The key to fashioning up the perfect drop – how the right balance of oxygen levels in wine can influence its shelf life and enhance quality

Wine has been around for a very long time – since 6,000BC – and is one of the world’s and Australia’s most popular alcoholic beverages – second only to beer. However, it’s also the most critically judged, particularly by the wine aficionados who love it the most.

As more wine lovers get better at understanding the differences between a good and a bad drop, every part of the wine making process has begun to come into focus. The newest trend in improving wine quality is the management of maintaining the right balance of oxygen levels within it, which is said to be the key to developing a wine’s unique profile and prolonging its shelf life so that it is able to improve its taste as it ages.

Why is oxygen management essential?

Keeping oxygen out of wine is like trying to stay dry in a swimming pool – it’s never an easy feat. However, oxygen can have a significant impact on a wine’s style. Low oxygen levels often lead to a wine displaying elevated or fresh fruit attributes, with an absence of developed characteristics such as toasty or honey qualities, with a tendency to form undesirable characters that undermine a wine being able to reach its full potential. On the other hand, too much oxygen can lead to subdued fresh fruit characters, the development of stewed and cooked fruits and the absence of reduced characters and the early onset of undesirable oxidised attributes. As a result, both low and high oxidationwhich can impact on wine quality and a brand’s image and standing in the industry.

Oxygen’s impact is so dramatic that the same wine exposed to slightly different oxygen levels during and after bottling can result in completely different products entirely. In 2016, a study from the Australian Wine Research Institute looked into the cause of wine defects during the International Wine Challenge, which represented more than 106,000 wines, discovering that roughly four per cent of the wines showed considerable defects. When looking at the repetition of these defects it was apparent that more than 50 per cent came as a result of bad oxygen management, demonstrating just how important it is in determining wine quality and how crucial it is for winemakers to get right.

Oxygen and TPO management

In another study, leading wine closure solutions provider and Jet Technologies partner Vinventions looked at the effects of oxygen levels on a wine’s taste and shelf life just four weeks after bottling with a panel of expert wine tasters. They examined three bottles of white wine from the region of ‘Pays du Gard’, including a blendof a Chardonnay and Sauvignon with a high level of free SO2 (Sulfur dioxide) – a compound originally thought to reduce oxidation in wine.

Each wine was bottled with a different level of TPO (Total Package Oxygen) management – meaning the total volume of oxygen in the bottle, including the sum of dissolved oxygen plus headspace oxygen – one at 0.5, one at 3 and the other at 5 milligrams per litre. From this, it was evident that the wines with 3 and 5 mg/l of TPO showed a larger level of oxidation, despite being high in free SO2, indicating just how quickly oxygen taint can appear in wine and that free SO2 does not do much to prevent it.

This strengthens the notion that oxidation levels are very dependent on TPO, which is more influential than previously considered when it comes to the resulting wine’s taste and shelf life. If oxygen levels are not managed correctly oxidation notes will appear just a few weeks after bottling, thereafter, devaluing the quality and shelf life of the wine significantly.

The shelf life of a wine is typically dictated by the onset of oxidised characters in a wine, which can be associated with, as a rough rule of thumb, free SO2 levels dropping to less than 10mg/L in the wine. At this point, insufficient free SO2 is available to bind newly-formed oxidised compounds, allowing them to have a detrimental effect on wine flavour and aroma.

A solution to manage wine shelf life

While there are many emerging industry trends for creating the perfect bottle of wine, a lot are comprised from the bottling process. Paving the way for wine innovation, Vinventions has taken a unique approach to managing the taste and shelf life of wine, providing an advanced range of analysers, closures, equipment, and services to give Australian winemakers control of their oxygen management in real time to ensure they are delivering the best wine drinking experience to their customers.

According to Vinventions, in order to perfectly manage a wine’s shelf life and define its wine profile, the key lies in managing the four major steps in the process, which are the content of polyphenols, oxygen management before bottling, closure permeability and TPO. However, the most essential phase to consider to perfectly manage a wine’s shelf life and quality is the oxygen level within it, something that needs to be measured directly in the cellar.

In order to identify the main parameters to perfectly manage the measurements of polyphenols and oxygen, analysers are used. One analyser available from Jet Technologies in Australia, the NomaSense O2  , allows winemakers to measure the oxygen levels in a winery, including oxygen dissolved in wine and in gas phases. Oxygen can be measured at every stage of the winemaking process, including maturity, vinification, ageing, closure selection, and bottling.

The right oxygen balance pays  

It is clear that the level of oxygen and rate of oxidisation in wine can amount to serious quality implications. Moreover, the effects of oxygen ingress during and after bottling is critical because it can have an immense influence on wine style, shelf life determination, and the onset of undesirable defects.

Given the amount of time, passion and resources that wine makers put into developing the perfect drop for wine lovers, it pays both the business’ bottom line and brand reputation to ensure that all that hard work doesn’t go down the drain once the wine is bottled.