Greg Sherwood MW: The subtle art of oxidation

By , 8 September 2021



Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2005, Bodegas R. López de Heredia, Rioja, Spain.

It is always around about this time of year that an assortmnet of Decanter magazine writers and lead tasters plus Decanter World Wine Awards regional panel chairs  get asked to propose their three wines for the annual Decanter Wines of the Year list. I am very fortunate to be asked every year to submit my own three proposed wines that simply need to conform to a tried and tested formula of “representivity”, covering 1 x classic (easily available in the retail sector), 1 x offbeat (an unusual grape, winemaking method, region, or unearthed gem – definitely NOT mainstream), and 1 x value (£25/€27/US$30 or under). I have just submitted my three suggested wines for 2021 and with any luck, they will all be tasted again in Decanter’s own blind tastings and all crack the nod for the year’s final wine selection.

Tasting thousands of wines through the year, I have over the past few years taken the decision to submit three South African wines as my choices even though I am of course at liberty to select any three wines I have encountered from around the world. But having been the Decanter World Wine Awards South African panel chair for 2020 and 2021 and a regular taster and contributor for the magazine, mostly nowadays on South African wine selections, made it just seem more appropriate to stick to a category I am perhaps better known for. I wish my three candidate producers the best of luck and hope that their wines shine as brightly as they did when I first encountered them myself. While I cannot mention this year’s selections by name, it did remind me of the wonderful trio of wines I proposed last year, all of which made the final Decanter Wines of the Year list. Those wines included the phenomenal MR de Compostella 2017 Cape Bordeaux Blend, a strong 98/100 pointer in my book, the esoteric Cape Winemakers Guild Leeu Passant Radicales Libres 2015 and the delicious Naudé Concrete Egg Chenin Blanc 2018 from the Swartland.

But it was the Leeu Passant Radicales Libres 2015 that sparked a lot of debate in particular. Made from 100% Chardonnay from grapes sourced in the Barrydale Valley in the Klein Karoo which were grown on Bokkeveld Shale soils on the Tradouw-Joubert estate, the wine was aged in the Leeu Passant cellars in Franschhoek and subjected to a long elevage in barrels for five years without any topping up in the oxidative winemaking style that might be termed “Jura meets Tondonia Blanco Rioja”. Being very close friends of Maria-Jose Lopez de Heredia, Andrea and Chris Mullineux have long lived in awe of these iconic oxidative whites produced at this famous Rioja estate in Haro and with Andrea’s global work together with Maria-Jose for “Woman in Wine”, her CWG expression has certainly become an open homage to Maria-Jose and the historic wines of Vina Tondonia.

However, at a recent wine trade lunch, the table got talking about premoxed white Burgundy and what a pain it was in every fine wine drinker’s life. A friend had recently opened about six or seven prematurely oxidised (premoxed) bottles of Comtes Lafon Meursault 1er Cru Les Charmes 2005 out of a case of 12 bottles and vowed never to buy another bottle of white Burgundy again let alone Comtes Lafon. While it is unfair to single out any one grower specifically for the wine pox, it is fair to say that Dominique Lafon’s whites have historically been one of the worst offenders for premox since 1996 along with a broad array of Domaine Leflaive whites from 1996 to 2012 when the problem was first identified and highlighted in the mainstream wine media.

The really interesting point of my lunchtime wine trade chat was that the friend in question is also a very big lover of traditional styles of oxidised white Rioja wines as produced so expertly by Lopez de Heredia and also Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay. But the subject gets a lot more complicated than that! Personally, I remember taking a bottle of expensive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 1999 white from a top grower to a blind tasting lunch and everyone thinking it was a top white Rioja with an amazingly fresh acidity, nuanced caramelised oak notes, sweet lemon butter complexity and a pithy, honied sherry-styled finish. Only the problem was that the wine in question was in fact an expensive premoxed white Burgundy that should have been pale in colour, rapier fresh and taut with intense mineral lemon and lime tension and a clean stony finish.

So, if a wine is eminently drinkable and meant to taste oxidised, a la Tondonia, Jura and Leeu Passant Radicales Libres, that’s all absolutely fine. But if it is NOT meant to taste oxidised, despite being delicious, it gets tipped out into the spittoon and derided as ‘another poxed white Burgundy’ with the person who brought the bottle going through a white knuckle stress dance with the obligatory shoulder shrugging and eye rolling. It is perhaps this shaming exercise that made me suggest, in jest, that certain Burgundy producers should maybe diversify and establish a culture of solera wines that are fresh, zesty and saline but primarily oxidative in character in the Tondonia style. Yes, you heard it here first… oxidative NV white Burgundies! If that doesn’t get the quirky sommeliers excited for food and wine matching, nothing will!

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.

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6 comment(s)

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    PK | 9 September 2021

    Greg just a question, could premox have something to do with rsidual copper either in the vineyard and/or must? Copper obviously has an oxidative effect on thiols and other aroma compounds in wine, when present.

    Have found with some organic producers and by chance the ones that you mentioned above, also happen to be organic, premox to be an issue. Please organic guys/girls don’t have a go at me, just asking as copper sulfate is obviously one of the main weapons in the arsenal, that is allowed in the organic vineyard, especially against the likes of downy.

      Greg+Sherwood+MW | 15 September 2021

      Hi PK
      From my experience, some vineyards that have perhaps been “abused” chemically in the past have resulted in fruit and thus musts that can be out of balance with regards to the concentration of certain unwelcome constituent parts. But generally, some organic producers have been fingered by the pox police of being guilty of not applying sufficient SO2 during winemaking to ensure the free SO2 is adequate at bottling. But reductive handling of the musts, problems sparging bottling lines to remove oxygen for small runs, and of course too much oxygen ingress through corks are far bigger culprits for premox, but in whites and surprisingly red wines too. Speak to many of our passionate winemakers in SA like Eben Sadie, Duncan Savage and Johann Reyneke and you won’t be surprised to hear they spend more time in the vineyards than in the winery.

        PK | 22 September 2021

        Not sure you understand my question. And a bit confused by your answer. But all good, still enjoyed the read.

    bill nanson | 9 September 2021

    A good idea on Burgundian soleras, Greg but the wines wouldn’t be allowed their AOC as ‘unrepresentative’ – you could ask ‘unrepresentative of what’ but that’s a whole different, non-DIAM-sealed ballgame 🙂
    My own loss, of course, but outside of a Christmas PX (particularly soleras) I can’t really get with oxidised styles and that’s a shame because Jura would be much cheaper for me and more stable too!

      Greg+Sherwood+MW | 15 September 2021

      Bill, the irony is that while NV purposely oxidative white Burgundies wouldn’t be certified, so many of them end up like that still these days regardless due to the pox! I’d say things have improved but generally people are drinking white Burgundy much younger than they used to because they just don’t trust the wines which cost a bomb! Better a healthy clean young Burg than a slightly poxed bottle with age.

    PK | 8 September 2021

    Have found this with a couple of organic producers in the past. Definitely not singling out, but can it also have to do with some residual copper on the fruit and or in must? This obviously would explain the premature oxidation of some aromas and thiols in the wines. Mentioning organic as both of the above mentioned Burgundy estates are obviously champions of the method and philosophy. Copper being one of the main weapons in the arsenal.

    Just asking.

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