Burgundy’s White Wine Blight: Pre-Mox

I asked Mounir Saouma, the winemaker and owner of Lucien Le Moine, about the ongoing problem of  premature oxidation in white Burgundy, commonly referred to as pre-mox. This is question I routinely trot-out to any producer of white Burgundy. Every time the answer is different.

He said he believed there were several culprits. The first being pneumatic presses. He said he thinks the common use of pneumatic presses causes wines to not have enough structure. In 2004 he made two barrels of wine from the same parcel, made the same way, barrel aged the same way, except how they were pressed. One was pressed in a pneumatic press, the other was pressed in a traditional mechanical press. He said the amount of dry extract in the wine pressed from the mechanical press was much higher than from the wine pressed with the pneumatic press, even pressed at the same bar (measure of pressure). He believes this dry extract protects the wine and gives it strength.

The second issue says Mounir, is it is much warmer now. He said that in the past, grapes picked in October would have a potential alcohol of 11% when picked. To this the wine would be chapitalized to 13% and the pH would be very low. Now, the grapes are picked at 14%, no chapitalization is needed, and the pH is quite high. To add acid is disastrous  says Mounir. He believes adding acidity throws everything off, and causes a wine not to age. He said he has learned his lessons about adding acidity. He said white Burgundies are losing their ability to age because Chardonnay, is first picked late, with high potential alcohol, and low pH  then they are pressed using pneumatic presses which don’t extract enough dry extract. Because of these things, the wines are weak. He says now there are four, maybe six wines out of a case that will succumb to prem-ox, but he feels this percentage will increase over time.

The answer to many of the Burgundian winemaker’s problems, (my words, not his) he believes, lies in five factors.

1) The first is to use a mechanical press – at least with Chardonnay.

2) leave the wine on the lees for 2 years, to not add SO2 until the wine has been on the lees for 18 months.

3) Wine must be made in a cold cellar.

4) Wine should rest on their lees, and not be racked for an extended period of time. His prescription 18 months to two years.

5) Barrels must be topped every week.

Yet, Mounier says the biggest mistake, is often the little mistakes that compound upon one another, like not topping up the barrels often enough. He said to me:
“In difficult years, a lot of time you will see some of winemakers best wines. Why? Because they are diligent and they are doing everything they can to make the wine be as good as it can be. But in great years, winemakers feel the wines are strong, and don’t think their wines need to be topped as regularly, so instead of topping every other week, they top every three weeks, and sometimes once a month. It is these little mistakes that build upon one another, slowly robbing the wine of its freshness.”

Leaving the wine in barrel, on the lees for two years is a re-occurring theme with Mounir. He believes that the lees naturally protect the wine, and give it strength for the future. He does not add SO2 for the first 18 months, because he wants the wine to protect itself, and living and dead yeast does that. Adding SO2 kills living organisms in wine, which of course is why it is added. To add SO2 would inhibit the wines interaction with the lees. Which brings me to his new property in Chateauneuf-du-pape.

Mounir and Rotem have in the past few years purchased a small property in Chateauneuf. He makes a white and a red. The vineyard had a small parcel of old vine Grenache Blanc, which is a lesser varietal in Chateauneuf, because it oxidizes very easily. Most producers have long since grafted over their Grenache Blanc to Roussanne or Marsanne. He says in addition to the lack of popularity of Grenache Blanc, everybody in the region leaves the whites in barrel no more than 6 months. What would he do with these Grenache Blanc grapes?

“I decided to make the wine like we do in Burgundy.” He  said.  “I leave the white on the lees for two years, not adding SO2 for the first 18 months.” The wine turned copper in color at first, and he thought, “well, lets just see what happens,” and after around six months the lees pulled the color out of the wine, and it was clear, and creamy and rich. Most importantly, it was not oxidized. Instead, it was strong and powerful with a creamy honeyed mid-palate.

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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