Premox (premature oxidation) in white Burgundy: could modernity be the culprit?

Earlier this month, I had the immense fortune to attend a seminar with Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Roulot, legendary producer of Mersault. The event was part of the 2019 Boulder Burgundy Festival (I’ve been the gathering’s blogger for the last six years).

Everyone in attendance at the standing-room-only tasting was rapt with Jean-Marc’s earnestness and transparency in talking about his wines, including the challenges he’s faced in his 30 years at the winery.

But most impressive was his forthrightness when the sticky subject of premature oxidation — “premox” as it’s known in trade parlance — was raised. After all, many of the attendees were top Burgundy collectors who have been deeply disappointed with the cellaring potential of their investment.

“I have discovered that a large number of bottles of white Burgundies from the ’90s suffer from a phenomenon known as premature oxidation,” wrote leading sommelier and author Raj Parr in a dire “Warning on White Burgundies” in 2007 (Wine Spectator). “Simply put, these wines show various stages of advanced oxidation, and this state is not what would normally be expected given their relatively young age.”

(See also this in-depth essay published by World of Fine Wine in 2014.)

Although many believe that a high-quality cork shortage (owed to high demand) might be the culprit, no one really knows what has caused premature oxidation in white Burgundy.

Jean-Marc attributes the trend, he said, to a combination of factors, including, possibly, the scarcity of good cork.

But he believes, he said, that the problem is due to a new wave of consulting enologists in the 1990s who encouraged winemakers to press and vinify the wines too swiftly. The focus was on maintaining the freshness and aromatic character of the wines in a decade when fruit was arriving in the cellar riper than in previous years thanks to climate change (we know now).

After some of his wines suffered from premox, he told the tasters, he decided to reserve roughly 10 percent of his grape must and let it oxidize slightly before vinifying. He’s found, he said, that by letting some of the must gently oxidize, premature oxidation of the wines seems to have been avoided.

In a sense, it’s possible that it was modernity itself to blame. Coming away from the tasting and talk, I couldn’t help but think to myself, it wasn’t broke until they tried to fix it.

Jean-Marc’s wines are extraordinary, although expensive and extremely hard to find in North America. I’d only ever had the opportunity to enjoy them in France, in the occasional overlooked bistro, when my band was touring there. Many consider him one of the greatest producers of white wine in the world today. And many American winemakers try to emulate his style by using what has come to be known as the “Roulot Method” (although he claimed adamantly not to have invented it). What a great experience to get to taste with him! Drink his wines if you can!

2 thoughts on “Premox (premature oxidation) in white Burgundy: could modernity be the culprit?

  1. As he explained it, he was among the first (although not the very first) to ferment in cask and then age in stainless steel, something entirely new for Burgundy white at the time.

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