I was sipping an exotic wine with my favorite Vietnamese takeout last night and was surprised by the smoky, salty, “volcanic” aromatics that underlay the delicate muscat-like lychee fruit notes. Majorca, where the wine’s from, must be a volcanic plug of an island, I explained to my partner. Only that could account for the savory base I was tasting.
I’m regularly wrong, so I was already doubting myself even before I read that the Balearic Islands, of which Majorca is the biggest, are not of volcanic origin. Being naturally flexible, I was able to quickly pivot to my next explanation: The wine was reductive.
“Reduction” is the rare wine-geek term that’s not (mostly) subjective. At its simplest, it’s the technique of strictly limiting oxygen during a stage of fermentation. Certain compounds given off by the yeast cells are prevented from binding with good-old reactive oxygen molecules, and they stay trapped in the soon-to-be wine. Wines that feature reduction, or are reduced, exhibit a range of savory, salty, smoky, gunflint, matchstick, or even full-on sulfurous aromas. This can be good or bad, a lot or a little. In my wine last night, I enjoyed the added complexity; the fruit shone through unscathed, but there was more than fruit to think about.
Preventing oxidation in wine seems like a good thing, and winemakers can tell themselves they’re not adding flavors through the technique–no, they’re just protecting the wine from premature aging. But, of course, they’re doing both. Some are very good at it (see Walter Scott’s lineup of Oregon chardonnay), and some push it pretty far (like Tissot in the Jura).
Many wine professionals are fans of reductive wines–Master Sommelier Rajat Parr, for one, praises Tissot highly for it in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. Fruity flavors are wine’s easiest achievement. Stony, more mineral flavors are much harder to capture. And while it would be unfair, too broad, perhaps even, gasp, reductive to say that too many wines present so much sweet fruit that they might benefit from the addition of a savory element, it might also be, occasionally, a little true.
So, if you find yourself wanting more than just fruit flavors in your wine, or want to keep abreast of trends, or simply want to know what Raj Parr is talking about, stop by the shop and ask us about reduction.