Can you explain "reductive" winemaking and "reduced" notes?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I’ve heard very knowledgeable and experienced people comment that a wine tastes “reductive.” What exactly does that mean? What happened to the wine to make it taste that way? Does it mean the wine is flawed? How do I recognize it in a wine?

—Courtney, Tampa, Fla.

Dear Courtney,

If you want to show off to those knowledgeable people, you can point out that “reductive” describes a winemaking style, not a wine itself. Reductive winemaking is when a winemaker takes extra steps to limit the amount of oxygen a wine has exposure to. It’s not easy—air is everywhere. But if you think of traditional winemaking as “oxidative,” reductive winemaking might have fermentations take place in closed-top or stainless steel containers (vs. open-top, or barrels). They can also blanket a wine with inert gases, so there’s less oxygen exposure.

The point of reductive winemaking is to preserve fresh, fruity, vibrant notes. You probably won’t be able to tell just by tasting a wine what kind of winemaking style was employed. But you might be able to pick out “reduced” notes. These generally result from the presence of a volatile sulfur compound, or mercaptans, and can be the result of reductive winemaking. Wine needs a certain amount of oxygen to polymerize (have its molecules combine), and if it doesn’t, the reduced notes may come in.

How do you recognize reduced notes? Sometimes there’s a whiff of rotten eggs, rubber, struck matches or even sewage. When it’s just a whiff, decanting or swirling the wine in your glass might allow these notes to “blow off,” and it’s not considered a flaw—there might be a really beautiful wine underneath those notes. If there’s more than a whiff and those notes won’t go away, it’s not a good thing.

Some wines lend themselves to reductive winemaking—Syrah, for example, is more reductive than Pinot Noir. If a winemaker is worried that they’ve overdone it on the reductive winemaking and want to reduce “reduced” notes, they can do a process called racking, where wine is moved from one container to another, which exposes it to oxygen and can usually help.

—Dr. Vinny

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