Our last context discussion was on sugar in wine, if you missed it you can find it here. This time around I wanted to discuss Sherry and clarify what type of wine this can be, as it's often misunderstood, and why it is actually that way from a process standpoint. There are two major camps of process that will dictate the finished style - biologically aged and oxidatively aged. Both of these approaches will include the fractional blending system of solera but they differ in the inclusion or exclusion of flor.
Let's start with the easy one, oxidative aging, which is fairly self explanatory in the title. The wine is introduced to barrels in the criadera of the solera and is aged there until the scales are run and it's fractionally been blended with another criadera and so on until it is bottled. This process usually takes years and during this time the wine is exposed to oxygen just like any other still wine is during barrel aging, but at a more subjected degree due to the extended time in barrel. So what you end up with are very oxidative characteristics in the wines - toffee, roasted nuts, dry caramel, dried/dessicated fruits, torrefaction etc. They are very aromatic and rich, which is where the name oloroso is derived from, meaning odorous in Spanish. These wines are defined as being chemically oxidized, meaning that the entire wine in all it's components have been exposed to oxygen and transformed due to that exposure. Phenols, anthocyanins, alcohol and other components in the wine are together altered to create what we perceive in the the glass and is the magic of the style.
Biologically aged wines on the other hand will be aged in criaderas with the inclusion of flor living in tandem with the wine. Flor is a type of yeast and is an amazing collection of little organisms that grow on top of the wine and feed off a number of things in the wine including alcohol (both ethanol and glycerol), sugars and most importantly for this initial discussion - oxygen. The film of flor on top of the wine will protect it from oxygen from above and will consume any oxygen dissolved in the wine from ingress through oak and or racking from below. This makes all biologically aged wines reductive wines. The definition of reductive is the absence of oxygen, but I often hear fino or manzanilla being described as oxidative which is not the case. Now, there are characteristics that invoke flavors reminiscent of oxidation like almonds, saline and such, therefore it is easily confused. These are a result of a process of flor that will biologically oxidize one particular component of the wine which we'll dive into on the next post. All the other components are not oxidized.
See you in the next post for the nerdy details!
What styles that have deliberate oxidation are you speaking to as faulty? All that I can think of are considered wines of merit and have a place in the market, even if they don't satisfy the tastes of everyone.
Hi Jeremy, my question is if deliberate oxidation is not a fault, why is oxidation considered a fault in general? Olorosso is the highest degree of oxidation, yet not a fault. Medeira is cooked, but not a fault. Why?
When you look at deliberate oxidation vs. oxidation as a fault, you begin to explore the category of "wines of process" (i.e. port, Madeira, sherry, Marsala, even Champagne) where wines are treated in such a way that the characteristics of said wine would be seen as faulty in 99% of dry, non-fortified wines.
Prior to the ability to harness secondary fermentation, bubbles in wine were a fault. And we see where that has led us...
Deliberate oxidation is not a fault because it is exactly that: deliberate. Oloroso is not celebrated because it's oxidized. It's celebrated because it's delicious and just also happens to be made in a deliberately oxidative style. If you open a bottle of 2005 Comtes Lafon Meursault with premox, you would, understandably, be upset. Because the oxidation is not intentional.
A parallel argument can be made for cheese. If you see mold on your parmesan, you're probably going to throw it out. But if you are chowing down on some Roquefort or Gorgonzola, mold is okay. Because it's intentional/deliberate.
I hope this helps clarify the oxidation situation!
Thank you Jordan. I do understand what you mean and appreciate the effort you took to explain. My question is if I happen to like the premox style Lafon, why should it has to be classified as a fault still? Until few years ago, Brett was terroir. Now we agree it’s a fault. Why should the same be not considered for Olorosso? Where do we draw the line? Moreover, olorosso would be on the other end irrespective of the line anyway.
Deliberate or not, taste is taste If premox gang turns up and says tomorrow that we wanted this to happen (like Savennieres) to get savoury characters, would that stop being a fault? Give it a thought
I am happy to toe the parallel argument for a better understanding. I love Olorosso Sherry and very tolerant of premox too, by the way.
I think when we discuss faults as professionals, it relates to intent of the winemaker. Do the fine folks at Lustau or Gonzalez Byass (or any other sherry producer) intend for their oloroso to be oxidized? Absolutely. Do the winemakers in Burgundy intend for their Chardonnay to exhibit those same qualities in the span of 7-10 years? I don't think you'll find one that is okay with that.
As you begin to explore "faults" in wine such as Brett, VA, oxidation, maderization, etc. it's important to understand the intent of the winemaker. When smelling an extended skin contact XYZ grape from a natural wine producer, is the intent to have VA in the wine or was it dirty winemaking? Who knows. Whereas in parts of Italy, a little VA is acceptable.
With the strides being made in winemaking over the past 25 years, the lines are being blurred between actual faults and intentional winemaking to add character and flavor. I think there is more of a gray area now than ever before that all relates back to what the intent of the winemaker.
Too much of anything will always be seen as a fault. The important thing for us as professionals is being able to identify it, and understand the thought process.
For me, it goes beyond intent and I am less concerned with the thought process than the result. Many times the way a wine ends up is not the result of intent and then the winemaker/winery has to figure out how to sell it. Most faulty wines were not intended to be that way, but if a winery can find a way to excuse that fault—or even an entire category to market it under—of course they will.
I think it is our job to point out these flaws and make personal subjective judgments as to the level wherein a feature becomes such. I’m not saying it’s objective; almost nothing in the universe actually is. But as a subjective sentient being, it is my right to put my foot down and declare that your oxidized and expensive wine actually sucks—no matter what you tell me you intended.
"The Premoxed Style of Lafon" isn't a thing. It's like saying "I like driving my car that gets 8 miles per gallon, even though I was promised a car that gets 45 miles per gallon". Yes, what's in the bottle its still expensive Chardonnay from Burgundy, but it doesn't do any of the things that you expected it would do.
Hence the word "premature" baked into it; it's not the way the winemaker intended the wine to show; you can eat scrambled eggs with a whole box of salt dumped on it and it'll still have nutritional value, but, wow, will it taste like shit.
Just don't drink brown table wines that were advertised to you as white wines. There's a difference between an oxidative influence and an oxidized wine. I feel like most people who are oxidized wine apologists are simply bad tasters excusing poor storage or faulty winemaking (or both), rather than people who truly understand what a pristine example should taste like at that age.
It's heartbreaking to crack a bottle of brown Leflaive from the early '00s, but when you have a good one, there's just no way you can say the brown one was "just oxidized, but good."
To some degree, I'll permit a variance. I cracked two bottles of PYCM '04 Corton the other day, and while I preferred one of them, the oxidative notes on the other one were not to a point outside of what I consider a fair variance. I certainly recommended that they be served in separate glasses to the table, but I was still happy to serve both of them and I of course had a preference to which one was better.
As Jordan, Geoff, and Chris speak to elsewhere in this thread, intent does become very important in this situation. Oloroso sherry's purposefully oxidized, and it tastes pretty good. Oxidatively-influenced Fino like Valdespino's Inocente Solera (which has pretty old base wines) or any of La Bota's old Fino Pasadas taste pretty good. Madiera which is purposefully cooked and oxidized tastes pretty good. But the oxidative character or oxidation in each of these wines is highly intentional and traditional.
Brown white burgundy and brown Savienneres do not taste good, and there's no tradition in those regions of making oxidized wine for a reason.
We also need to take into account what our guests want. It is a sommelier's responsibility to identify wines that are not as they should be (producer's intent, label advertising or otherwise) and to decide not to serve them. This has nothing to do with our preference. We each have our own threshold of acceptable oxidation that changes from wine to wine, but our personal preference threshold should be different from our professional threshold. We need to ascertain what will make our guests happy, and for this discussion the level of oxidation that a guest may find favorable.
I have made guests very happy with mature wines that were too far gone for me to enjoy, and I have had guests be disappointed with a wine that I would have loved to drink. I think this discussion can help us understand how to better serve our guests what they want, and is less about further defining our own preferences.
I think the comparison between brown Burgundy and Oloroso is more appropriate when looking at spoiled Oloroso that has been open for way too long and has oxidized further. In this case, both wines have degraded post bottling, and therefore ate unfit to serve. An Oloroso upon release that has yet to be opened, but displays its oxidative aging process should be deemed fit to serve because we understand what an Oloroso Sherry is. Just like when we open a bottle of white Burgundy young or old, we understand what the wine is and how it is made. Therefore we can decide whether or not it is fit to serve.
Either way, this is certainly a fun cam of worms to open every now and again!
I completely agree with the can of worms thing. That was the intent too. Just to know the views. Thank you all for contributing. Great to be a part of this forum
Ok gang, not on to the details of what flor is doing to that ethanol and how it becomes oxidized without being exposed to oxygen. Flor has a survival mechanism that is designed to provide a future food source for if/when all the goodies run out in its current environment. This delicious dish is called pyruvate, and it can be converted from an essential part of what we love about biologically aged styles : acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is naturally present in ripe fruit, bread and coffee among other things and has a sour green apple type of aroma and flavor. In Sherry, it is produced by flor producing an enzyme that will snip a hydrogen from the ethanol, oxidizing it and transforming it into acetaldehyde for future use for food. It doesn't have the chance to ever utilize it as the solera is refreshed with newer wine with plenty of food for the flor, and then the wine is separated and bottled without flor, but we benefit from that sour and tasty acetaldehyde in our sherry. Amusing enough, acetaldehyde is also primarily responsible for causing the feeling of a hangover as well, so be sure to drink plenty of water with your Sherry
We call this biological oxidation.
Another quick and interesting fact is that biological styles of Sherry are some of the most lees affected wines in the world. It has flor growing on top of the wine, strands of flor from recently deceased and/or dying flor cells hanging from the live raft down into the wine, and then dead flor cells on the bottom of the barrel. Photo courtesy of bitter booze.com
Thought this article might be of interest.
Acetaldehyde as Key Compound for the Authenticity of Sherry Wines: A Study Covering 5 Decades
Very cool article. Looking forward to combing through it. Thanks Mark!
Thanks Chris, It is pretty Technical. Read though it once, will need to read again as will be going to Jerez in a few months
Thank you Chris. Lovely reading about the bio oxidation. Tons of thanks for the information