On public radio station NHPR, Chef Evan Mallett describes the first time he tried oxidized wine at a Parisian restaurant, Saturne.1 A decade ago, Saturne’s owner would have been committing a major faux pas by knowingly serving an oxidized wine to a customer, since this wine quality is considered a fatal bottle flaw. However, Mallett says he was hooked on the idea from the start, and even decided to host his own tasting party centered around the infamous wine flaw. According to modern sommeliers who drink slightly oxidized wine, when it is on the cusp of spoilage, the wine develops a mushroom-like, umami quality not ordinarily found in young bottles. To be clear, slightly oxidized wines are still a rare find, and this is likely to be a short-lived trend, but it can teach collectors a great deal about the tastes modern wine lovers are craving, and what this means for collectors.
Modern Sommeliers Seek Leaky Corks
Premium estates go to great lengths to find cork manufacturers who make the most airtight seal possible; some estates even go as far as to cover their wine in a blanket of nitrogen during fermentation to ensure that not a single oxygen molecule reaches the juice. Yet sommeliers like Bryan Hinschberger say that they prefer a little oxidation, telling NHPR, “I absolutely adore when a wine has a leaky cork.”
Hinschberger and Mallett worked together to host their tasting party for these kinds of wines. One of the wines sampled included a white wine from Chateau Musar, which was allowed to oxidize slightly on purpose for the occasion. Bottles were selected based on whether they would take well to oxidation; dry Rose wines and Oloroso Sherry do particularly well with a little exposure to air. Other bottles were simply unexpected finds, such as some bottles of 1997 Raimundo Abando that had been forgotten too long in a cellar.
Stages of Wine Oxidation
Most wine experts know that oxidation is a classical wine flaw, but many are unaware that different levels of oxidation affect the wine’s taste dramatically and in different ways. The type of oxidation Mallett and Hinschberger look for in wines occurs at the earliest stages of oxygen exposure. When the oxygen molecules begin to dissolve in the wine, they change the phenolic compounds that give the wine its taste. The wine loses some of its fruitiness and takes on a nutty quality, which can actually improve the overall flavor of the wine in the early stages of oxidation.
Aerobic microbe yeast exposure and acetic acid buildup are the two oxidation stages that can make a wine undrinkable. Yeast exposure applies to wines that have not yet been bottled, while acetic acid buildup can happen at any time in wines. In the yeast exposure stage, the natural yeast on the grape skins, when exposed to air, breed out of control during fermentation. The resulting wine has an unpleasant smell and taste associated with wet newspapers. In the acetic acid stage, a leaky cork or prolonged time in the cellar expose natural bacteria in a wine bottle to oxygen, and the bacteria eats away at the ethanol in the wine. If exposure to the air is too great, acetic acid and ethyl acetate are produced, giving the wine a strong vinegar smell and taste.
The different stages of oxidation happen so quickly that it’s almost impossible for collectors to pick unspoiled wines from oxidized candidates. Sommeliers like Hinschberger enjoy the challenge of finding oxidized wines that have not yet been spoiled, but this is an artform that requires a great deal of research and a bit of luck. Instead of trying it themselves, collectors should consider why sommeliers want these kinds of wines. It seems that some people are looking for wines that still have the taste of fruit upon first sip, but that on the finish have a deep, earthier quality. This could signal a move away from wines that are focused on brightness and acidity, with a turn instead to young wines that are more gamy and meaty overall.
Wines That Naturally Mimic the Qualities of Oxidation
Collectors wanting to take advantage of this taste insight without risking an investment in a leaky cork should look to dry, Brut-style Rose bottles. These wines have a bone dry, savory profile overall, but balance this quality with a tart fruit flavor on first taste. Krug’s Brut Rose is a fine example of a wine that has some of the taste qualities leaky cork proponents seek, including a less fruity palate and a long, yeasty finish. In addition, this wine is almost orange in color, which oxidation fans tend to love. Orange wines have gained appeal over the past five years as a savory alternative to sweet whites. Burghound says, “One could aptly describe [Krug Brut Rose] as more wine than Champagne,” meaning that the flavors are less bubbly and dessert-like, and more dense and filled with umami characteristics.
Krug is one of the few producers to achieve this umami taste without resorting to oxidation or extended oak barreling. Extensive oak-aged wines have the earthy, savory flavors that sommeliers seek, but they also tend to have an overpowering taste and scent of wood that can overwhelm the fruit and other subtleties of the wine. Wine oxidation is becoming popular in some circles because it gives the wine this kick of richness without adding more flavor components. Rather, oxidation increases the natural, yeasty qualities that already exist in the wine, which is why sommeliers say they taste like mushrooms.
Collectors can take advantage of this hard-to-pin-down taste when they look for wines described by critics as “yeasty” or orange in color. Since tastes are moving away from sweet wines on the market, these yeast-heavy white wines are also more likely to retail for a greater price than sugary peers. Since slightly oxidized wines are difficult to find and cannot be stored longterm, investing in truly oxidized wines is not be a viable option for long-term collectors, and oxidized wines will likely remain in an experiment for adventurous connoisseurs. Those interested in the qualities oxidation produces, however, can find many of these same flavors in non-oxidized Brut, without the ticking time bomb of a leaky cork.
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