Sulfur Candles in Ancient Winemaking

People often cite the fact that ancient Greek and Roman winemakers burned sulfur to help preserve wine.  It’s actually difficult to track down any real evidence (depending on what languages you read).  So I have some secondary sources.  I don’t have a translation of the primary sources, so I encourage you to continue researching and send me more information that you might find.  I will gladly add it to this article.

I saw a lot of articles about the history of sulfites in wine in which the author would allude to ancient use of sulfur burning many many times without citing a source.  So I put a call out on Twitter.

While @ElieSl did some research in French and found sources that reject the claim that ancients definitely sulfured their wines.  The author insists that the first explicit mention of the use of sulfur fumigation in wine was in a 1487 German decree that authorized the burning of sulfured wood chips inside of wine barrels.

La première mention explicite de son usage dans la vinification remonte à un décret royal allemand de 1487. il autorisait les vignerons à brûler des copeaux de bois soufrés dans les tonneaux utilisés pour conserver le vin.

@ZevRobinson had the good sense to redirect my question specifically to @Vintuition of the Fine Wine Academy.

Here’s his answer with a secondary source:

@mroconnell @zevrobinson Re. sulphur fumigation | On application of the fumarium [sulphur fumes] by Romans see Ch 4 (4)

Admittedly, this book seems to be from a trade press.  And what’s more, an evangelical trade press… so it’s open to debate, but the passage in chapter IV of “Wine in the Bible” specifically addresses my question and cites references to primary and secondary sources:

Ancient Use of Sulphur. The use of sulphur to preserve wine was known in the ancient world. In a chapter devoted to various methods used to preserve wine, Pliny speaks of Cato who “mentions sulphur.”81 Horace alludes to this practice in a poem dedicated to the celebration of a glad anniversary: “This festal day, each time the year revolves, shall draw a well-pitched cork forth from a jar set to drink the smoke in Tullus’ consulship.”82 The next stanza suggests that this fumigated wine was unfermented, because a hundred cups of it could be drunk without causing “clamor et ira,” that is, “brawls and anger.”83

In his book on Roman Antiquities, T. S. Carr says that “the application of the fumarium [sulphur fumes] to the mellowing of wines was borrowed from the Asiatics; and thus exhalation would go on until the wine was reduced to the state of syrup.”84 In its comment on this statement, John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says: “When the Mishna forbids smoked wines from being used in offerings (Manachoth, viii. 6, et comment.), it has chiefly reference to the Roman practice of fumigating them with sulphur, the vapor of which absorbed the oxygen, and thus arrested the fermentation. The Jews carefully eschewed the wines and vinegar of the Gentiles.”85

Those numbers are all footnotes:

  • 81. Pliny, Natural History 14, 25, 129.
  • 82. Horace, Carminum Liber 3, 8, 9-12.
  • 83. Ibid., 3, 8, 6.
  • 84. Cited by John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, 1845 edition, s. v. “Wine,” vol. 2, p. 956.
  • 85. Ibid.

I will try to look these up later when I have some time.  The Pliny checks out but is a very casual reference to the effect of “Cato says winemakers do this, that and the other thing. Oh and Cato mentioned something about sulfur too.”  A light reference, but a solid one.

Otherwise, feel free to do your own research and send it in!!

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards, located in the North Arrondissement of Carcassonne, is just minutes from the Carcassonne train station, the Medieval City, and the Carcassonne Airport.
GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Wine, Dine, Relax at our Boutique Vineyard
Unique thing to do in Carcassonne
Wine Cellar. Winery Visits. Wine Tasting.
Wine & Food Pairing

North Arrondissement of Carcassonne
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Best by GPS.
    Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou using the D118. At the end of the last straight part of D118, you will come to a roundabout with the Dyneff gas station.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which curves up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire on the left.
  4. At the last juction, bear left. the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.