In the film Mondovino, the highly paid French wine consultant Michel Rolland was flown to all corners of the wine world just so he could tell his clients to “Micro-oxygenate”. When asked what it was, his reply was simply that if he told us, we wouldn’t need him. Thus the mystery, “What is micro-oxygenation?”
In the early 1990s, Madiran winemaker Patric Ducournau developed micro-oxygenation in South Western France to help solve problems with Tannat-based wines. Tannat is a red grape with tough tannins that needs to be oak aged to soften the tannins. Producers using stainless steel tanks found the grape difficult to work with.
An oak barrel will allow small amounts of oxygen through to the wine and soften tannins. This softening is not possible in stainless steel. The technique builds optimum structure, reduces herbaceous or vegetal characters, and stabilizes color.
The equipment is simple in concept. Bubble up oxygen through the wine. The process as it turns out, is more delicate than that. But not that much. Let’s take the mystery out of this topic. During primary fermentation, the yeast is exposed to lots of oxygen to keep the fermentation process going. This is macro-oxygenation. Immediately after alcoholic fermentation, the winemaker begins the micro-oxygenation. The equipment uses special ceramic bubblers placed in the bottom of the tank create tiny bubbles. The flow and bubble size are adjusted so that the bubbles dissolve in the tank before they reach the top. This allows the winemaker to simulate the oxygenation process during barrel aging. See The Science of Wine from Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode, University of California Press.
Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It depends on you philosophy about wine. If you believe that wine is a product of nature and you enjoy exploring the marriage of grape and wood, then you may frown upon this intervention. If you feel that producers should make the best wine possible by any means disposable, then this technique if for you.
Now that you’re in the know, watch Mondovino. And when in doubt, “Micro-oxygenate!”