Wine collector Billy Grippo opened his first premox bottle about eight years ago, when he was out to dinner with friends. He brought along a fantastic Leflaive 2002 Chevalier-Montrachet that he thought would be incredible in its old age, but when he poured the first glass, it looked nothing like the rich, straw-colored liquid he loved. He says, “It wasn’t even like it was slightly oxidized; it looked like weak tea!” He learned a tough lesson that day: always bring along a spare bottle, especially with premox on the loose.
Grippo is far from alone in this experience. Many of today’s collectors are timid when it comes to investing in white Burgundy because of premox (short for premature oxidation). Since the mid-1990s, many white wine vintages from regions like Burgundy, Alsace, Bordeaux, and Germany have been aging too quickly in storage, and experts still aren’t sure why this is happening. To protect your own investments, you need to know how to identify premox wines, and which regions or vintages are most susceptible.
What Premox Is (And What It Isn’t)
Oxidation is always a risk when aging wines long-term; the longer wine stays in a cellar, the more likely it will begin to oxidize. The problem with premox is that this process is happening far too early in a wine’s life. A fine white Burgundy from an estate like Lafon should last at least 10 years in a cellar, yet many of the recent vintages from this and other estates have completely oxidized within a matter of five years. Oxidation is caused by exposure to air, resulting in a tawny brown wine that smells like sherry or stale, burnt marshmallow. If you have a wine with these qualities, it might be the victim of premox.
Yet experts caution that the premox scare has some collectors throwing out perfectly good bottles of white Burgundy. Winemaker Dominique Lafon once visited a restaurant in Burgundy when he overheard an American diner complaining about premox in one of Lafon’s wines. After tasting the wine in question, Lafon didn’t find signs of premox; the wine was just a bit old. The American diner wasn’t used to drinking older white wines, so he mistook its age for a serious flaw. The difference between premox and natural age comes down to vintage and taste. If the wine is only a few years old and already tawny, it’s premox. If a wine is 10 years old and tastes a bit like nuts or cooked fruit, it’s probably just reached its natural peak.
Can You Identify Premox Wines by Vintage?
Experts estimate that the first vintage to have this problem was the 1995 in Burgundy, and it only worsened from there. Most cases of white wine from the mid-1990s contained at least one bottle that suffered from premox, and to this day, finding a perfectly aged white Burgundy from the late 90s and early 2000s is exceptionally rare. Collector Billy Grippo says the 2001s and 2002s that he’s bought tend to have the worst premox problems, but that’s not the case across the board. He once brought a bottle of 2002 Chevalier Montrachet to a dinner party, and was nervous that the bottle would be a disaster based on his past experience with the vintage. Instead, he was shocked when the wine turned out to be the hit of the night. The trouble with premox is that it is completely random. While many vintages from 2005 or earlier will suffer from it, you’ll also find plenty of bottles that have aged just fine.
Rather than focusing on which vintages had the most problems with premature oxidation, you should pay close attention to the bottle’s coloration. Some collectors make a habit of checking their white wines every 18 or so months to ensure that the color is not too dark, though this may be difficult depending on the coloration of the bottle. If you have a case or more of the wine, it’s not a bad idea to open one up every year or two to check on how the wine is aging. Don’t be afraid to drink your white Burgundy earlier than usual, either. Billy Grippo says he now drinks most of his white Burgundy within a few years, before it has the chance to oxidize. Until the premox issue is resolved, you might have to drink your wine five years earlier than critics estimate it will peak.
Should You Invest in White Burgundy?
Billy Grippo’s local wine retailer told him that he shouldn’t buy Burgundy anymore until the problem is fixed, and many other collectors have followed this advice. As Grippo explains, “It’s getting to be ridiculous. When you open up $2,000 worth of white Burgundy and it’s gone, you’re just crushed.” Although Grippo buys less white Burgundy than he used to, he hasn’t entirely given up. Successfully investing in white Burgundy requires patience and a keen understanding of traditional white wine styles.
For instance, Grippo prefers to buy wine from producers who use traditional techniques because they have fewer problems overall with premox. Modern wines tend to be bolder than they were 30 or 40 years ago, which might explain the premox trend. Studies have found that bolder white wines with higher alcohol and low acidity are more likely to suffer from premox, so choosing lighter styles might protect your investment. If you invest in newer vintages made with traditional or biodynamic techniques, and you check on your bottles every year or so, premox is less likely to surprise you at the worst possible moment, like that special anniversary dinner.
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Image source: I, Hashashin, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2518232