The wine in the glass on the left has a golden tinge and a scent of nuts and caramel that makes us think of Sherry. It's bad.
The wine in the glass on the right has a golden tinge and a scent of nuts and caramel that makes us think of Sherry. It's good.
We're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination: Our next stop, the Wine Twilight Zone!
Seriously now, don't let today's technical-sounding title put you off. The topic isn't as mysterious as it seems, and there's a simple explanation for the apparent contradiction that I've set up for discussion.
Generally speaking, oxygen isn't friendly to wine. Pull a cork, drink up part of a bottle and leave the rest on the kitchen counter, and within a day or two it will start to change. As we discussed in a recent article ("'Breathing' revisited," Nov. 3), this may actually be beneficial for a day or two, as immature wines soften and open up over a short time, roughly if imperfectly emulating the effects of longer aging in a sealed bottle in the wine cellar. But wait much longer and the wine will deteriorate; gradually at first but within a week or so taking on dank, nutty characteristics reminiscent of cheap Sherry.
The chemist's term for this effect is "oxidation." In winespeak, "maderization" is sometimes used as a synonym, although most experts make a fine distinction between oxidation (affected by oxygen alone) and maderization (affected by a combination of air and heat, as is done intentionally in producing Madeira wine, which lends its name to "maderization.")
Whether it occurs quickly in an open bottle or more gradually in a full, sealed bottle in the cellar, oxidation is usually considered a flaw in judging dry table wines. "Cheap Sherry" is rarely considered a complimentary descriptive term.
But there are exceptions, and that's where we enter the Twilight Zone. Certain grape varieties from specific wine regions - particularly some Mediterranean whites from Provence, Languedoc and Southern Italy, a few of their cousins made in the New World, and even the occasional Syrah - actually gain richness and complexity from controlled, limited oxidation occurring gradually in the bottle. In wine styles where these "oxidative" qualities don't overwhelm the fruit, they can add character to an older wine that's not present in its youth. (And all bets are off, of course, in wines like Madeira, Oloroso Sherry, tawny Port and some Australian dessert wines, where maderization is intentional and an integral part of the wine's character.)
I've run into three oxidative dry table wines recently, all of them recently purchased 2000 vintage French whites that to my fairly certain knowledge had been sitting on a local retailer's shelves at room temperature for about two years. Two of them - modest white Burgundies made from the Aligoté grape and not intended to be oxidative - can only be described as damaged goods. One was so infused with rancid-nut aromas that it was undrinkable; the other remained palatable, but oxidative qualities had overtaken the fruit in a wine that should show fresh, crisp and light citric character.
But the third wine, a three-year-old white Rhone blend of 30 percent Roussane, 30 percent Viognier, 30 percent Clairette and 10 percent Bouboulenc, tasted just as it should: Its oxidative character painted a complex, aromatic background of delicate nuts and caramel that added dimension to ripe, vibrant fruit, yielding a pleasant, complex richness that wasn't there when I tasted the same wine in 2001. My tasting report is below.
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Domaine la Réméjeanne 2000 Cotes du Rhone "Les Arbousiers" ($10.99)
Transparent straw color with a distinct golden hue that suggests oxygen at work. Interesting, complex aromas of citrus fruit, banana oil, hazelnuts and almonds invite a taste, and the flavors are consistent, full and rich: aromatic lemon-peel, subtle caramel and delicate nutlike qualities, more akin to hazelnuts than walnuts. Its oxidative character is appropriate to the style of this white Rhone and remains in proper, and tasty, balance with its fruit. U.S. importer: Vintner Select in Cincinnati, and other regional importers. (Nov. 13, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: An outstanding match with a simple dinner of chicken-breast scalloppine sauteed with lemon and butter, and a side dish of pasta with butter and sage.
VALUE: Excellent value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Oxidative whites are in a race with time. This one is beautiful now, but as time goes by, the oxidation will outrun the fruit. Drink soon.
WEB LINK: I have been unable to find a Website for Domaine la Réméjeanne.
Thanks, merci, grazie
Thanks to the many of you, including an impressive number of Francophones in both France and Quebec, who gently corrected my many French spelling and grammar errors in Wednesday's article "Can you parlez vino?" Thanks also to those who have helped with similar word lists of wine terms in Spanish, Portuguese, German and even Japanese. And to my buddy Murray who sent along an "Australian wine translator," what can I say but "bonzer, mate!"
I'll get all this together into a permanent reference card soon, and will let you know when it's online.
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Friday, Nov. 14, 2003