Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oxidative notes and wine faults: Continuation of my response to Tom Stevenson's comments

I recently addressed a portion of the Tom Stevenson comments on my post juxtaposing his critiques of the Selosse Champagnes with the so-called "Galloni Doctrine." In this post I address the portion of his comments regarding oxidative Champagnes and wine faults.

Stevenson clearly sees oxidative Champagnes as a fault. He finds it "odd that the younger generations like oxidative aromas, as they are so old-fashioned, so seventies, but if that is what they like and they have the money to pay Selosse prices and actually enjoy the sort of thing that winemakers and consultants of my generation spent their life trying to rectify."

From his comments, one can infer three types of Champagne drinkers: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Good are the ones who drink Champagnes that conform to the traditional style; the Bad are the ones who drink oxidative-style Champagnes but for them it is a "stylistic" thing (They are given a hall-pass because they also drink other oxidative-style wines); and the Ugly are those who would not accept an oxidative wine of any other type but is willing to drink a Selosse Champagne. "If ... you (are) not happy with oxidative versions of other wines ..., then I have yet to hear a clear valid and rational reason why you (or anyone else) can make an exception for Champagne, especially as it is  by method,a deliberately reductive wine." Before we go any further, let us examine what is meant by oxidative wines.

Wine oxidizes when exposed to air via two primary mechanisms: enzymic and non-enzymic oxidation. Enzymic oxidation primarily afflicts wine must and requires the presence of the enzyme Tyrosinase (or Lacasse, in the case of botrytized must), phenolic compounds (flavonols, anthocyanins, tannins, etc.), oxygen, and metallic co-factors (iron, copper, etc.). Non-enzymic oxidation, also known as chemical oxidation, occurs in two steps: (i) Oxygen in the air reacts with wine phenols to create hydrogen peroxide and (ii) hydrogen peroxide reacts with ethanol to form acetaldehyde.

The effects of oxidation on wine are browning, loss of fruity aromas, and aldehydic aromas. Because of these characteristics, oxidization is widely viewed as a wine fault. But there are strong attempts to differentiate between oxidized wines (fault) and oxidative wines (style). For example, The Wine Doctor defines oxidative wines as "having been made in a fashion which allows oxygen to influence the style of the wine" while an oxidized wine occurs when the "aromatic profile of the wine has succumbed to the aldehydes created by the oxidation of ethanol by reactive oxygen derivatives." Dr. Vino describes oxidative wines as having just enough oxygen while, conversely, oxidized wines have been exposed to too much oxygen during the winemaking process.

Oxidized flavors do have some adherents but their appeal is not across-the-board. According to Joe Campanale, co-owner of NYC restaurant L'Artesi (as quoted in P. Govinda, Deep Breathing, Imbibe Magazine), "Oxidized flavors can be difficult if you are not familiar with them. All the fresh fruit aromas and taste diminish, making way for cooked or candied fruit, nutty, yeasty flavors, and a loss of complexity. Fans of these wines find their individuality and character unsurpassed and, because of that, they are some of the most fascinating and compelling wines in the world." According to Govinda, "... when it is an intentional part of winemaking, some winemakers believe you can end up with a bottle of such complexity that it borders on the taste ... of umami."

The first table below shows the characteristics gained and lost in oxidative winemaking while the one immediately following shows a sampling of deliberate oxidative winemaking around the world.

                                                                      Oxidative Wines
Characteristics Lost
Characteristics Gained
Original Color
Vibrant tones
Dried fruits
Umamai savoriness

Sampling of Oxidative Wines

Jerez (Sherry)
Vin Jaune
Red and white
Chateau Musar
Lopez de Heredia
Patrick Javillier
St. Aubain
Dominique Derain
Summer in sun in glass demi-johns
Domaine du Pech
Sauvignon Blanc
Patrice Lescaret
Hervé Villemade
*Beneath the veil – not filled up initially and not topped up during aging
**Some not topped up and bottled after a year; noticeable oxidative qualities
Sources: Sue Dyson and Roger McShane, Just add oxygen – Reflections on the allure of oxidation,; P. Govinda, Deep Breathing, Imbibe Magazine.

According to Paul Lukacs Inventing Wine, wine drinkers throughout history have had to contend with oxidized wines because of a lack of understanding of wine chemistry and unsatisfactory fermentation and aging vessels. These shortcomings have been addressed over the years and, with the advent of technologies such as temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, and the use of chemical aids such as sulfur dioxide, the winemaker can provide a product which has had very little exposure to oxygen in the journey from berry to wine. If oxidative flavors were a result of a lack of relevant technologies and techniques, and those technologies and techniques are available today, then oxidative flavors in a wine -- those throwbacks to the bad old days -- must be a fault. Or, at least, so goes the argument.

But, as I have shown in the table above, there are a number of winemakers who are actively pursuing this style of wine. And consumers must be purchasing these wines or these businesses would fail. So if a winemaker deliberately sets out to make a wine according to a certain set of goals, and he/she accomp[lishes those goals, and consumers favor that product, why is that not a "style?" Why is that a fault? Why is Selosse's oxidative Champagne a fault if one accepts this logic?

Further, the oxidative notes in wine may be a genetically tuned flavor element for some consumers. According to Dyson and McShane, "It is not possible to understand why winemakers deliberately try to develop oxidative notes in wine unless you also understand umami." Umamai is the savory taste which "results from the presence of L-glutamate and other related amino acids found in foods" and there is "individual variation to the perceived intensity of this taste." Exposing grape juice to oxygen increases the level of glutamates -- and umami qualities -- and the pleasure of those who find it appealing and the displeasure of those who don't.

As it relates to Selosse's wine, he is making wine in the oxidative style; and his customers are buying those wines. Whether because of a persistent pursuit of umami, or prestige, or whatever, they are buying it. And, in the face of declining wine consumption among old-world youth, wine lovers should embrace whatever it takes to get young people drinking wine. When the bubbles first appeared in the wine we now call Champagne, it was derided as a fault. The Dom tried everything he could to get rid of the bubbles. Now they are Champagne. Maybe one day Selosse will get his due also.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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