In the early 1990’s Patrick Ducournau started to develop the winemaking technique we now know as “Micro-Oxygenation”. Working with the Tannat Varietal in the Madiran region in South West France, he was trying to create a new winemaking tool to help soften the tannins of his wines during elevage, or wine aging. Experimental by nature, Ducournau developed the technique from scratch and he and his team were instrumental in its proper implementation and development.
Now well established among old and new world wineries, benefits of micro-ox include improved mouthfeel (body and texture), enhanced color stability, increased oxidative stability, and decreased vegetative aroma.
For those not familiar with micro-ox, I usually start with the metaphor of a fire: Fire must have just the right amount of oxygen to thrive. Too little and the fire dies. Too much – and the fire dies. Same for wine maturation. Same for us human too by the way… Isn’t ageing a slow oxidation of our cells?
As an aside, my passion is ultra-endurance rowing so I understand all too well the importance of oxygen, surely the most underrated fuel for our body. We can live without eating for months, we can live without drinking for days, but we can’t live without oxygen for more than a few minutes. Okay, revenons a nos moutons (let’s come back to our sheep), like we say in France…
Ducournau’s technique was initially thought quite radical because oxygen in wine has long been considered as an enemy, something you didn’t want to mess with for fear of oxidation... To reassure his clients, Ducournau invented the term micro-ox, explaining that only micro-amounts of oxygen is introduced, using specific diffusers sparging tiny micro-bubbles. It’s not oxygenation he said, it’s micro-oxygenation!
Oxygen can be introduced at several moments in the winemaking process. It can be used during fermentation, in order to “feed” the yeasts; during phase 1 (or the Structuration phase), which is the period between AF and ML; or during phase 2 (aka the Harmonization phase). The rates of oxygen addition between phase 1 and phase 2 are a 10x ratio. For instance, if you can go up to 35mg/l/m in phase one, your wine would probably be okay to start with a rate of 3.5mg/l/m in phase 2. Phase 2 is what naturally occurs in barrel aging, with low amounts of oxygen intake occurring through the staves and through the bung.
The key to successful micro-ox is to stay within the wine’s ability to consume oxygen faster than the rate at which it is added to the wine. An innovation that I’m so excited by, I now work for, is The Wine Grenade, a hand held device which releases oxygen through a permeable membrane at a molecular level, rather than the ‘fish tank’ style bubbling technology of diffusers. This membrane-based or ‘nano-oxygenation’ process does not create bubbles and more closely replicates traditional barrel aging in tanks.
So, from micro-ox to nano-ox, the future is here.
There is a French expression that goes like this: “Il faut donner du temps au temps”. A literal translation would be “you must give time to time”, or “allow time to time”. Essentially it means that some things cannot be hurried, and sufficient time must be given to ensure its creation or implementation.
In a world of instantly expected gratification, unlimited availability, worldwide share-ability and obliged likeability, we must learn to slow down and re-learn the art of giving time to time.
You cannot learn a language, master a musical instrument, repair a broken bone or cook a pie faster than the time it naturally requires.
I believe it is the same for wine. Technology and innovation, both in viticulture and winemaking, undeniably help the vine grower and the winemaker control most parameters of the art of making wine. Consistency in the wine profile is thus achieved more often than not. That being said, we must be careful not to take shortcuts and go “plus vite que la musique”, another French expression meaning you can’t go faster than the pace of music….
This is true also for wine ageing, or as French people call it “Élevage”, which is defined as the progression of wine between fermentation and bottling. Comparable to the term "raising" in English; think of élevage as a wine's adolescence or education”.
A winemaker must choose to mature their wine in barrels or tanks. The commercial reality is that not all wine can be matured the traditional way in oak barrels; about 90% of wine is matured in steel tanks. Barrel aging is essentially an “automatic” aging device as it balances naturally all the five parameters in the aging process: 1. Oxygen, 2. Oak compounds, 3. Turbidity (contact with the lees), 4. Temperature and 5. Time.
Micro-oxygenation was developed to reproduce the “oxygen” parameter in wine ageing. The technology is built on the premise that a tank can “behave” just like a barrel if we are authentic about how we recreate the important processes that happen in oak maturation.
At Wine Grenade, our goal is to improve the quality of wine when made at scale inside steel tanks. We aim to address the oxygen component of wine ageing by using a permeable membrane rather than a diffusor, meaning the oxygen is absorbed at a molecular level rather than through bubbles.
People ask me if wine can be aged faster by simply adding more oxygen than what a barrel would naturally allow. The answer is ‘probably yes’, but to my mind that’s taking a shortcut. We prefer to reproduce the natural condition of a proper ageing, and let the wine get ready as it should.
Like my mom would say…. “Sure you can cook faster a “coq-au-vin”, “a boeuf-bourguignon”, or a “cassoulet” by increasing the heat source, but you won’t get a good one!”
“Give time to time, son”…
By Cyril Derreumaux
Great article by Chloe Winter about Wine Grenade's potential to disrupt the wine industry.
Read article on stuff.co.nz
A good summary of our product trials and other recent updates.
Read on NZherald.co.nz
About Wine Grenade
Wine Grenade is wine maturation, redefined. This blog will keep you up to date with our business and provide some thoughtful commentary on the art of winemaking.