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A New Era for White Wine

A sea change seizing the world of white wine making dashes long-held notions of how it should be made—and how the resulting wines should taste. Jon Bonné on what defines this new era, and the new white wines coming out of Burgundy and beyond.

“God is in the details.”

This famous Mies van der Rohe saying has been applied to a great many things. But on a cold winter night in Burgundy, Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière is talking about white wine—specifically the Corton-Charlemagne de la Morinière he makes for his family’s estate, Bonneau du Martray.

Of course, wine is always about details; one little thing makes a big difference, as de la Morinière well knows. As the proprietor of the only Burgundian domaine that makes solely grand cru wines, he has a big responsibility: Make just one white wine, and make it great.

For most of the last century, that has been a largely thankless task, as white wines remained stuck in the shadow of more acclaimed reds. With the exception of the occasional visionary, like Didier Dagueneau, white-wine specialists were viewed as having a simpler job: Press it, ferment it, age it quickly. Move on. Even Burgundy didn’t historically sweat the details.

Until a little over a decade ago, that is, when de la Morinière and dozens of his fellow vintners were confronted with a growing crisis over “premox,” or premature oxidation. Those who drank many of the world’s greatest white Burgundies began to notice that they were dying young—oxidized after just a few years in the bottle, turning yellow and tired. This was as close to tragedy as you might get in the cosseted and exacting world of Burgundy lovers: Wines supposed to last decades were gone in a matter of years.

There was endless spectulation about what went wrong: Alleged culprits included subpar corks and both a rapid drop in the use of sulfur dioxide and aggressive stirring of the lees in barrels—two techniques meant to make the wines more drinkable young. De la Morinière, whose wines faced their share of backlash, considered those things, but he, like a growing number of his fellow winemakers in Burgundy and elsewhere, asked another crucial question: What about the grape juice before it began fermenting? Was there a problem earlier in the process?

Many gravitated toward what might seem like a small and esoteric tweak—one that has ultimately redefined the way many of the world’s greatest whites are made today. More than that, it has redefined the very standards by which we judge great white wine. And yet, compared to other much-scrutinized technical choices, like the use of whole grape clusters in pinot noir, this has been a quiet revolution.

The technique is called “pre-oxidation,” which might be confused with premature oxidation, but is actually just the opposite. Casually, it’s known as “juice browning,” which sounds mildly unsavory but is exactingly descriptive: After coming from the press, the new must, or juice, is exposed to oxygen, sometimes for a day or more, before fermentation begins. Often the pressing itself incorporates oxygen, too—a direct reversal of what was, until recently, considered good practice. The young juice grows murky, sometimes resembling apple juice or Coca-Cola.

If this process sounds risky, consider what happens next. As fermentation takes place, that brown juice turns into bright, clear young wine. It is “a cleaning process,” in the words of Cornelius Dönnhoff, who makes some of Germany’s most desired rieslings. What he means is that browning can precipitate out volatile compounds, like polyphenol oxidase, that make wine age quickly. The theory is that the remaining wine will become somewhat bulletproofed, not all that different from exposing kids to playground scrapes or ambient microbes to toughen them up, rather than the avoid-all-harm method of helicopter parenting. Score one for Mies van der Rohe.

I became preoccupied with the concept of browning a few years ago. When I talked to people who made chardonnay, mostly in California, they would refer to it in an offhand way, a technical detail amid a flurry of them—usually referencing something they’d seen in Burgundy. And when I visited Austria, one of the current strongholds of great white winemaking, I found that it had become a common practice. Each time I would ask a winemaker about it, their face would brighten, as though I’d touched on an open secret.

They’ve all come to essentially the same conclusion: The fixation on modernity—on making a wine more charming than durable—had led many winemakers astray.

Incidentally, the technique isn’t exactly groundbreaking science. Dönnhoff, for instance, took inspiration from his grandfather, Hermann Jr., who until his retirement in 1966 largely treated his rieslings this way, applying an infallibly simple bit of logic: “My grandfather always told me, ‘What oxidizes in the juice can’t oxidize in the bottle.’”

And yet, until recently, most winemaking schools have taught white winemaking completely the opposite way: Press your grapes quickly after a couple hours, treat the juice gently and keep it away from oxygen—in general, a winemaker’s enemy—then bring on as cold a fermentation as possible. The resulting wine, hopefully, will be fresh, fruity and aromatic—all essential things, if you believe white wine should be drunk young, and quick.

Increasingly, the makers of the world’s most important white wines are spurning that advice. That includes some of Burgundy’s brightest emerging talents, like Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey and Marc and Alexandre Bachelet of Bachelet-Monnot, who seek “fully brown” juice, in part because they realized that there was a rough correlation between premox’s better survivors—the legendary Domaine Coche-Dury, to name one—and those domaines who followed the practice.

Winemakers in Germany, Austria, California and elsewhere, as well as France’s other classic regions, have reached the same conclusion: Not only did the old, protective way of making white wine make them more brittle, it also made them boring. “I think it’s why all white wine today tastes the same,” Jean-Louis Chave, who browns the juice of his legendary white Hermitage, told me.

And that, actually, is why the technique matters. While it might make for wines that are less fruity and aromatic when young, as they age, they are often more vibrant, long-lived and intensely flavored. More than that, this shift prompts one of the essential philosophical questions in white wine making today: What if we’ve been wrong about it? What if we’ve misunderstood its very identity by trying to make it gorgeous when young, rather than giving it a long, healthy life?

Lots of winemakers have begun to ask those very questions—in part because, like the Burgundians, they’re wary of wines dying too young, but also because they’ve grown confident that drinkers will understand if their wines appear shy and closed at first. That approach particularly speaks to those who desire, in the words of California winemaker John Raytek, who produces the Ceritas and Lioco labels, “this purity and essence, and the signature of the site speaking through, rather than the variety.” Which is to say, taste and texture that reflect a wine’s unique attributes and origins, rather than easygoing fruitiness.

I’ve located practitioners in Loire Valley appellations like Montlouis, in South Africa and Australia, and even in the northern Rhône, where, when I first asked Chave whether he browned juice for his white Hermitage, he looked at me as though I was a fool for thinking otherwise.

For Chave, like Dönnhoff, it is simply an update to the best habits of old-fashioned winemaking, before postwar technology and routine refrigeration existed to prevent oxidation. “In the ‘20s,” he explained, “we had to bring white grapes from Hermitage with horses, and sometimes the grapes stayed on the press until the next day.” And when he tasted bottles from, say, 1923 or 1929, they were still fresh.

In California, which doesn’t necessarily have that sense of history, browning has become downright fashionable—at newer wineries like Sandhi and long established ones like Kongsgaard. In fact, it is a key piece of what has, for a good two decades, been described as John Kongsgaard’s “death-and-resurrection” technique of winemaking: leaving chardonnay in barrels for very long periods of time (after oxidizing the juice, of course) until it finally emerges, rather bulletproof.

Raytek, too, is about as dedicated a practitioner as there is: He crushes his chardonnay grapes before they go into the press, rather than placing them in whole; then he presses them vigorously and lets the juice sit, with nothing more than a screen to protect it, for as long as five days. It’s fully oxidized and ready to ferment, he tells me, “when there’s a bit of mold on the top of the juice,” and it looks like iced tea.

He, like many winemakers, studied Burgundy in devising a new playbook for making white wine. They’ve all come to essentially the same conclusion: The fixation on modernity—on making a wine more charming than durable—had led many winemakers astray.

Today, browning is just one part of the broader shift that defines this new white-wine era. Stirring lees—a routine chardonnay technique in the premox era to enrich a wine’s texture— increasingly seems like a less-good idea. Thus for the past four vintages at Bonneau du Martray, the barrels haven’t been stirred at all; de la Morinière’s primary concern is building structure and longevity. Jean-Marc Roulot, whose Domaine Guy Roulot makes some of Meursault’s most cherished wines, only stirs once or twice to help along a sluggish fermentation.

While Roulot, who fared well in the premox wars, came to browning relatively late, around 2009, he also realized that he’d been spared, as it were, because he pressed his whites in rickety old Vaslin presses, which incorporated a lot of air. After the industry’s long fixation with gentle bladder presses prized for their soft handling, “now we’re just returning to the original,” Roulot says.

Incidentally, Roulot also deserves credit for another piece of this new approach. In 1993, he was worried about his Meursault-Perrières, which began its malolactic fermentation early, something that can bring off flavors. After barrel aging, he left it for one more winter in a steel tank, an additional six months or so. “It had a different sort of acidity and texture,” he says—more precisely defined and leaner, its fruit more pure. That has become what we might as well dub the Roulot technique; today it is especially popular among the new wave of Californian chardonnay makers as a way to tighten up a wine’s flavors and texture, resulting in a fresher, sleeker wine.

Of course, not everyone has been convinced. Burgundy expert Clive Coates wondered whether techniques like browning would “result in a Corton-Charlemagne that tastes as we have come to expect at ten years old?” His implication: The wine wouldn’t mellow and deepen with age as it once had.

But that, de la Morinière might argue, is exactly the point. Browning isn’t just a way to avoid a wine’s tragically early demise. It has actually ushered in a new and, to my mind, more interesting style of white Burgundy—one that mirrors the global shift from fleshy, low-acid white wines to brighter, fresher, more durable ones. Taste the best Meursault today, for instance, and you can quickly detect that the older, more luscious style has given way to taut, deeply mineral wines.

And, as mentioned, there’s one other place that stylistic shift has been undeniable: Austria. An embrace of juice browning by producers like Leo Alzinger, Jr. and Emmerich Knoll in the Wachau, and Johannes Hirsch in the Kamptal, was a key element in the country’s shift from a more opulent 1990s style of wine to the current style, defined by freshness and tension just like modern white Burgundy.

One winemaker, Michael Moosbrugger, the CEO of Schloss Gobelsburg, has taken the idea even further. He created a series of wines called Tradition—as a repudiation of 1990s “modernization,” but also as tribute to the winemaking that the monks at the former monastery (Gobelsburg dates to 1171) practiced in the early 19th century, a very particular moment, according to Moosbrugger, when European wine moved away from sweet wine toward dryness, but, crucially, before the Industrial Revolution arrived.

While all Gobelsburg’s whites are browned before fermentation, Tradition goes much further. Moosbrugger crushes newly picked riesling and grüner veltliner grapes, steeps them for up to 10 hours, and then presses them in an old-fashioned open basket press, with enormous exposure to oxygen. The wines are then aged for two years, moved from wooden cask to wooden cask as many as six times, giving them even more exposure to air. His argument is that monks 200 years ago would have raised the wine to be tough and long-lasting. “They compared wine with the human being and believed that as we humans have to undergo certain development, also a wine has to do so,” he says. “And as we have to breathe, also a wine has to breathe.”

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