Nothing Micro About It

(Originally published April 2007)

Hanging with the wine geek crowd can be fun but at the same time it can be frustrating. Innocent conversations about wine devolve into ontological crises about all things vinous when the overriding goal is just to catch a good buzz. The last couple of years have seen one topic hashed, rehashed, flipped over and hashed again. Namely, the utilization of the winemaking process called micro-oxygenation, affectionately called “micro-ox.”

This process has found its greatest public expression in the movie Mondovino. Hanes cannot comment on this as he’s seen maybe ten total minutes of the movie. One day he’ll see it. Promise. In the movie it appears the process is depicted as an evil technique, employed those bent on obliterating the concept of “terroir,” that is, of a wine representing its place of origin, vintage conditions, grape suitability to said place of origin, all that stuff. Hey, if “terroir” is so important then how come the word isn’t automatically included in Microsoft Word’s dictionary? Answer that, tough guy. Hanes likes the wines he likes, duh, and he dislikes the ones he dislikes. There may be a reason for reaching either assessment but let’s hope it isn’t out of any tedious desire to defend the virginity of the earth. This is best left to people much more earnest and high-minded than Hanes. He just wants to get drunk, hopefully in the process scribble a tasting note and share the bottle with a winsome lass who can handle her booze, has good listening skills and an aversion to talking on the telephone for more than two minutes.

Before delving into the tempest in the teapot called the discussion of micro-oxygenation it seems commonsensical to explain what it is. Hanes is no scientist nor winemaker and holds no aspirations to either. As a result, some “facts” of the matter may be occluded, presented haphazardly or condensed because he already writes in a long-winded fashion. After ‘splaining the basics, it’s back to why micro-oxygenation should or should not be important to YOU, dear reader.

The exposure of grape juice, both as it ferments into wine and as wine proper, to oxygen is of extreme importance and plays a deciding factor in the flavor, texture, color of the wine as well as on its aromas. Ditto for freshness, timeline until drinkability and aging potential. Oxygen, it’s not just for breathing anymore. The manner in which the grape juice gets exposure to oxygen and the extent to which this can be controlled by human intent is the heart of the matter. Traditionally since the Iron Age, oak barrels have been used to hold and/or age wine. Oak is preferred because it’s strong, less porous then most competitor woods and has been shown to add flavors to the liquid being held, flavors which people kinda like. But the seal between the oak staves of a barrel are not perfect, oxygen does get in and come into contact with the wine. Over time people found this contact to be beneficial and alter the aforementioned flavor, texture, color of the wine in a good way. In fact, winemakers decided that in some cases, especially with sturdier red juice, even more oxygen contact was needed. Hence, the advent of winemaking procedures such as punching down the cap of fermenting grape juice, pumping juice from the bottom of the fermentation tank to the top, racking wine from one barrel to another, yadda, yadda. Among satisfying other winemaking goals, these activities were employed to get the correct amount of oxygen contact with the grape juice cum wine and make all as it should be.

Of course, historically, winemakers used the tools at their disposal. Over time, science and general advances in vinification techniques have broadened the tools at these winemakers’ disposal. This particularly so in the past few decades. Ecce micro-oxygenation. As one famous dude put it well, why take the wine to the oxygen when you can take the oxygen to the wine, in the process gaining even finer control over the interactions thereof? No brainer, right? Unless you think like a wine geek. Micro-oxygenation basically bubbles oxygen through grape juice/wine in a controlled fashion, this done in a stainless steel container with very precise control over the rate of oxygen released.

An interesting component of micro-oxygenation is the addition of oak chips, oak beans, commemorative oak statuettes of Liberty into the wine as it undergoes the treatment. Because (a) the wine may spend less time in oak during fermentation and aging and (b) consumers wants them some oak flavors, the oak has to be added to make sure the oxygen gets their flavors into the mix. Oh yeah, and there’s important chemical properties the oak wood adds to the liquid too. Wouldn’t want to forget that. Science!

As the oxygen bubbles through the wine, measurements are constantly taken. Thus, a more consistent, homogenous product (wine, lest that seem pejorative) may be achieved, minimizing things like volatility, lot and/or bottle variation, reductive flavors or aromas. The winemaker gains immeasurable control via, err, measurements. If the winemaker and the rest of the winery team knows what will please the end consumer the most and sell the fastest, you just design the wine to meet that end. It’s not such an abhorrent thing if paying your mortgage or your children’s college education depends on sales figures and staying cash flow positive. And there’s still lots and lots of work to do in managing micro-oxygenation (controlling rate of oxygen, temperature, length of time of oxygenation, procedures post-oxygenation, etc.). Here’s most of what those little (or bigger depending on need) air bubbles do to the wine.

1. Protection of, if not deepening of, the stabilization of anthocyanins, the chemicals which impart color to wine. Ever notice how wine these days sure looks a lot darker and more luminous than ever before? Regardless of grape type or place of origin? Some dastardly sorts use coloring agents but micro-oxygenation plays a big role here too. That’s why Hanes uses at least 300 words to describe a wine’s color in every tasting note. Could be a sign of micro-oxygenation!

2. Elimination of many vegetal flavors or aromas which people don’t like. Oxygen reacts with certain compounds to lessen vegetal or grassy elements. Also, the addition of oak parts to the wine gets the oaky flavors in there faster, all the better to mask any of these herbaceous flaws. Other chemical aspects of oak being present help in the stabilization of color as above and both firming up and smoothing out texture as below.

3. Smoothening of the wine’s texture, altering the presence of tannins and how their chemical bonds are formed and thus creating a more uniform texture from start to finish, both of each sip and of the bottle as a whole. By structuring the wine better in the winery via micro-oxygenation there’s less chance of the wine doing its own thing in the bottle later. Most of the pertinent chemical reactions oxygen could induce have already happened in a controlled manner via micro-oxygenation. Because the texture is so consistent throughout, the possibility for a “hollow middle” is minimized and general roundness emphasized. At times the “sense of progression” from attack through to the finish gets wiped out but, if it tasted good during the attack, why quibble?

4. Reduction of sulfide production and other chemicals which create smells most people think are nasty. You know, like “merde.” This is kind of what people mean when they call a wine “reduced,” the wine needs oxygen to create other compounds to then “blow off” the funkiness via further chemical interactions. Why wait until the bottle is finally opened when you can reduce the reduction in the winery? Sweet.

Beyond these effects on the wine itself there are a whole host of practical benefits to the winery (and perhaps its corporate parent and their shareholders). Because the tannins are better managed from the get-go the wine can be “tamed” and made drinkable earlier than it would be if left to its own devices. Hence, quicker release time, less money spent on warehousing and better cash flow. More importantly, there are serious cost savings realized through not having to buy oak barrels (instead just the oak parts dropped into the wine) which are crazy expensive as well as on labor costs for workers who would have had to rack the wines and expend more energy managing the wine as it aged into a commercially releasable state over time. Just need that one winemaker watching and pushing the buttons.

These practical facts become even more important when factoring the scale of production. If one is making a 300 case cult Cabernet you can deal with added cost as it will simply be passed along to the end consumer (and then some!). But if you’re playing in the value or even sub-$20 segments of the market, any cost savings may be able to help you price better to achieve wider market share. If you owned stock in any company in any other industry you’d be happy about cost savings boosting your yearly dividends, huh? Why not so with wine?

In summary, there are arguably good reasons for a winery to employ micro-oxygenation to achieve consistency of product at a higher quality level (quality as measured by the broadest customer satisfaction which, duh, is sales) as well as to realize significant cost reductions and bolster the bottom line. There is the possibility to use it selectively to address isolated, specific problems (either during and/or after fermentation) or as a general methodology. Given these “facts,” the utilization of micro-oxygenation is going to rise over the years to come, whether this is publicly owned up to or not.

So, now we basically know what micro-oxygenation is and why winemakers employ it. But why should we care? For many participants in the debate it’s because it’s a battle over the “very soul of wine.” Lame. The term “wine” no longer has a center that holds unless one wants to stick to the dry textbook sense of fermented grape juice. From a practical, real world perspective what we need is to find a new term to accompany “wine” without being confused with it. Naturally, capitalistic market forces being what they are, “wine” will remain the descriptor for the industry which depends on name and brand recognition. An organic farmer in Chablis is not going to beat out a multi-billion dollar industry for the rights to “wine.” But we need to stop making the “category mistake” of comparing mass market beverages and/or beverages which aim at a predictable consistency with other beverages which have as their goal expressing the vagaries of place, grape type and whatever the calendar throws at us this year, warts and all. Yeah, if this happened it would make the wine chat boards and blogs boring places to visit but maybe this is for the better (the bastards). Most of the righteous defenders of terroir here in the U.S. are coastal urban types. You don’t see people in Wichita or Scottsdale getting all lathered up about whether their Riesling has been acidified or their Cabernet Sauvignon micro-oxygenated. Geez, enough with the paternalism already. You buy into being a member of capitalist society when it favors you, your job and your wallet, come to grips with the fact that if there’s a market for “non-interventionist” winemaking, non-interventionists will make wine for it. It may not uplift and edify the masses but, you know, we’ll all manage to live anyway. People like micro-oxygenated wine, who cares if they could like natural wine better? Let ‘em stew in their own juices, Hanes says.

Seriously, we need to stop talking about “wine” across the board as if we’re discussing the same substance. If we’re talking about books or cinema we all know what we mean when we say “literature” versus a “beach book.” It’s not a slam against the latter to say that’s what it is. What is gained by discussing the relative merits of James Joyce and John Grisham? To Hanes, not a lot. He’d pass on that conversation just as he’d pass on discussing why Kendall-Jackson’s Pinot Noir differs from that of Chevillon. Freaking boring, that’s why and a prime example of a category confusion. The gray area between high and low will always be the gray area, just as in literature, cinema, painting, and so on. How many angels do dance on the head of a pin? Defenders of Vinous Virginity need to grow up and not feel their passions or preferences are tainted by association to other fermented grape juice and thus try to “educate” those who like mass market wines. Taken from the view of humanity as a whole, nobody gives a shit.

In passing Hanes would like to point out that he likes natural wines better on the whole. But why should humanity give a flying frak (cf. Battlestar Galactica)? In reading up on what people had to say on the topic, one quote stood out for Hanes and he wants to share it with you: “They call it MOX, inside-wine speak for micro-oxygenation, and those in the know don’t want you to know too much about it because they’re afraid that you won’t understand it. Worse yet, they’re concerned that you’ll think they’re making Franken-wine.” Dude, Franken wine ROCKS! Long live the Bocksbeutel!