Air: The Oldest New Ingredient In Wine

Nov 26, 2015

Eight "oxidative" style wines.
Credit Emily Corwin

  It’s been one year since James Beard award-winning chef Evan Mallett had an epiphany. “We were on a vacation that culminated in a meal at a restaurant called Saturne,” Mallett recalls, “an amazingly expensive meal with the love of my life in Paris.”

It wasn’t the food at that meal in Paris that stuck with him. It was the wine. A rare style experts call “oxidative.”

These wines don't taste like any other wine you would get at a wine dinner. They are clearly distinct, unusual, and belong in a class of their own

  Mallett is the chef and owner of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth. In his blue and white striped apron, he presides over the city’s booming culinary scene like a benevolent king of fine dining.

“These wines don’t taste like any other wine you would get at a wine dinner. They are clearly distinct, unusual, and belong in a class of their own”

  Since that trip to Paris, Mallett has been fixated on finding more of these wines. They don’t come from a peculiar climate, or have rare ingredients. In fact, the component that brings them together is as incredibly abundant. More than other wines, these have been exposed to oxygen. The result is a more complex, often earthy taste than mainstream wines.

But for Mallett, there was a problem. He couldn’t find oxidative wines at any wine shops in New Hampshire.

So, Mallett flew wine importer Bryan Hinschberger from Idaho. His job? Walk 16 dinner guests through an 8-course $90 bucks a pop wine dinner. Each course is paired exclusively with oxidative wines.  

Bryan Hinschberger tastes oxidative wines at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth.
Credit Emily Corwin

  Hinschberger says oxidative wines are hard to come by because, in the wine world, “oxidize” is a bad word. “You know you pick up a wine you smell something you say ‘oooh it’s oxidized, its spent, it’s over the hill, it’s past its prime.’”

He says the key is to find wines that aren’t already spoiled, but are in the process of oxidizing.

Hinschberger is a 33 year old in cufflinks and a wool blazer, his baby-face almost concealed by a full beard. He’s one of only a handful of American sommeliers versed in this style of wine.

“I absolutely adore when a wine has a leaky cork,” he says.

Early in the night, there’s an Oloroso sherry -  one of few mainstream wines that is also very oxidative.

Hinschberger says he tastes the open sea salt air that makes its way into porous oak casks over years of oxidation.

Some wine makers in Europe, and a few small producers in the Northwest follow antiquated winemaking techniques to cultivate oxidative-tasting wine on purpose.

I absolutely adore when a wine has a leaky cork

  Over the past year, Mallet found an orange wine from Slovenia to go with a monkfish and thistle dish. The quail egg and shaved truffle he served with a 2011 white from the Jura region in France.

But creative wine connoisseurs like Hinschberger will use the word “oxidative” pretty broadly.

For this dinner, he carried on a plane from Idaho the last twelve bottles of a Rioja Rosé. Rosés are not supposed to age. This one was bottled in 1997 by Raimundo Abando, and then forgotten. “When Raimundo first made this wine he wasn’t like ‘oh, in 18 years we’re all going to be enjoying this bottle, he didn’t have that plan,” he says. Nevertheless, Hinschberger says he convinced the Spanish winemaker to open the bottle. “We all were just freaking out about it,” he says.

The wine is delicious.  It starts out fruity and quickly shifts to a more wood-mushroom-umami taste.

Hinschberger isn’t big on describing the taste of wine, however. He’s only interested in one thing. “Is there love in that wine, or is there not love in that wine?” That, he says, any wine drinker can tell.  

Hinschberger says wine sellers and restaurateurs in this country don’t believe their customers will buy oxidative wine. So, he and Mallett beseech their small but captivated audience.  Demand these oxidative wines, they say. Ask for special orders. Expand the frontier.  You will taste love.

Black Trumpet Oxidative Wine Dinner Menu: