Wine and Oxygen: A (Complicated) Love Story

A 2006 bottle of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Viña Gravonia // Photo via Lou Stejskal, Flickr

A 2006 bottle of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Viña Gravonia // Photo via Lou Stejskal, Flickr

Remember that time you were so excited to pop the cork on your favorite fruit-driven red from the local shop (your picnic wine!) only to find that its once-vibrant ruby color had been swapped for a subtle, orangish hue and the pleasant aromas of fresh tart cherries and strawberries now somehow smelled like the trail mix you recently picked up from the co-op? That was most likely the unhappy result of too much uncontrolled exposure to oxygen in the wine, possibly from a faulty cork or a misstep in the winery.

Oxygen and wine have a complicated relationship. Usually, winemakers try to practice the Goldilocks approach—they want a little bit of controlled exposure to oxygen to help integrate the wine and prevent it from developing reduced characteristics (think cabbage and cooked beans, woof). On the other hand, too much unintentional exposure may result in another flaw: oxidation. An orangish-brown red wine that smells like nuts? Usually not my favorite.

But are oxidative characteristics ever a good or desirable thing in wine? Oh yeah, baby. There are certain regions of the wine world that have built their signature styles on aging wine under conditions where it is intentionally exposed to varying amounts of oxygen.

Wines transform under these conditions, often more dramatically with white wines than with reds. White wines—normally pale straw to straw in color—become golden or even brown; red wines develop a ruddy orange complexion. On the nose, fresh fruit characteristics evolve into more cooked or bruised qualities (think bruised apple versus fresh, green apple) and other tertiary, non-fruit (often savory) aromas begin to emerge. On the palate, red wine tannins soften and whites often seem less “ripe.”

To make a wine with just the right amount of oxidized character, the winemaker needs a porous aging vessel—think old oak barrels versus stainless steel tanks. Now, think about when you left your partially consumed cup of coffee on your table for a week, because doing dishes is the worst. When you finally cleaned it up, there was less coffee in it than there was before, because: evaporation. The same thing happens in a wine barrel, but on a grander scale. Wineries usually top up their barrels with more wine as it evaporates to protect it from the ever-increasing presence of oxygen and preserve its freshness. But, if they are going for an oxidative style, they can set it and forget it (well, they don’t actually forget it, but you get the idea).

An example of the effects oxidation can have on fruit—in this case an apple. The half on the right shows browning from prolonged exposure to oxygen // Photo by Aaron Job

An example of the effects oxidation can have on fruit—in this case an apple. The half on the right shows browning from prolonged exposure to oxygen // Photo by Aaron Job

It’s a time-tested strategy in the Jura region of Eastern France, a place that quite literally looks like The Shire—green, rolling hills, rippling brooks, a thin veil of fog settling in the valleys, ancient, crumbling stone walls, and vineyards. So. Many. Vineyards. Their traditional styles of wine taste like they belong there, more expressive of the land than of fruit. Their wines are age-worthy, built to last. Winemaker Jean-François Bourdy of Cave Jean Bourdy, one of the oldest wineries in the region, says this is because “wine growing up in a barrel is as the education of a child—it adapts to its situation.” Therefore, these wines don’t have as strong of a reaction to oxygen throughout their lifetime as many wines that “grew up” without oxygen (in stainless steel, like your picnic wine!).

On a recent wine trip to Caves Jean Bourdy, a group of us were fortunate enough to taste a Château-Chalon Vin Jaune from 1942. This wine was a time capsule, a symbol of resilience. My tasting notes were unlike anything else—foie gras, walnut skins, caramelized banana, iron. To me, this was a perfect example of a wine “educated” in oxygen. Not many wines could have retained that much life at that age.

Also age-worthy are the signature wines of Andalusia in southern Spain, home to the “Sherry Triangle.” Sherry is aged in the solera system, one of the wine world’s most iconic and complex processes. Imagine a tower of barrels with different tiers, called criaderas (or nurseries), with the youngest wine on top and the oldest wine on the bottom. The oldest tier is called the solera and contains the wine ready for bottling—a combination of multiple vintages, as old as 60‒100 years. Once a portion of the wine is removed from the solera to be bottled, it is replaced by a portion of the wine from the first criadera, which in turn is replaced by a portion of the wine from the second criadera, and so on. The top barrels are then filled with wine from the newest vintage.

With ample headspace in the barrel for oxygen to work its magic, aged sherries, like oloroso, take on dark colors, complex aromatics, and richer flavors. The resulting wines are dry and full-bodied, with robust notes of dried fruits, nuts, autumn leaves, and pipe tobacco.

La Rioja, Spain, is home to one of my all-time favorite wineries, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. All of their wines undergo a lengthy aging in 225-liter American oak barrels before being transferred to bottles. They believe that their “wines need to spend a minimum of three years in barrels to begin to manifest their ‘education.’” This “education” is the slow and steady exposure to oxygen over the course of years. Their white wines, in particular, show the outcome of this thoughtful process to truly astonishing impact.

In my experience, one of the best things about oxidative styles of white wine is that they can be extremely versatile for pairing. They can stand up to the complex spice profile of Indian cuisine, play brilliantly with umami (think ramen, mushrooms, soy), and can totally hang with foods we would normally think to pair with red wines, like a deliciously aged steak. I love them with seafood (particularly shellfish) and of course, all of the cheese. Pro tip: go all wine-geek on your family and try one with Thanksgiving dinner.

To me, stylistically, these wines are timeless and magical, as though they might be the very wines served in the tavern in a fantasy novel (you know the one), the protagonist saddling up to the bar to fill their flagon and grab a block of cheese wrapped in cloth to fortify them against the last leg of their journey.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll certainly be putting on my “sherry sweater” this winter.

Oxidized Wine Recommendations:

Caves Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura Savagnin 2011: There is definitely a savory quality to this wine: chicken soup, curry, nuts (seriously, those are my tasting notes). A “cool kids” wine for Thanksgiving.

El Maestro Sierra Oloroso 15 year: This is an unctuous wine with rich notes of hazelnut and exotic spice. I love sherry with so many things, but it is particularly great with pork. Ever tried sherry in a cocktail? It’s time.

R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Viña Gravonia: One hundred percent viura with at least 10 years of age on it by the time it hits the market. Golden in color and like warm sunshine on the palate. Nutty, sherry-like aromas, and flavors of honeycomb, sesame, almond, and tangerine. It is the most amazing wine with sushi, hands down (just try it).