First Whiff

An initial — but temporary — odor of sulfur isn’t cause for alarm

It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but lately I have opened some bottles of European white wines that have a noticeable whiff of sulfur. There is no apparent reason for this, and at first I thought perhaps I had become more sensitive to that smell.

So I asked a couple of other wine people I respect. They, too, had noticed the same thing.

Sulfur seems to be especially prevalent in French wine, some Italians, and a few of Germans: Macon-Villages, Rhone whites, some Rhinehessen, and a few Verdicchio and Friuli, specifically.

At a gathering of wine professionals on the West Coast, I asked people if they had the same experience. Yes, they said, but no more than usual. Pretty normal. They were more amused that I was surprised to find sulfur so prevalent in wines.

Sulfur is used in the U.S. and in Europe for cleaning and purifying equipment, piping, barrels, and tanks — as well as other areas of a winery — to assure that not even traces of bacteria or fungus survive inside the equipment. If they do survive, they could infect the wine as it passes through various stages before aging.

For whatever reason, sulfur appears to be less prominent — in fact less than negligible — in American wines.

While sulfur plays an important and positive role in wine, it can be viewed as a flaw in certain situations. That is what happened to a very nice sauvignon blanc making its way through a recent major wine competition in California. Several wines were tossed out as “flawed” due to excessive sulfur.

Sulfur plays an important role in wine production, but getting a whiff of it is seen as a flaw in certain situations.

The discussion was divided. Everyone agreed that sulfur was indeed present. The disagreement was on its prevalence and how judges should score the wine. Two judges argued that sulfur is something temporary (it will disappear in minutes). And that once it is gone, the wine would be deserving of a high medal. Two other judges stuck to their position awarding no medals, saying they were there to judge what was in the glass as the wine was presented.

So who is correct? Both, actually.

Those refusing to award medals said that they were considering the average consumer. If someone were to buy that wine and open it at home, they should not have to endure a rotten-egg aroma offensive enough for them to want to return the wine to the store. (Something we cannot legally do in Michigan but can be done in other states.)

The two other judges said the temporariness allowed them to overlook the smell, so they awarded medals to the wines.

Admittedly, this is one of those “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” questions, but it is also instructive about how some wine competition judges see their role as representatives/advocates for the consumer.

Maybe wine should come with a warning label, suggesting it be opened an hour before drinking?


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