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Ask a Somm: What Are Oxidative Wines?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

Shutterstock/Mariyana M

A tiny Spanish boîte in the East Village, Donostia offers Manhattan a taste of Basque cuisine in the form of the region’s famed pintxos, alongside a lengthy list of Spanish wines, inclusive of some oxidative styles, like certain sherries. Below, owners Marissa Miller and Jorge de Yarza explain this style of wine, which benefits from contact with air.

Q: What are oxidative wines?

Oxidative wines are wines that have been deliberately exposed to oxygen during the winemaking process. Oxygen has a big impact on wine as it ages—too much during the winemaking process, or after bottling, and the wine can become oxidized—a major flaw. But if the winemaker controls the amount of oxygen, it can be harnessed to impart a special character that wine drinkers throughout the ages have enjoyed. When intentional, the effect is often sublime. We sometimes compare wine oxidation to the process of dry-aging meats … where essentially you are sacrificing a portion of the original product to yield a more complex and fulfilling final product. This is done by stressing the original stock (via oxygen exposure) to provoke its best traits to come forward in its defense.

Oxidative wines are wines that have been deliberately exposed to oxygen during the winemaking process.

Many ancient winemaking processes were shaped around the impact of oxygen. Traditional methods left wine exposed to the slow impact of oxygen over time. In contrast to modern reductive winemaking—where winemakers take care to try and eliminate air contact with their wine, often via technology like stainless steel tanks, inert gases, etc., to preserve the fruity, fresh flavors—oxidative wines offer a different and distinct spectrum of aromas and flavors to enjoy. Oxidative winemaking shows off the skills of the winemaker, who is still representing the original fruit, but taking it to other places and heights, transforming it through play with oxygen. Whether imparted through oak barrel, cement tanks, open-top fermentation, anfora, or any other method of controlled oxygen exposure, these complex wines display flavors that lean more toward the cooked/dried fruit world, with notes of nuttiness, yeastiness, and even umami. Those flavors are the result of an increase in glutamate (the acid that’s responsible for umami flavors, and is also tied to MSG) when oxygen interacts with the wine.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of oxidative wines, perhaps in part due to a now global interest in all that is artisanal, and ancestral, perhaps thanks to a renewed fascination with sherry. At Donostia, we are always thrilled to introduce guests to the many varied and exciting styles of this classic, fortified Spanish wine. We’ve found that it often seems to serve as a gateway—people love the character found in sherries aged oxidatively and are suddenly looking for that complexity in everything—from still to sparkling wines. Some of our preferred gateway sherries to try are Gran Barquero Amontillado ($19) by Peréz Barquero, and Leonor Palo Cortado ($26) by González Byass.

Luckily, once you’ve made your way through a few classic sherries, there are a number of modern winemakers working with oxidative methods to try from other parts of the world. In the Jura region of France, many of the white wines are made in their traditional oxidative method of not topping off the barrels or fûts once evaporation creates a gap between the wine and the top of the vessel. Some barrels are not completely filled to begin with, resulting in wine that’s immediate exposed to oxygen. A veil of yeast then develops on top, which waxes and wanes over the course of however many years the wine ages, resulting in a natural play with oxygen. A vin jaune, like a favorite of ours L’Etoile ($75) from Domaine de Montbourgeau, ages with this method of exposure to oxygen for at least six years, resulting in a deep yellow wine of extraordinary complexity. A few great, and more affordable examples of oxidative Jura white wine are Domaine Rolet’s Tradition Arbois ($28) and Domaine de La Pinte’s Arbois Savagnin ($35). You do see this sous-voile (under-veil) style in France outside of Jura, though less frequently, a great example from the Southwest of France being Domaine Laguerre’s Oxy Rancio Sec ($30).

Because of their unique character, oxidative wines jive with foods commonly tough to pair.

In Spain’s Rioja region where white wines were traditionally frequently oxidative until the style fell out of favor in the 1970s, you still have wonderful examples of oxidative white wines aged in old, porous oak barrels like Lopéz de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia Reserva Blanco ($49), which shows incredible nuttiness, notes of dried fruits and flowers, making for a richly intense mouthful. Similar traditions fell out of vogue in Portugal, and paired with a difficult period for the Portuguese wine trade, resulted in large stockpiles of treasures such as that of Caves São João who, in their million bottle collection from 1959-2000, have some exceedingly fairly priced vintage, oxidative white wines on the market, like their 1995 Poço do Lobo ($30) and their 1974 Frei João Reserva Branco.

Oxidative wines are also of particular interest in the world of food and wine pairing. Because of their unique character, varied aromas and levels of complexity, they are incredibly versatile, jiving with foods traditionally tough to pair, like artichokes, raw fish, shellfish, and even cooked, richer items. One of the best pairings we’ve ever had was in Andalucía, at El Campero on the water in Barbate—the Spanish temple to bluefin tuna. The menu showed off each part of this prized fish, and when the bluefin tripe was served, we paired it as prescribed by the head winemaker of González Byass, with his Alfonso Oloroso Seco ($21). This sherry is exposed to oxygen from day one: it’s completely dry, a touch viscous, with lots of nutty raisin notes that’s able to both cut through the richness of the fatty-fish tripe and stand up to it with its own unctuousness. The pairing was absolutely incredible—one that we still think of to this day.

We’re thrilled to see the growing interest in these ancient and complex wines. But, the best way to learn about them is to taste them. Once you delve in perhaps you’ll find yourself constantly craving that addictive character, and extraordinary complexity just as we do.

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