Can oxygen resurrect wine into something truly special?
In the wrong hands, oxygen can kills wine, but in the right hands, the air of life can transform and resurrect wine. Kathleen Willcox discovers the secrets to success.
Modern winemaking has led most of us, when presented with a glass of white wine, to expect something bright and crisp, often aromatic. But, as anyone who has sipped wine from Jura, or tried López de Heredia’s now cultish Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco knows, white wine can also deliver notes of deeply caramelised nuts (no measly “almond skin” here), honey, mushrooms, spice.
Increasingly, there’s an appetite for wine that splits the difference between the two beloved styles; for wine that offers the freshness and vivacity of the modern style, and the deep flavour, complexity and age-worthiness found in a style of winemaking that has its roots in Georgia, where winemaking began 8,000 years ago – give or take a century or two.
The tool winemakers are using to achieve this balance couldn’t be more basic: oxygen. This colourless, odourless, tasteless gas is essential to all living things. But oxygen run amok: in the form of free radicals, it causes wrinkles. It can also degrade wine, without adding anything in the process.
Wine, like people, needs oxygen to survive, but delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong way, oxygen can kill or deform it. But in the right hands, and delivered at the right time, oxygen can transform and resurrect wine, imbuing it with enough life to last decades in the cellar.
“Presenting oxygen to wine in the winemaking process is an oxidative approach,” explains Chris Leon, owner and wine director of Leon & Son Wine and Spirits in Brooklyn. “It does not mean you get an oxidated wine. And oxidative wine is one that’s been presented with oxygen, changing the whole character of the wine.”
Instead of primary flavors that are fruity and fresh, Leon explains, you get secondary flavors, typically spiced in reds, oily nutty in whites.
“In the best oxidative wines, you feel the presence of the oxygen as much as you taste it,” he says. “It helps to round the edges texturally.”
Seeking oxidative wines, not oxidated wines
Oxygen can be a winemaker’s foe if utilized without care and precision. But if done in a controlled way, using oxygen to change a wine’s character and flavor can turn a one- dimensional white into a cellar-worthy, nuanced and cerebral sip, says Sarah Trubnick, founder of The Barrel Room in San Francisco.
“From a scientific perspective, the thing that is happening when a wine becomes oxidative or oxidated is really the same,” Trubnick notes. “It’s going to be nuttier, richer and more fuller bodied. But as with Brettanomyces—which in my opinion can add interesting aromatics and complexity in certain wines—can also become a serious flaw in others.”
Worst case scenario, oxidated wine produces brown “white” wine, without the vibrancy and freshness that even the most oxidative wines possess. But even completely degenerated, even unintentionally oxidated wines can be delicious, Trubnick insists.
“Madeira is an example of a completely oxidated wine that works,” Trubnick says. “It’s brown, with deep notes of nuts and caramel. Honestly, I don’t even think that Madeira was an intentional style at first. It was probably essentially fresh white wine that went bad on ships. But it became a style in that case because it was so good.”
Madeira wine is typically made from Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia Candida, Terrantez and Tinta Negra. In addition to the process of judicious oxygen delivery, the grapes that are. being treated can define the quality of the end product.
“A truly bright grape that is delicate and aromatic and appreciated primarily for those qualities and intended for early drinking probably won’t produce a great oxidative wine,” Trubnick explains. “Kerner for example, generally wouldn’t be a great candidate. But a flexible grape like Chardonnay can make for very interesting oxidative wines. I’ve also had some amazing oxidative whites made in Vermont and Georgia, where creating oxidative wines is central to their craft.”
So how do vintners subtly use oxygen to enhance their whites without destroying their vintage? Read on for insight. It begins in the vineyard
If you snagged a nickel for every time someone said that “great wine starts in the vineyard,” it would be the best—possible only—way to make a fortune making great wine. At Duca di Salaparuta, winery director Roberto Magnisi says that old chestnut is more relevant than ever if you plan to introduce oxygen to the mix in the cellar.
“Selecting the right grape variety for the terroir is the first step, followed by agronomic choices such as the age of the vine,” says Magnisi, who believes that “vines must be old enough to handle oxygen.”
Like Trubnick, Magnisi favors non-aromatic varieties when he is setting out to create an oxidative wine.
“With a non-aromatic grape variety like Insolia, our goal is to express its character not only through sugar and acidity, but through a mature polyphenolic profile that can add vibrancy and persistency to the palate,” he says. “The quest for olfactory perfection is like a wire- walker exercise where you work to enhance the oxidation-reduction balance. Tertiary aromas need to accompany the primary and secondary aromatic paths without
overwhelming or corrupting them.”
Catering to the new, honoring the old
For some winemakers, oxygen has become a way to create complex, cellar-worthy whites sans sulfites.
“I know and you know that it’s not the sulfites that are giving most people headaches when they drink too much wine,” says Ali Nemchonok, founder and proprietor of Anderson Valley’s Bee Hunter Wine. “But so many people ask for it, and we ended up with a batch of organically grown Sauvignon Blanc grapes where it seemed like an oxidative approach might be the best thing for the grapes because they were at a riper place then we normally picked them at. Being able to use oxygen to preserve the wines without sulfites was part of our goal too.”
The result, Nemchonok explains, is an oxidative wine reminiscent of classic Jura-style wines, with notes of “sweet pineapple upside-down cake.” Andy DuVigneaud, Nemchonok’s partner and Bee Wine’s vintner, says his approach to creating this profile was straight-forward.
“We used six to 10-year-old barrels and aged the wine for 21 months,” DuVigneaud says.
“The older barrels increased the wine’s exposure to oxygen, and we also decreased topping times to ensure there would be optimal oxygen exposure, tasting frequently and making adjustments as needed.”
At Bodegas Alvear in Montilla, Spain, winemaking without oxygen is unthinkable for certain very special wines.
“At Alvear, Pedro Ximénex grapes, sourced from specific plots of very old vines,” says Bernardo Lucena, technical director at the winery. “You learn to use it from the first moment you start working in a winery with the tradition of Alvear, which has been producing wines since 1729.”
The grapes are fermented according to their plots in concrete vats, where they remain for eight months on their lees and under the veil of flor that is generated with the wild yeasts that piggyback onto the grapes from the vineyard. From there, the wine is aged in neutral American oak barrels for three years.
Like DuVigneaud, in addition to aging the whites in barrels, Lucena manages the level of filling to ensure the wine gets extra pops of oxygen as needed, to deliver the “complexity, concentration and structure” he wants in the glass.
Embracing deeper flavors and improving ageability
For some winemakers, exposing certain types of wine to oxygen is a choice analogous to swapping out concrete tanks for French oak for a certain varietal to see what happens, and honour what the grapes are trying to “say.”
At Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma, that means exposing the “juice,” but never the wine, to oxygen.
“We favour the oxidative pressing approach for our Sauvignon Blanc because we find the wines become more elegant and salinic, while still clearly expressing the distinct characteristics of our volcanic terroir,” Maura Kinsella, associate winemaker at Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma, says.
And although they encourage hyper-oxidation at the beginning of alcoholic fermentation, when the process is finished, they shift tack.
“From there, we keep a strict topping regimen to prevent malolactic fermentation,” Kinsella says. “While we don’t use inert gas during fermentation, we do when transferring the wine. After harvest, we age our Sauvignon Blanc in concrete eggs and large oak casks and then transfer it to a stainless-steel tank to encourage the wine to tighten up in the last four to five months of ageing.”
Bringing oxygen to the party early on removes excessive thiolic aromas, but by shutting it out later, they can still bottle the Sauvignon Blanc in a slightly reductive state with an initially flinty note.
Oxygen, like the ageing vessel a winemaker chooses can have an outsize effect on aromas and flavors you find in the glass, sometimes bringing it to surprising places. For Hamel, that means reducing some of the grapefruit and exotic tropicality Sauvignon Blanc can deliver; at Bee Hunter Wine, that means turning that Sauvignon Blanc into an upside-down pineapple cake.
Not everyone will like both—or either.
“Our wine isn’t for everyone,” DuVigneaud admits. “Some people think it’s flawed. It’s not flawed, but it is funky. We are not a basic white, and every bottle of our Sauvignon Blanc is a hand-sell. But when people get it, they fall in love.”
For some, death leads to resurrection; for others, it will always be a dead-end.