The pathway of wine oxidation, as currently understood, encompasses the cascade of reactions incited by the oxidation of phenols in the presence of oxygen, eventually coming to the conversion of ethanol into acetaldehyde. While it is evident that wines consume oxygen over time and acetaldehyde becomes increasingly apparent with age, the rate of oxidation can vary unpredictably among different wines, and it was hypothesized that different phenolic structural features, particularly those of oak ellagitannins, are the reason for such variability in oxidation. It was originally proposed that ellagitannins and other phenols with distinct functionalities be studied for their effects on oxygen consumption and acetaldehyde production. However, in light of recent studies conducted by our laboratory demonstrating that the input of oxygen does not guarantee the output of acetaldehyde, it was decided that attempting to study the pathway of oxidation in its entirety, from oxygen to acetaldehyde, would not be an effective approach.
Given the complexity of wine oxidation, a more sensible strategy would be to study the effects of phenolic structure on individual reactions rather than the pathway as a whole. In the first step of wine oxidation, the oxidation of phenols is coupled to the reduction of oxygen by iron, which acts as a shuttle for electrons between phenols and oxygen. A more specific hypothesis now is phenolic structure affects their reactivity with iron, subsequently affecting oxygen consumption and the remainder of the wine oxidation pathway. The initial reactions of wine oxidation may be characterized by the redox cycling of iron between its two oxidation states: Fe(II) and Fe(III). The addition of electrons to oxygen occurs with the oxidation of Fe(II) to Fe(III), and in the opposite direction, the loss of electrons from phenols takes place with the reduction of Fe(III) to Fe(II). The ratio of Fe(II) to Fe(III) should thus depend on the relative reaction rates of Fe(II) with oxygen and that of Fe(III) with phenols.
A quick and simple spectrophotometric method for iron speciation, employing the complexing agent Br-PADAP, is currently being optimized and validated, to be used not only to assess differential rates of iron reduction by structurally diverse phenols, but also by the industry to more generally measure the “redox status” of their wines. Our laboratory’s modified version of the Br-PADAP assay is simple and inexpensive, requiring a sample volume of only 200 μL and a reaction time of 10 min, and is done directly in a cuvette. Validation of the assay is currently underway; difficulty lies in the fact that there does not exist a standard method for iron speciation to compare, thus alternative methods of validation are being considered. This research would not only improve management of oxidation, but also furnish a more complete understanding of phenolic oxidation, with the ultimate goal being the prediction of wine aging based on phenolic content and composition.