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Turn to the “Troubleshooter’s Guide” in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and the very last entry will tell you what to do when a wine has oxidized: “Use it for salad dressing.” Most wine experts are similarly dismissive of wine that’s been significantly exposed to air. True, in most cases, oxidized juice is the last thing you want in your glass. It can cause a wine to turn brown; worse, it can make wine lose its vibrancy and primary aromas. Left unchecked, it will eventually turn a wine into vinegar. So it’s easy to see why oxidation is commonly considered a winemaker’s nightmare. But when it’s an intentional part of the winemaking process, some winemakers believe you can end up with a bottle of such complexity that it borders on the taste of that elusive, savory “fifth taste,” umami.
By contrast to her competitors’ young, sprightly wines, the current vintage release of López de Heredia’s Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco is from 1987. The family-run winery aged this wine for eight years in old barrels and a further nine years in the bottle. The result: old-school Rioja. This “white” wine has turned an intense yellow, almost golden, hue. On the palate, it offers hints of nuts, mushrooms and spice. “We carry three of their white wines, and all of them come with a degree of oxidation,” says Eric Pottmeyer, manager of Portland, Ore., wine shop Liner & Elsen. “It’s not the main focus, but it’s there, like a little seasoning.”
The strangest part about visiting a producer of Vin Jaune is that your preconceived notion of cellar work is turned on its head. For one thing, it’s not always “cellar work”: Jacques Puffeney, a small producer in Arbois (a sub-region and appellation in Jura), keeps his Vin Jaune in barrels for seven to nine years, sometimes longer, in an airy upstairs attic space with windows splayed open—a stark contrast to the usual humid, underground cellar. “The facility where the flor develops has to be well aerated and the temperature should vary,” he explains. “Upstairs, under our roof, the temperature goes from 30 degrees Celsius [86F] to minus 5 Celsius [23F]. It is a very dry environment, encouraging loss of water and concentration of alcohol and aromas.”
Stéphane Tissot, also based in Arbois, makes Vin Jaune and several lesser-aged Savagnin and Chardonnay wines—all of which have been deliberately exposed to air in his dry cellars. “If you were to leave Vin Jaune in a wet cellar, the alcohol would reduce and your wines will be prone to bacteria,” he says. “Also, in a wet [humid] cellar, the evolution of your wine is seriously slowed down.”
Tissot’s Arbois Blanc Selection 2004 is made from 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent Savagnin. Each wine ferments separately and ages in barrels that are topped up as normal, for nine months, until both wines are blended and then left in barrels for 15 months, this time without topping, which exposes the slowly evaporating wine to more air. “A lot of people are taught that oxidation in a wine is bad, but when it is a carefully monitored process, and something that producers have been perfecting for years, you have to rethink negative associations,” says Pottmeyer. “Winemakers from the Jura, for example, are taking care of their barrels; it’s not just some barrel of wine they forgot about.”
According to Hernandez, an oxidized-style Chardonnay, such as Tissot’s and Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile, stands apart from the ubiquitous kind. “You come across a lot of American Chardonnay that’s either too buttery or oaky, but this is so different, so interesting, and it allows you to see how Chardonnay can express itself in a very unique way. Oxidation can give Chardonnay much more complexity,” says Hernandez, referring to tertiary and secondary flavors, which are often described as earthy, mushroomy, sherry-like, spicy and nutty.
Still, even oxidized wine’s staunchest advocates will admit that the style has its challenges. For one, it’s an expensive and time-consuming process, so the resulting wines tend to be pricey and hard to find. It’s also an acquired taste, and one that American palates aren’t familiar with. “It is not the kind of wine I can recommend right off the bat,” Pottmeyer acknowledges. “I need to become familiar with a customer’s taste before I can suggest a López de Heredia or an oxidized-style wine from the Jura.”
Also, since the polyphenols (tannins, color pigments and flavor compounds) in red wine and dark-skinned grapes help protect against oxidation, it’s a style mostly reserved for white wines. There are exceptions, of course: In the Alicante region of southeast Spain, vintners make a rancio wine called Fondillón from the local Monastrell grape. “This wine is made in the solera system [a fractional blending system from different age-scales of stacked barrels] but without fortification,” says importer Pastor. “It has beautiful and complex aromas, such as fruit preserves, almonds and dried flowers; it tastes nutty in a sherry-like way but without the alcohol and bite of Jerez, because it isn’t fortified.”
Meanwhile, in the Collio region of Friuli in Italy, Stanko Radikon keeps his own country’s oxygenating tradition alive and macerates his white wines like red wines, with long skin contact. Like Lopez de Heredia’s wines, they go through a very slow oxidative process by spending a long time in large, used Slovenian botti (extremely large barrels that can hold up to 6,000 liters of wine). New York restaurant L’Artusi offers a handful of these Slovenian-style Friuli wines (Collio is situated on the border of Slovenia), including such producers as Damijan, Josko Gravner and Radikon. “They are [either] avant-garde or insanely traditional winemakers, depending on how you look at it,” says L’Artusi’s Campanale. “I like the fact that these are dry white wines that offer something you wouldn’t expect. An element of surprise, for me, makes for a memorable wine experience.”
Schoener isn’t a traditional California winemaker. He eschews fruitiness in favor of wine that exudes secondary tastes and aromas. Most of the Scholium Project whites are made in an oxidative way. “The wines are made in 60-gallon barrels with about five gallons of headspace,” says Schoener. “It’s a crazy amount of breathing space, but it makes the wine so intense.”
His wines have gained a cult following in New York (David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants are big fans), and the buzz is growing on the West Coast as well. In conjunction with several grape growers, Schoener made a 100-percent Chardonnay wine called Maldonado from the 2006 vintage. This wine experienced a single top-up during its two years in barrel, at which time the wine was given generous airspace and moderate pools of surface flor were formed. It’s the kind of élevage (the cellar work from fermentation to bottling) that is unheard of in the U.S. According to Schoener, a conventional Napa winery will top its barrels about every three weeks, or 12 to 14 times a year. Some top less often, but at least six times a year. Like the wines of the Jura, Maldonado offers pure secondary flavors, showing brilliant salinity and hints of mushrooms on the palate. It’s hard to believe this is Chardonnay. And since oxygen accelerates the aging process, Maldonado tastes like a wine beyond its three years.
It is risky winemaking, and these are not mainstream wines. But Schoener believes Americans are learning to appreciate wines that go beyond the norm. “There is a hip element to favoring these wines: avoiding, maybe even disdaining, clean, fruity wines,” he notes. “These wines are being introduced to more people all the time, and my sense is that they’re catching on. You don’t have to be hip to enjoy them—maybe only to understand what is atypical about them.”
And slowly, Schoener is gaining not just fans, but colleagues. “A few more winemakers are experimenting with these techniques,” he says. “There is spreading interest in Italy and France, but I have to say, to do what I’m doing, it helps not to have a family to support; otherwise, I would have to be completely crazy.”
RELATED CONTENTFor wine tasting notes, check out the September/October 2009 issue.