Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Micro Oxygenation

Anyone who has watched Jonathan Nossiter's polemic Mondovino is familiar with micro-oxygenation. Thanks to some clever editing, uber-consultant Michel Rolland seemed to recommend micro-ox to his clients in every 3rd sentence. I have little doubt this technique is abused, but I came across an interesting video entry on Bedrock Wine Co.'s blog recently where Michael Havens offers a candid interview on the technique:

There are several points that really stand out to me:
  1. Around 0:30 Havens begins to explain that modern winemaking tends to be chemically reductive in the sense that oxygen is excluded throughout fermentation and elevage due to tools such as stainless steel fermenters. Thus, micro-ox is a technology that perhaps mimics the effects of winemaking in a previous era by introducing oxygen to the wine early in the winemaking process where the wine can buffer against it.
  2. At 4:30 he discusses racking, a process of removing sediment and transfering wine from one barrel to another. This introduces oxygen to the wine, but is also physically demanding and often leads to losing some volume of wine. Micro-ox can introduce oxygen in a safer, more controlled fashion than racking.
  3. At 8:20 Havens discusses the different tannin structures that one may achieve. It's clear that micro-ox can be used to produce 'melted' tannins in a young wine where ordinarily this type of structure is only present in aged wines. However, it does give a winemaker a stylistic and developmental choice.
Certainly the last point gives me reason for concern about the use of this technique. It's not uncommon to encounter California wines that are highly extracted, but incredibly soft. They're essentially texture-driven wines, and I suspect micro-ox plays a role in many of these manipulated wines. Havens also mentions that micro-ox can be used to oxidize pyrazines, which produce herbaceous aromas and flavors in wines. I consider these part of the wine, and one can virtually eliminate vintage variation by managing both the pyrazine content and tannin structure. This is a tool that can be used to manipulate wines.

However, this interview provides some much needed balance to the discussion. Half a century ago, temperature control, stainless steel tanks and even knowledge of the various microbes involved in fermentation were essential unknown. As knowledge and technology develop, tools that provide precise control are needed. Micro-ox appears to be one such tool. In my mind, where bacterial spoilage was a likely failure mode in the past, now over-manipulation is the more likely culprit for a mediocre wine. But in this case the choice is conscious. As much as I like some herbaceous quality in wine, some wines can be overwhelming vegetal. If micro-ox can help to bring a wine into balance, then it's a tool worth considering.

Maybe most of all I appreciate the honesty of this video. Most vintners create a facade to hide behind. They build their PR around terroir and lifestyle, but ultimately manufacture a wine they think will please the widest audience. Havens strikes me as a vintner who has a house style, but isn't trying to be everything to everyone. He seems to know his tools, and uses them in an educated fashion. That's admirable.


Matt Mauldin said...

Good post, thanks for the info. I admire your interesting in delving deeper and getting information out objectively. Makes you one of the more interesting reads in the wine blogosphere.

Matt Mauldin said...

"interested" in first sentence. I'm the worst about typos in blog replies... I type them fast and never proofread...

Matt Mauldin said...

"interest" :)

CabFrancoPhile said...

Thanks for the compliment. Aside from the obvious intoxicating quality of wine, I think it's these sorts of technical and historical topics that make wine so interesting. There's also the status symbol route, but that's a direction that's less interesting to me.