When looking into the contemporary and popular profiles of natural wine, most people are familiar with the term “funky”. This sometimes can be called a reductive profile and it’s a divisive quality in wine. It can be that earthy, flinty, eggy, smoky, or matchstick-y note that lingers around the nose. Traditionally marked as a fault, some winemakers have started to embrace it as a part of the process of making low-intervention wine “Enologists are only looking for ways to cure and eliminate it, but light reduction is part of the life of wine.” - Philippe Valette of Domaine Valette.
With contemporary changes in the palate, natural wine consumers have started to seek out this edgier unconventional bouquet. The big reductive profile has certainly taken on a life of its own, some of the big names in Canary Island wines such as Envinate, Roffe & Suertes del Marques have developed their reductive profile to be synonymous with their volcanic terroir wines. In turn they have successfully managed to become some of the most recognised and idiosyncratic natural wine producers in Europe.
What makes wine reductive? What is reduction?
In short, reduction is limiting the exposure of the wine to oxygen. If the wine becomes oxidised, the wine runs risk of losing colour, vibrancy and flavour. All the things we drink wine for. Most large wine production utilises sulphites as a very useful antioxidant and to help stabilise the wine. But as we’re all aware, natural wine makers do not and can not rely on this tool. This is where reduction comes into play.
Natural wine makers might not fine or filter their wines leaving residual or dead yeast in the bottle otherwise known as lees. Lees acts as a natural antioxidant but sustained ageing on lees can lead to irreversible reductive notes. Sometimes the note can blow off, or need time to blow off such as the Envinate Benje Tinto. When first opened, the unmistakable burnt flint freshly lit matchstick quality is almost an assault to the senses, give it a good half an hour, and you’re invited into wonderfully smokey complex fleshy fruit, peppercorns & flowers.
Sometimes you need to embrace the reductive character to enjoy the intentions of the wine maker. The flinty profile can be intentionally used to add an almost creme brulee, smokey softness to an otherwise larger than life white wine, such as the Clos Du Rouge Gorge - an elegant, almost Burgundian in style, Macabeu from Rousillion in SW France.
It is exactly here that winemakers become precision artists with how much or how little they adopt reductive techniques. Not only are they having to manipulate the wine as it ferments, they have to consider how much nitrogen is in the soil, what grape varietal they are using, how susceptible the yeasts are to temperature shocks as well as a myriad of other factors to influence the reductive outcome. Complex right? We wish we could just simply tell you why and how these funky wines are produced with a straight forward a + b = c but it’s more like reductive wine
= -nitrogen ± √grape² -yeast&temperature
We appreciate that it’s not everyone’s ticket, some might feel like this is a fetishising of faults, that it’s not a necessary characteristic to embrace. However as more wine makers move over to more natural means of production, as they look into reducing their intervention within the process of production, it’s going to become a more inevitable and exciting quality of wine.