Like all living creatures, wine needs oxygen to survive. The ways oxygen interacts with a vineyard, and then the degree to which it is allowed into the fermentation, maturation and aging processes of winemaking, are some of the most determinative aspects in the life of a wine.

Yet few wine enthusiasts, casual or ardent, pay much attention to oxygen. Today’s column, then, is devoted to this essential element, and to the wine vocabulary words related to it: oxidation and oxidative, and their opposites, reduction and reductive.

I thought to focus on this topic through a seasonally appropriate endeavor: finding white wines I enjoy drinking when it’s very, very cold outside. The search for full-bodied non-red wines, rich and warming yet still pulsing with life, leads inevitably to oxidation.

Wines on the oxidative end of the spectrum concern themselves only secondarily with keyed-up acidity and flavors of primary fruits. Instead, earthy elements, the woods and spice predominate; on your tongue they feel smooth and calm. By contrast, imagine yourself in July, quaffing Vinho Verde, a fresh rosé, young Muscadet or a fruity pinot grigio. Those are reductive wines, with oxygen shut out of the picture. Fun. But not our current project.

The first necessary distinction is between the wine and the winemaking approach. “Oxidative” refers to a style of winemaking, rather than the wine itself. A wine made in an oxidative style may be “oxidized,” which generally is considered a flaw, but oxidative winemaking does not necessarily produce oxidized wine.

If a wine has been exposed to air during vinification, it has been made oxidatively. All wine was, before the post-World War II advent of technological innovations such as stainless steel tanks, temperature control and inert gases. Without those, there just weren’t reliable ways to keep oxygen away from the process.

Oxidation occurs when the fermentor is not sealed, as in open-top fermenting; or if battonage or punch-down – forms of deliberate agitation of the must (juice plus grape solids from stems, skins and seeds) – are employed. Many rich, aromatic, mineral white wines of Friuli or Alsace are open-top fermented. Most rich, buttery chardonnays of California undergo extensive battonage. Countless other examples exist, but if you’re familiar with the style of those wines at all, you’re familiar with the effects of their oxidative techniques.

Oxidation can also occur during racking, where a finished wine is moved from one container to another. Traditional Rioja wines (whites as well as reds) or the chenin blancs of Savennieres are frequently racked. Traditional New Zealand sauvignon blancs are not.

The latter is a vivid expression of reductive winemaking. Enormous primary-fruit flavors, freshness, taut lines and digitized precision. If that’s your template for a pleasant white-wine experience, avoid oxidative wines.

The oxidative experience brings fruit flavors you can’t quite place, a cozy or even fuzzy texture, slackness; you enter the realm of suggestion and inference. Umami – the fifth taste, that mouth-coating savoriness – comes about through oxygen exposure, increasing the glutamate level in a wine. If you like miso, walnuts, sauerkraut, fish sauce or a hunk of Parmigiano, chances are good you’ll like oxidative wine.

In most well-made oxidative wines, the oxidation is controlled. Too much air and you end up with an oxidized wine: brown, flat, the flavor of cooking sherry. Likewise, in most well-made reductive wines, the reduction is controlled.

An etched-in-stone dry riesling, fermented reductively in stainless steel, can contain so much coiled power that it needs a little time with air to find balance, through some combination of racking, aging in wood that is porous and allows micro-oxygenation, and decanting. An overly reductive wine tastes oniony and sulfurous, or like a struck match, and practically assaults your tongue. (If you encounter such notes, all is not lost: throw the wine in a decanter and swirl it energetically.)

Ah, yes, sulfur. Sulfur dioxide is added to most wines expressly to protect against oxidation. (Technically, this isn’t accurate. Sulfur dioxide actually diverts the aldehyde, the wine’s oxidation agent, so that we don’t smell or taste the oxidation.) In general – repeat: in general! – reductive wines will have had more sulfur added during vinification. Also in general, successful oxidative wines ferment relatively slowly, with native rather than cultured yeasts, gaining stability and therefore requiring less added sulfur dioxide.

The sad fact is that you probably won’t get too far if you ask someone selling wine at a shop or restaurant to point you toward the oxidative whites. In a smarter world, you would. “Oxidative” signifies much more than vague, overused terms such as dry or fruity or even mineral. Oxidative wines for me conjure nuts, open landscapes, breadth, sand, savoriness, olives on a pizza, branches, hard cheeses. Y’know, that kind of thing.

This is perhaps an overly technical article. But for anyone who has grown tired of their bazillionth snappy summer-sipper white wine, or for those deluded souls who think they just don’t like white wine, and certainly for anyone who sees wine-drinking as continual adventure, push through the tech and try some oxidative white table wines. They are delicious in a resonant, 360-degree sort of way, and serve as prelude to the exhilarating big boys of oxidation: sherry, orange wine, vin jaune.

That’s right: wine doesn’t just come in white, red and pink. It comes tan, orange and yellow as well, subjects I intend to take up in the near future, once we’ve all had a few practice runs with some of the wines listed below.

Mas Carlot Marsanne Roussanne 2012, $13. Marsanne and roussanne oxidize easily, and this traditional southern Rhône blend can often taste so sun-baked and waxy that all the intrigue in the grapes is smothered. The Mas Carlot is a terrific exception, balancing plump fleshiness and hoppy verve.

Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano Tradizionale 2011, $19. Spread out, suffused in olive oil, richly almandine, succulent. People travel to Tuscany in the summer and drink mostly boring Vernaccia di San Gimignano. This, hands-down the best wine made there, is too good for summer tourists. The dreams you have the night after drinking this wine will be very different from the dreams you would have had otherwise.

Ludovicus Blanca 2011, $14. An intense garnacha blanca from Terra Alta, Spain, the Ludovicus is way more complex than its price would indicate. Woodsy and even slightly musty in an old-attic way, harmonizing with frangipane and green olive aspects, it speaks old languages that aren’t yet dead.

Domaine de L’Octavin Arbois Blanc “Pamina” 2011, $29. Here’s where it gets crazy. It’s a chardonnay from Arbois, a commune in France’s Jura, famous/infamous home to the hyper-oxidative vins jaunes (“yellow wines”) that ferment under a under a colony of yeasts similar to that used to produce sherry. The Pamina is more restrained than those, though still subtly sherry-like, brimming with hazelnuts and olives. There are a whole lot of citrus fruit flavors in the wine, but it’s manipulated citrus: preserved, baked, concentrated. Open this door to a secret room you probably haven’t been in before.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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