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Premox: a consideration



Alan R. Balik has a good summary of premox in his column in the Napa Valley Register.

Premox, or premature oxidation, refers to a wine that should age well, but instead turns brown and “off” within just years of its release. The issue of premox has obsessed certain collectors, writers and winemakers for a decade or so, but is now gaining traction. At first thought to affect only white wines, like white Burgundy, it is now considered to impact red wines too, according to a Decanter article reporting on an oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine,” including from Barolo, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy.

Nobody seems to know if premox is something entirely new, and, if so, what causes it. As the articles linked to in this post point out, the cause/s could be anything: global warming, superripe grapes, poor corks and closures, high alcohol, low acidity, high pH, too much new oak, low levels of SO2, excessive exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, sur lie aging and battonage, botrytis or poor storage (Clive Coats suggested these latter two), and who knows what else. This article, from The Drinks Business, summarizes some of the technical complexities involved in understanding the problem.

It’s impossible to think about premox and not refer to one’s own experiences with older wines. As I (and many other critics) have written for years, I’ve been disappointed in older bottles more often than not. And by “old” I mean more than eight years in Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than four years in any white California wine. (Obviously there are always exceptions.) As Jane Anson describes it in the Decanter article, too many older red wines these days bear “Exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” These qualities are, of course, not what you want in a ten- or twelve-year old Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that may have cost well north of $100, but common sense tells me they may be qualities that have come about due to the higher brix that grapes have been picked at over the last twenty years or so. That results in higher alcohol levels; also lower acidity, and, given the weltanschauung these days, plenty of toasty new oak. Add “micro-oxygenation,” or mox, in red wines, which also is rather common in the so-called “cult” red wines around the world, and you may have a perfect storm, in which the inherent elements of the wine begin life initially unstable, i.e. prematurely oxidized. Instability that is built into a wine may not be readily detectible when the wine is young, but with each passing year, the instabilities mount up and perturb each other, until the wine is thrown into disorder.

This is not to argue in favor of the current ethos crying for low-alcohol wines. There is not yet evidence, at least in California, that such wines age any better than higher-alcohol wines. (And they may well be less satisfying in youth.) But we have got to bear in mind that the wine world has already gone through a paradigm shift, in which people no longer care about aging their wines. Whatever they buy is consumed rather rapidly. It was only natural for winemakers around the world to respond to this shift by making wines that are softer, rounder and more delicious in their youth. If ageability is the baby that is thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.

There is one more thing to consider, and that is the matter of personal taste. It may be objected to that the subjectivity of personal taste has no place in an objective appraisal of premox, which after all is a scientific question. But a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young. After all, any aged wine is already on the road to senescence. Whether an eight-year old Cabernet is experiencing “the first blush of death,” as the English put it, is a matter of determining how much “death” you want in your wine. It may be because I am, at heart, a Californian, but I have never cottoned to that blush of death thing in wine. It can be “un peu beaucoup,” a bit too much. And, as Clive Coats notes, the notion of early deliciousness coupled with ageability is a bit of a stretch. “It would be idiotic,” he writes, “to expect today’s wine to be both delicious at a year and a half and to hold up for 15 years thereafter. Something has to give. I regret that it seems to be the ageing potential of the wine.”

We tend to forget, too, that we make excuses for wines that don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We say the wine is in an awkward phase, which is really an unprovable assertion, but does have the advantage of letting the wine off easy, if it isn’t showing as well as we would like. If one bottle shows wonderfully (by common consensus) while a second bottle of the same wine is a disappointment, we chalk it off to “bottle variation.” I have even heard collectors say that a power outage of an hour or so, which results in the temperature of a wine cellar rising by a degree or two, can perturb great wine so that it is no longer drinkable! This is what I mean by “making excuses.” We want our expensive wines to age well; when they do not, we offer up every reason imaginable for the failure. But Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest reason is usually the correct one: The wine wasn’t ageable in the first place.

Here in California, research into oxidation is somewhat recent but picking up intensity. This video, of Professor Andrew Waterhouse on “The Oxygen Cascade in Wine,” suggests some of the difficulties, although it is straightforward enough for the non-scientist to follow. Waterhouse’s bottom line is that lots more study is required to determine the relationship of free SO2 in wine and the effects of oxidation, including premature oxidation. Right now, he says, most of what we think we know is “speculative,” which means we’re likely to continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of wines that we think should age, but don’t.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “. . . a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young.”

    It shouldn’t surprise a wine industry professional that the “general public” prefers their wines younger versus older.

    A longstanding wine industry “factoid” (quoted by Dan Berger in a 2006 Napa Valley Register wine column) holds that “94 percent of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of its purchase.”

    The “general public” has never tasted a well-stored older bottle of wine, from which to form a personal stylistic preference of young versus older.

    The “general public” buys from grocery stores and independent wine stores and off restaurant wine lists that stock the latest vintage in the distributors’ portfolios. Few retailers and restaurateurs have older wines on the shelf or in the back room. (An accountant would characterize this as “First In, First Out” inventory management.)

    And a second reason why the “general public” has never tasted a well-stored older bottle of wine is that they aren’t (in the argot of marketing demographics) “heavy users.”

    Excerpts from
    (May 12, 2010, 2012):

    “The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”
    [Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Ribera del Duero (Spain)]


    By Graham Holter
    Associate Director – Publishing
    Wine Intelligence market research firm (United Kingdom)

    . . .

    “According to the data presented by [David] Francke [managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.”

    The “general public” comprises the remaining 84% of weekly (non-core) wine drinkers who account for the remaining 4% of the consumption.

    And only a small subset of those 16% of core wine drinkers — namely, the serious wine collectors who own wine lockers or wine cellars for the expressed purpose of bottle aging wine — need to be concerned about premox. The other core wine drinkers will have drunk up their wines before experiencing premox.

    For everyone else, premox is a moot point.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    A Posting from Andrea Immer, Master Sommelier’s Website

    QUESTION: How long should you age a wine?

    ANDREA ANSWERS: Maybe you remember the Paul Masson ads that proudly proclaimed, “We will sell no wine before its time.” But how long should you age a wine?

    A commonly-quoted trade statistic states that the average American consumer ages their wine 17 minutes — the amount of time it takes to get the bottle home and the cork pulled! I don’t have proof, but I wouldn’t doubt it. And for most wines, that’s perfectly appropriate. Ninety-five percent of wines on the market are meant to be enjoyed within one two three years of bottling, while they are young and fresh.

    The other five percent or so are wines that can actually improve with aging (otherwise, what’s the point?). These major categories are the best aging candidates:

    • Red Burgundy (top estates)
    • Sauternes & Other Dessert Wines
    • California Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Red Bordeaux Chateaux
    • Vintage Port

    In excellent vintages, red Burgundy hits its stride at 5-7 years’ age. The best Sauternes peak at around 7 to 10 years, as do great California Cabernets. Top red Bordeaux just begin to show their greatness at 10 years (and in some cases 20!), and vintage Port is believed to be “ready” finally at 20 years and older. Alcohol, acidity, tannin and sugar are wine’s natural preservatives. The best agers typically have a high proportion of at least some of these components — the more the better for a long aging period.

    Of course, the Golden Rule is: drink the wine whenever you’d like to. It’s your personal taste that counts. And no one wants to pass up the opportunity to taste a great wine — even if it’s technically “too young”!

    Here’s a great saying about wine aging that my mentor Kevin Zraly loves to quote:

    “The English drink their wines too old, because they like to impress people by showing them all the dusty old bottles in their cellars. The French drink their wines too young because they’re afraid the Socialist government will take them away. And Americans drink their wine at just the right time — because they don’t know any better!”

    Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Quotes from Robert Parker’s 1989 interview with Wine Times (later rebranded Wine Enthusiast magazine) on how long wines can bottle age and continue to provide pleasure.

    WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    PARKER: Because of that 10-point cushion [for improving with bottle age]. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the POTENTIAL PERIOD OF TIME THAT WINE CAN PROVIDE PLEASURE. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the TIME PERIOD OVER WHICH IT CAN PROVIDE THAT PLEASURE.

    If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] “dry out,” it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.

    . . .

  4. Bob Henry says:

    The late Len Evans exhorted collectors through his “Theory of Capacity” to “drink ’em up!”

    If you have a large wine collection of contemporary vintage “New World” red wines, and fear incipient premox, then either accelerate your rate of pulling corks . . . or start selling off your “excess” wines.

  5. “Back of the envelope math” . . .

    “SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.”

    16% [the “heavy users”] of the 35 million adult wine drinkers equals 5.6 million wine drinkers.

    That’s who consumes 96% of all the wine in the United States.

    (Less than twice Wine Spectator’s claimed readership of around 3 million.
    Sixteen times Wine Spectator’s claimed 350,000 paid subscribers.)

    Underscores “why” the wine trade doesn’t engage in general market paid media advertising campaigns.

    Too small a target audience to advertise to on national broadcast television.

    Too small a target audience to advertise to on national cable television.

    Too small a target audience to advertise to on national radio.

    (5.6 million is a “good enough” Nielsen adult demographic rating for a popular primetime TV show.)

    Wineries engage their distributors to sign up the big box retailers (Target, Walmart), smaller box retailers (Cost Plus World Market), grocery store chains (Krogers, Vons, Safeway, Albertsons, Fresh & Easy), pharmacy chains (Rite-Aid, Walgreens, CVS), and convenience store chains (7-Eleven, Circle K) to carry the lion’s share of the wine merchandised and sold in the United States.

    And through their distributors induce the above retailers to draft planograms that favor their brands. Construct eye-catching end-aisle displays and hang in-store signage. And offer temporary markdown sales (“buy six bottles and save 30%”).

    If you read this wine blog, congratulations: you are a “One Percenter.”

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