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Dan Berger, On Wine: Oxygen -- friend and foe
On Wine

Dan Berger, On Wine: Oxygen -- friend and foe

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Dec. 13, 2019 series
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At a large walk-around trade wine tasting decades ago in Los Angeles, the first table I stopped at to sample a white wine provided a rude shock.

It was oxidized. I suspected a bad cork was the culprit and mentioned this to the fellow laconically pouring the wines. He shrugged as if to say, “That’s life.” Obviously, he hadn’t tasted that bottle and clearly wasn’t interested in my remark.

So I asked him to open another bottle. He reluctantly complied. The second pour was no better the first. I told him the wine was flawed.

“Look, I still got a sell it,” he said, and left both bottles on his pouring table for the next retailer/wine buyer to amble by.

Over the decades, I’ve noticed a lot of wine with common flaws, such as oxidation. And I’ve also noticed that most people do not see the flaw — or even know it is one.

But since that episode decades ago, oxidation is less and less of a problem. Part of this is due to greater use of screwcaps, which have replaced inexpensive and potentially faulty corks.

Cheap corks can pose problems that caps can avoid. Also, winemaking is far better than ever, so freshness is more likely than long ago. Wineries almost all have more modern equipment to protect wine from oxidation and other forms of spoilage. So the result is cleaner, fresher, livelier white wines, which allows for more bargains than ever.

Fifty years ago, dozens, if not hundreds, of imported wines from under-funded producers would arrive here to sell at bargain prices. Some may have been fine when sampled out of the fermentation tank in Europe, but by the time these same wines got to a U.S. consumer, they had been subjected to all manner of evil deeds.

This is one reason for the success of longtime French wine importer Kermit Lynch. He travels to some of the more remote properties in France, sampling and getting to know the producers and their wines very well.

If he has a wine shipped to his East Bay headquarters, he knows what it is supposed to be like. And if any wine deviates from what it was like in the producer’s cellar, he has recourse.

Today, everything we see on store shelves has no oxidation. Even modest wines now deliver interesting characteristics. Some of these wines may not be particularly distinctive or very classic in nature, but over the last decade I’ve seen far more reliability, and a lot less oxidation, than in the inconsistent past.

In fact, wineries today are more proactive than ever in protecting wines from poor storage and handling after the wines leave the cellar.

In a few cases, the addition of slightly more sulfur dioxide than necessary, to protect the wine, actually causes a problem. If you get a slight whiff of sulfure dioxide, the best thing to do is to decant the wine. The offending element likely will “blow off,” as winemakers say.

A trace of oxygen at this stage actually helps to make the wine more enjoyable.

In fact, if the use of screwcaps causes winemakers to worry that their white wines might be slightly “reduced” when they reach store shelves a bit earlier than they’d like. Air then can help.

So which is it? Is oxygen a good thing or a bad thing? It all depends on the wine.

Occasionally a backward wine needs hours of air to develop some of the subtle characteristics that could not be seen immediately after the cork is pulled.

Better Cabernet Sauvignons usually are more responsive to decanting/aeration than are most other red wines. Really young Cabs hardly taste like the grape soon after the cork is pulled, and two to three hours in a decanter can be beneficial.

Although very young Pinot Noirs also benefit from some air, it’s best to be ultra-careful. One of this wine’s greatest attributes is upfront fruit, and if decanted too long, the Pinot aroma could suffer. And it won’t come back!

This is one of the factors in why high-end Cabernet can withstand the rigors of decades in the cellar, and why Pinot Noir is probably best after no longer than a decade. Too much time in the bottle can ravage the subtle aromas that make youthful Pinot Noir so overwhelmingly appealing.

This isn’t necessarily true of red Burgundy, some of the best of which can age 30 or more years. But the percentage of such wines for which this is true is low.

And though many whites benefit from aeration, too much air can harm delicate nuances.

There’s no real way for a consumer to know how much time in a decanter a wine needs. I once opened a young Italian red from Piedmont that was so astringent that I put the cork back in the bottle and waited seven more weeks before trying it again.

It was slightly more drinkable!

Wine of the Week: 2017 Domaine Bousquet Cabernet Sauvignon, Tupungato/Uco Valley ($10): Many Argentine red wines come from grapes grown in the warm Mendoza region, and the most popular variety by far is Malbec. This relatively new property is located in the cooler Tupungato, which allows Cabernet to ripen with some cool-ish influences of high-altitude. This wine has only 13.5% alcohol. Its aroma is slightly reminiscent of dried herbs and black cherries. Its price indicates that it is a midweek quaffing wine. But what was fascinating was how it opens up with aeration. An hour in a decanter was all this wine needed to become a good bargain.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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