower sulphur levels than that of the current release and most red wines on the market. Despite this, they still kept magnificently well and were brimming with fresh fruit, boasting dark, attractive colour.

This raises the question if sulphur additions have become a standard precautionary standard, even though some wines can keep well without this preservative? Kanonkop winemaker and international winemaker of the year 2008, Abrie Beeslaar explained that these wines were made in a very different style and that other variables such as tannins and alcohol also play a role in maturation potential. Beyers Truter (international winemaker of the year 1991) – who made the earlier vintages – now also bottles at higher sulphur levels at Beyerskloof.

Renewed interest in healthier foods and lifestyle products has, however, opened a gap in the market for wines with lower sulphur levels – mostly because of perceived health benefits. Whether this is feasible is another debate, since fruit juice and especially dried fruits and raisins very often have much higher sulphur levels than wine, while they are seldom seen as unhealthy or the causes of a hangover.

Most winemakers and those with a bit of wine knowledge would agree that sulphur is not the ultimate evil it is often made up to be. Sulphur – in several different forms – is naturally produced by wine yeasts and is also part of several sought-after flavour compounds, while it also plays a crucial role in reductive wine making. The key seems to be to maintain the minimum sufficient sulphur levels – enough to prevent spoilage, without affecting flavour and health.

The South African Wine and Spirits Board stipulates that wines should have free sulphur levels that are below 60 ppm and that total sulphur should not exceed 160 ppm. These rules are duly obeyed for all wines, even though stylistic differences mean that all wines do not require the same dosage of sulphur. Producers also tend to aim for these figures, rather than interpreting them as maximum levels.

See parts 2 and 3 for new technology, stylistic differences and other grounded and less grounded sulphur perceptions.

Edo Heyns is a winemaker, turned wine journalist working for WineLand magazine.