What does it mean to call a wine "reduced"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I was wondering if you could shed some light on what the term "reduced" means when describing a wine—both in flavor and aroma. I often taste with winemakers who use this term, and I can't seem to come up with a consistent definition based on my own observations.

—Pete, Sonoma, Calif.

Dear Pete,

"Reduced" is a term used to describe a wine that has not been exposed to air. I know that sounds weird, because, air? It's everywhere. But keep in mind that throughout the winemaking process, oxygen is very controlled. Too much oxygen and a wine can become "oxidized" (which in a way is the opposite of reduced), where it takes on nutty, Sherry-like characteristics. The ideal state for a wine is to be somewhere between these extremes.

When a wine is reduced, it doesn't have enough oxygen to polymerize (that is, to have its molecules combine), and while the wine gasps for air, the result is usually skunky, stinky, sulfurous smells that remind you of eggs, burnt matchheads, or stink bombs and swamp gas. Certain wines, like Syrah, are more susceptible to reduction. Sometimes aeration—either by racking during winemaking or decanting after it's bottled—can help, but sometimes not.

—Dr. Vinny

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