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Oxidised Wines: Where’s the ‘Charm’?

Oxidation is on my mind again this week (so are the prices of Bordeaux 2010, but let’s just park that for this week), for a variety of reasons. Like when I tripped up in January, mistaking the obvious oxidation seen in two wines from Pithon-Paillé as an evolution of the Pithon-Paillé style (into a ‘natural’, ‘oxidative’ or rather oxidised style), when in fact they were just tired samples, as I discovered when I had the opportunity to retaste. And the adverse effects of oxygen were again seen at Tom Cannavan’s Top 50 Portuguese Tasting, where there were all manner of oxidised wines, including two reds that weren’t showing well at all (I pointed both out to Tom and in each case the second bottle was better) and one dry white which was firmly ‘oxidative’, and an oxidised sweet white right at the end.

Let me explain my use of the terms ‘oxidised’ and ‘oxidative’ here. A few weeks ago I posted on oxidative versus oxidised. I really liked one comment, from The Wine Mule, which went “Having said that, at our place we say “oxidative” when we think the effect is deliberate, “oxidized” when we think it’s unintentional.” Having spent some time mulling over this issue since last posting, I’m going to develop this one step further and say a wine is ‘oxidative’ when the exposure to oxygen influences the style of the wine, but without generating overtly oxidised (acetaldehyde) aromas. Thus Bollinger is oxidative, as was one of the whites at Tom’s tasting (I forget which one – my notes will tell all, when I get around to proof-reading and formatting them). Other wines – including two reds at Tom’s tasting, and so many ‘natural’ wines I have tasted from the Loire (to which many would try to give validity by using the term ‘oxidative’ – there’s a good example in this recent post from Jamie Goode, who declares that a wine which appears oxidised on ‘first sniff’ is profound, beneath the ‘oxidative aromas’), as well as those two tired Pithon-Paillé wines – are just oxidised.

There is almost certainly a very grey and fuzzy dividing line between oxidative and oxidised, but there is nevertheless a dividing line – one that is personal, for my palate – slowly taking shape. And the obvious thing to do with those wines that fall on the oxidised side, rather than those that are oxidative, is to call them as faulty. At the recent Natural Wine Fair in London I glean from online musings that Margaret Rand may have made a point along these lines. From Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages:

I am told there was some disagreement between British wine writer Margaret Rand and natural wine importer Douglas Wregg of Caves de Pyrène, the major exhibitor at the Fair over the question of oxidation.

That’s second-hand info. For news from the horse’s mouth, let’s go to Alice Feiring’s blog:

The next day flaws were again the focus at Doug Wregg’s presentation on how to sell the wines to restaurants. There, wine writer Margaret Rand, pirated the conversation. Flaws once again. She admitted that there some lovely wines out there but there were too many that were wrong: she pointed to oxidative [Note the use of 'oxidative' instead of oxidised there. I wonder if that was the word Margaret used?] flavors and aromas. Flawed beyond redemption.

It sounds like Margaret sees oxidation as a fault. Me too, Margaret! But let’s step back and consider this position for a moment. If the oxidation (or ‘oxidative style’ as they might describe it, erroneously in my opinion) is part of the winemaker’s desired goal, then perhaps this is inappropriate? After all, how can a desired style be deemed a ‘wine fault’? Certainly this seems to be Feiring’s view, who suggests Rand’s question should have been:

There are those nuts outside loving these wines, but they’re flawed. I don’t get it. Can you explain where you find the charm here?

Which is of course crazy. If a wine is oxidised, it is oxidised. You can’t expect someone who finds wines dominated by the aromas and flavours of oxidation to be abhorrent – a group which probably includes myself, but perhaps Margaret Rand as well – to just look for “the charm”. Whether you view oxidation as a fault, or as an interesting element of a ‘natural’ wine, if I don’t like it, then I don’t like it. If John Gilman can give catastrophically low score to Pavie, based on nothing more than over-extraction and a bit too much alcohol, then I can do the same with wines defined by oxidation. In other words, you can tell me oxidation is not a wine fault, but when it comes down to my opinion of the wine, those that are oxidised have such a dull homogeneity that I will never rate one highly. And so ultimately it doesn’t matter whether I report the wine as faulty (which is what I wish I had done with those Pithon-Paillé wines), or just give it a low score and describe why in my report (which is the route I originally took with Pithon-Paillé) the message remains clear. The wine ain’t good!

And it doesn’t matter how often you suggest I look for the ‘charm’.

Because there isn’t any ‘charm’ in wines where all the beautiful purity of the fruit, the expression of the sun and the soil, and all the tiny nuances that allows differentiation between one wine and the next, between one terroir and the next, is smothered by the all-blanketing homogeneity of oxidation’s principle molecule acetaladehyde, which tastes the same no matter the variety or terroir.

4 Responses to “Oxidised Wines: Where’s the ‘Charm’?”

  1. What about sherry and madeira?

  2. Hi Morten?

    Thanks for this comment – I’m glad to respond, as I know a couple of other people had the same reaction, although for some reason they didn’t bring that reaction here but chose to post elsewhere.

    I think for me it is a matter of context. Oxidation is certainly a major feature of some wines, and I touched on this in the previous post I made, “Oxidised or Oxidative?”. Quoting myself (cheesy I know, please forgive me):

    “Control the oxygen, so that it impacts on the style but without influencing it so much that the wine begins to take on the characteristic baked-earth-baked-orange flavour of every other oxidised wine in the world, and you have a wine you can describe as oxidative. Take your eye of the ball, and you have something that resembles Madeira. Delicious wines in their own right, but not necessarily a style or process that suits, for example, the beautifully floral and minerally Chenin Blancs that originate from the Loire Valley.”

    In that same post, in the very next paragraph, I also comment on how – for my palate – the line at which *oxidative* elements cease to become pleasant and become problematic might change according to style (referencing Juchepie) and that it might also differ for different people. I think it is the same for oxidation; it works within the context of sherry, vin jaune, etc. Not in a Loire Sauvignon Blanc (for my palate).

    So please don’t take the post as an anti-sherry, anti-vin jaune tirade. It wasn’t mean to be. If I were to try and crystallise what I was saying in a few bullet points it would be:

    - I don’t like oxidation, in particular in association with aromatic varieties such as Chenin and Sauvignon, and in fact many other scenarios.

    - I think those promulgating natural wines, be they merchants or other writers, should be more specific about what they see in the wine; stop dressing up wines that are oxidised as ‘oxidative’.

    - Those who enjoy oxidised wines (and that’s OK – everybody’s free to drink what they like) should stop trying to persuade me to enjoy them too. I don’t want to “look for the charm” past a layer of acetaldehyde. I wonder what sort of eye-rolling reaction I would get if I asked the anti-spoofulation crowd to “look for the charm” past the oak and extraction in a bottle of Canon-la-Gaffelière (trying to find a wine here that is modern and that I actually enjoyed, as opposed to wines like Cos, Troplong, Pavie, etc about which I have big doubts).

    I hope that answers your question.

  3. Have you ever tried a non-traditional (ie. non-oxidative) Savagnin from the Jura? They’re very much aromatic, definitely more than a Chenin. I really do think that “context” (tradition, expectation) most influences our tolerance for oxidation.

    Nothing wrong with that though, and I think it’s all about communication and managing our expectations so that one can avoid misunderstandings and frustration (like w/ the Pithon-Paillé).

    I’ve had bad oxidized reds and said “this reeks of port”… well, what if it actually was port? The line between a style and fault is not as clear as many believe (including rich overly oaked reds).

  4. Thanks Didier. I’m in total agreement that expectation, context and tradition all play some role in appreciating oxidation in wine, including my own enjoyment and understanding of it.