Nitrogen and sulphur foliar fertilisation (Part 1): Background and context

by | Aug 1, 2019 | Winetech Technical, Oenology research

PHOTO: Shutterstock.

In this three part series, we explore some fundamental aspects of sulphur and nitrogen foliar fertilisation and the chemical and sensory results of a recent project that took place in South Africa.


Foliar fertilisation and wine aroma

Vine nutrition plays a crucial role in vine development, canopy growth and composition of the grape berry.1,2 Traditionally, vineyard nutrition was carried out by adding fertilisers to the soil to be absorbed by the roots of the plant. Due to climate change and more frequent summer droughts, soil fertilisation is no longer the best solution to increase the nitrogen levels of the must and vines.3-5 Foliar spray fertilisation is a widely-used technique on various crops and can lead to a quick nutrient uptake through the leaves.6-8 Nitrogen foliar fertilisation is only effective in plants approaching nitrogen deficiency and deficiencies can be overcome temporarily.9

Aroma compounds in wine contribute directly to the quality of wine.10 Therefore, an ongoing goal of winemakers is to improve aromatic expression and complexity of wines.11 Some aroma compounds in wines are influenced by the amino acid composition of the initial grape juice. Grape juice with low YAN (amino acids and ammonia) can lead to low yeast populations, poor fermentation vigour and increased risk of sluggish or stuck alcoholic fermentations.12 Various viticultural factors, such as canopy management and nutrition, can influence the juice YAN and therefore the quality and aromatic expression of wines.2,13

Nutrition levels can be adjusted or supplied to the vines through soil fertilisation or by applying foliar fertilisation sprays, meanwhile DAP or complex nutrients can be added in the cellar to grape musts.14 Previous research proved that nitrogen foliar fertilisation can result in increased levels of amino acids in the must.3,13 Therefore, nitrogen with or without sulphur foliar nutrition can enhance the aromatic expression in wines.2,13

It has been shown that foliar fertilisation with nitrogen (N) and nitrogen with sulphur (N+S) at véraison positively impacts the berry chemical composition, yeast growth and metabolism, and produces more aromatic wines. Most foliar research studies have mentioned and have proven positive effects when fertilisation applications were performed prior to and at véraison, due to the vine’s nutrient uptake patterns and requirements.13,15 By doing nitrogen and sulphur foliar applications at véraison, the concentrations of N- and S-containing compounds can be increased. The studies show that N and N+S applications can positively affect various volatile and non-volatile compounds in grapes, musts and resulting wines. Increased levels of N and S compounds, such as YAN, FAN, amino acids and volatile thiols, were measured following the treatments.7,8,13,15-22


Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc

In South Africa, Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc are two of the most planted white wine cultivars. By means of renewed interest by researchers and the industry, Chenin blanc wines have increased in quality and aroma styles in the past few years. Research by Lawrence (2012)23 on Chenin blanc investigated analytical methods and aroma compounds, such as esters, monoterpenes, higher alcohols and fatty acids. Only recently volatile thiols levels in Chenin blanc have been reported by Wilson (2017).24

Many studies have been performed on Sauvignon blanc with the key focus on aroma compounds that influence aroma expression. A combination of odour-active aroma compounds gives the specific aromatic character of Sauvignon blanc. They are the methoxypyrazines that are found in grapes, and the thiols and major volatiles that are formed from precursors during alcoholic fermentation.3 Most foliar nutrition research has focused widely on thiols.13,19,25

Recent studies with N and S foliar fertilisation applications resulted in Sauvignon blanc juice and wine having higher volatile thiol levels and improved aromatic potential.7,13,25 Increased glutathione (GSH) levels were obtained where soil nitrogen, as well as foliar nitrogen and sulphur foliar applications, were done.13 Due to its antioxidant properties, GSH plays an important role in Sauvignon blanc wines by protecting the aroma compounds, such as volatile thiols.26

The various foliar fertilisation studies have been performed on Sauvignon blanc in different locations in the world (usually cool climate areas) and varied in application products, rates and times. Chenin blanc is one of South Africa’s most important and planted white cultivars, and to date no foliar fertilisation trials have included this cultivar. Only two soil fertilisation studies have been done on Chenin blanc,27,28 both of them in South Africa.

In general since few research studies regarding foliar fertilisation have been published and most trials have been conducted under European conditions on various white and red wine cultivars,7,8,13,29-33 it was of interest to us and the industry to perform N and N+S foliar applications at véraison on Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc in South Africa. Such research was therefore required to compare the outcome to previous trials (Sauvignon blanc) to evaluate foliar fertilisation in local context (Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc) and to contribute to the knowledge regarding Chenin blanc as a whole.


South African project aims and objectives

The limitations of the previous foliar fertilisation studies are linked to both chemical and sensory aspects. Methoxypyrazines and major volatiles are important aroma compounds and have not been analysed in foliar fertilisation research studies. Only a few research studies determined the vine nitrogen status before and after foliar applications.7,13,22 Only two studies have done sensory analysis of the finished wines, but do not mention the age of the wines.13,19 Another gap in foliar fertilisation research studies is that chemical and sensory evolution of wines during bottle maturation have not been considered.

To this end, a project was proposed to study the effect of N and S foliar fertilisation treatments on the chemical composition of the juice and wine of V. vinifera L. cultivars Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc. This was accomplished by evaluating the treatment effects on non-volatile content (amino acids, GSH and YAN) at various stages of winemaking and on volatile composition (major volatiles, methoxypyrazines and volatile thiols) in wine. Furthermore, the effect on the aroma composition of the wines was evaluated sensorially. These aspects constitute the topic of the next two articles in the series.



Positive results of foliar fertilisation studies in vineyards have gained the attention of South Africa’s wine industry and winemakers who want to positively influence the aroma and complexity of wines through this viticultural practice.

The complexity of the various chemical compounds present in the grape berry and must can contribute to the intricate aromatic expression, flavour and mouth-feel properties of a wine. Many winemakers and viticulturists have experimented with various processes in the cellar or practices in the vineyard to positively influence the non-volatile and volatile compounds present in grapes and wine. Vine nitrogen fertilisation has been shown to have a positive impact on the composition of grapes. Due to climate change and frequent summer droughts, foliar fertilisation has been widely used on various crops and can lead to a quick nutrient uptake through the leaves.



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– For more information, contact Astrid Buica at


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