The mystery of why some wines live and some wines die young should haunt every serious New World winemakerRandall Grahm Bonny Doon Vineyards

As discussed in previous postings, longevity may be considered within the pantheon of wine quality. The reductive strength of a wine is a measure of oxygen uptake and the ability to handle that uptake, that is improve with age. In red wines this is influenced principally by phenols and impacted by several winemaking protocols.

In a recent study (Kassas and Kennedy 2011) wines commanding the highest market value had several attributes in common including the highest concentrations of total tannins, the highest concentration of skin tannins and tannin-anthocyanin bound pigment polymers.

In grapes and wines, anthocyanin pigments can be either free monomers, that is, unbound, or associated with other compounds including phenols such as tannins to form polymers.

Tannin polymerization in fruit and wine continues until an anthocyanin molecule binds the terminal ends of the tannin chain forming  ‘bookends’, thus stopping the polymerization.  As such, the ratio of anthocyanins to tannins is important.  This ratio impacts the extent of polymerization and, therefore, astringency.  

Large tannin-tannin and tannin-anthocyanin polymers provide a relatively large number of binding sites to interact with proteins, as well as salivary proteins. As such, wines with an abundance of large polymers tend to lack softness and often possess a dry mouth sensation.

Conversely, smaller polymers have fewer protein binding sites and produce less astringency while providing a softer mouthfeel and often more palate depth. These smaller polymers are associated with enhanced reductive strength and wine aging potential.  

Some phenols (diphenols) have the ability to react with oxygen, bind with another phenol, and recreate the original structure-thus allowing it to react over and over again. This helps explain the rather counter intuitive feature of exposing a young wine to oxygen and making that wine more resistant to oxidation. Young red wines can consume oxygen, actually increasing reductive strength.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards in California considers reductive strength to be analogous to a wine’s chi or, as the Chinese say, life force. When a wine is young, it can share its chi with the world; when old, it must guard it so the wine does not diminish too quickly. Young wines have a capacity to adsorb oxygen and that can actually increase its resistance to later oxidation. Irrespective of chi, we believe that reductive strength is related to the phenolic composition of a wine and, therefore, to longevity.

Experience is the name everyone give to the their mistakes- Oscar Wilde

Dr Bruce Zoecklein is a Professor Emeritus, Enology-Grape Chemistry Group Virginia Tech.

His Enology Notes are available at www.vtwines.info.