A p.ox upon us all…

Published; Januray 10, 2010.
Last updated; May 28 2019

If you prefer a simple summary of the text that follows, then so be it:
Given that, since the mid-1990s, white burgundy has been produced with a propensity to self-destruct anywhere between 4 and 10 years from vintage – whilst in their bottles, whilst in their cases, whilst in the best of cellars – I have to regard all white burgundy from all producers as potentially unable to reach maturity. Therefore I do not recommend that anybody buys white burgundy with the intention of storing it to drink in 15-30 years time, not unless they are fully aware that much of their wine will not complete the journey and they are prepared to accept the associated cost of such a diminished ‘return.’ But if you must buy for your cellar, then buy bottles sealed with DIAM or screw-cap – they are stable for 15 years, and counting…

Further Reading in these pages:
10 vintages of screw-caps – with Clotilde Davenne (03-2019)
DIAM and the eventual triumph of empiricism… (04-2018)
Random ruminations – DIAM (03-2016)
Decanter and ‘early onset oxidation’… (07-2011)
Premature oxidation research – an update (10-2010)
Premature oxidation research (01-2007)

Maybe 30% oxidised at 25 years old is acceptable(?) but at 5 years old???
Maybe 30% oxidised at 25 years old is acceptable(?) but at 5 years old???
As welcoming, interesting and satisfying as burgundy can be, we are also aware of how fickle it can be. It is one thing to have an occasional bottle from a case that just doesn’t meet your expectations – this has long been the ‘reality’ for red burgundy, though that can be minimised by correctly timing your attack with the corkscrew – but what if half of the bottles in your case are compromised, or more? This is the cancer at the heart of white burgundy production today.

There are supposed to be two distinct styles of white burgundy; young and mature. Great young wines ripple with acidity and crackle with an energy so intense that they are hard to keep in your mouth, they blend fruit and creamy oak flavours that wash over you in waves – frankly thrilling. The mature wines are about richness of texture and a completely different range of white chocolate, truffle, lanolin, floral and more savoury aromas and flavours that may, or may not exhibit a hint of oxidative character, a character that, for instance, might give an impression of hazelnuts. They are often hauntingly long – and don’t be put off straight away by the orange colour of a 30+ year-old wine, it is no indicator of overt flavours or aromas of oxidation.

For years we were told that white burgundy needed to be aged to be enjoyed – depending on the label, say 5-20 years – but it seems that the market must now evolve to survive – why? Well unfortunately today there is a third style, and it is rapidly relegating the concept of mature bottles to history. That third style is brought about by the oxidation potential of today’s wines, many of which are destined to be poured away.

Random, premature – or both?

Is that the right colour?
It started with cases of wine where random bottles were completely oxidised, though the bottles all around it were sound. But the longer you waited, the higher the number of bottles that were affected. Many producers were blind to the problem, still failing to link the unsound bottles pulled from their own cellar with market ‘hearsay’. The market’s whisper grew louder, eventually all the producers would know of the problem, though plenty still opined that ‘it wasn’t ‘their’ problem’.

That the early incidence seemed random, ensured that the corks quickly came to be labeled as ‘the problem’; waxed or paraffin treated? perhaps peroxide washed? Clearly there was no escaping the fact that ‘random’ required something ‘variable’ and that the corks were the only ‘variable’ in a neat wine-production process. The producers, for a couple more vintages, were able to wash their hands of the problem – a couple more vintages where people didn’t start the search for a solution. That everyone still wanted to buy their wine indicated that there was nothing to worry about – but clearly the problem was more fundamental. Move forward to 2010 and even good wines are hard to sell!

False Positive?

That’s positive in a negative sense! There is also the problem of false attribution / diagnosis. The fact that wines in their youth are about energy and mature wines are not, clearly indicates some continuum between the two as the wines age. I’m absolutely convinced that many wines described as being on the road to being prematurely oxidised (p.ox), due to a lack of energy, with more honeyed than citrus aromas, are in fact nothing more than wines displaying a ‘traditional’ ageing curve. For me, unless there is some clear oxidative character, a wine has simply been opened at the wrong time – neither young nor mature.

Looking for faults or always expecting the worst has taken much joy out of drinking white burgundy, yet the joy of a perfect bottle is now ‘in excelsis’ when achieved!

The chance of a solution?

Currently quite low.

Of course the problem can be mitigated by a better (more consistent) seal than standard cork, but a majority of producers now accept that the problem is fundamental to the base wine – it is more sensitive to oxidation than it was before – and that the variability of corks was nothing more than some bottles decaying at 4 years of age, others at 10 years depending on how much better was the cork, but most would be ‘dead’ by 15 years of age.

Many producers have almost as many beliefs (suggestions would be closer to the mark) as to the base issue, and here is the crux – despite the individual efforts of many (for example) there is no concerted, (joined-up) search for a cause, or causes. One producer just adds more sulfur, another presses the grapes harder and third does both – in the end, it is nothing more than tinkering!

Clearly, some producers are more affected than others, but given that XXXX-Montrachet from many producers will oxidise, will you still, without thought, pay €2,000 for a case from someone with a ‘better’ record? Like me, you are more likely to buy 2 or 3 bottles instead, drinking one young and praying for the others – it’s not a great choice is it?

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