Malolactic "Fermentation" of Wine - Not


The flavors in wine come from three things - the grapes, fermentation and aging. We've explored the flavors from the juice of the grape, the flavors from the grape skins, seeds and stems and we've seen that the yeast can affect flavors during fermentation. But, there's another process that affects a wine's flavor and it's often called Malolactic Fermentation.

But, getting right to the point, this is not a fermentation. It's actually a process in which one type of acid in the wine is converted to another type of acid. So, it is more correctly a Malolactic Conversion, not a fermentation.

In this conversion process, a tart acid that naturally forms in wine, malic acid, is converted to lactic acid. While the tart malic acid can yield flavor sensations much like a tart green apple, the lactic acid is much softer and creates a richer mouthfeel that is often called buttery and can make a wine seem velvety smooth.

Most red wines undergo malolactic conversion while only some white wines, notably Chardonnay, undergo malolactic conversion. This process is most often performed shortly after the end of primary fermentation and just prior to the aging process.

And, speaking of the aging process, we'll explore the flavors that are imparted to wines as they age in next week's blog. Until then, Cheers!

What are Jammy, Buttery & Earthy Wines?

Ever wonder how terms like 'Jammy,' 'Buttery,' and 'Earthy' can be associated with wine? A product that made with grapes?

Previously we looked at "How do all those flavors get into wine?" There we learned that taste and smell come from the combination of senses from your tongue and your nose that your brain puts together to form flavor. We also learned that aging a wine, especially in oak barrels, can impart flavors that go beyond the fruit flavors from the grape.

So, let's briefly explore the terms 'jammy,' 'buttery,' and 'earthy' with respect to wines.

The first, jammy, is probably the easiest to understand. Just like a jar of fruit jam that you may spread on toast, jammy wines have very concentrated fruit flavors. And because jammy wines are made from very ripe fruit (i.e., high in sugar content) they can end up with just a slight hint of sweetness to go along with the concentrated fruit flavors. Hence, a jammy wine.  Zinfandel is best known for having jammy characteristics.

Next is buttery. Seemly an odd term to be associated with wine. But buttery flavor can be created in wine in one of two ways. First, putting the wine through the process of malolactic conversion (often referred to a malolactic fermentation) turns the naturally formed malic acid that you might associated with tart green apples into lactic acid that is most commonly associated with cream or butter.  The second process that can add buttery flavor to a wine is oak aging.  While most red wines go through malolactic conversion and oak aging, it's Chardonnay that's best known for showing buttery flavors.

Finally, earthy wines are those that have subtle aromas of damp earth, forest floor, mushrooms or a bit of a dusty aroma. Earthy wines include Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah. These should not be pungent aromas, you should just get a hint. If these aromas are strong it usually indicates that the wine has become tainted.

While these descriptors may sound a bit odd when associated with wine, they really can be wonderful enhancements to your wine drinking experience. So, remember to swirl and smell your wines in the glass, then sip. And then see if you can pick out these interesting nuances. Cheers!


Some More Thoughts on Medium and Full Bodied White Wines

Having just examined light bodied white wines and spent a bit of time on Chardonnay, it's time to look into some other white wines that are in the medium body and full body category. These are going to have bigger, fuller flavors than those of the light bodied whites, contain a bit more alcohol and may be aged in oak.

Here are some of the white wines that are considered medium bodied:

Gewürztraminer (go-veertz-tram-ee-ner) - This is a big fruit wine. It's also a very aromatic wine with the fragrance of roses petals, lychee and perfume. Flavors include pink grapefruit, tangerine, peach, mango, apricot and guava. This crisp and fresh flavored wine will typically have sweet undertones while still being dry (low residual sugar). These wines are most famously produced in the Alsace region of France where they can also take on a rich and silky texture with subtle salinity.

Grüner Veltliner (GREW-ner FELT-lee-ner) - Nearly three quarters of all Grüner Veltliner is produced in Austria. This too is a big fruit wine with moderately high acidity. You may find flavors of peach, pear and yellow apple in this wine. The light and zesty versions of this wine are most common and affordable, having crisp acidity and hints of melon and lime. The Austrian Reserve versions can be rich with fruity flavors such as apple, mango and honey along with hints of white pepper.

Sémillon (sem-ee-yawn) - Approximately half of the Sémillon in the world is produced in France with another 25% coming from Australia, and is gaining popularity in California. This is truly a medium bodied wine in all aspects of fruit, acidity and alcohol. Common flavors include lemon, peach, with a waxy mouthfeel and a bit of salinity. Bordeaux blends will include Sémillon along with Sauvignon Blanc. Sémillon is sometimes barrel aged in oak to give it additional richness and flavor.

Marsanne (mar-sohn) - This is a medium-low bodied wine with medium fruit, medium-low acidity but a medium-high alcohol level. Flavors may include Mandarin orange, apricot, and acacia with a slight waxy mouthfeel.

Viognier (vee-own-yay) - This is a big fruit wine with the fragrance of roses, and flavors of peach, mango, and tangerine. Without Malolactic fermentation this wine can also have flavors of lime along with fragrances of flowers and some flavors of mineralality when grown in cool climates. Warmer climate versions of this wine may have flavors of apricot, rose and vanilla. Malolactic fermentation will give this wine richer smoother flavors and reduced acidity.

As previously stated, an oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. And when it comes to full bodied white wines, this is one that everybody knows.

Chardonnay (shar-doe-NAY) - An oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. California Chardonnays of recent past were typically being put through Malolactic Fermentation and aged in new oak to make them a full bodied wine.  These were the Chardonnay's that were referred to as "buttery" due to their big and bold oak flavor and the creamy mouth feel from the conversion of the sharper malic acid (found in green apples) into softer, smoother, creamy lactic acid (found in milk). This process reduces the total acidity such that the wines become softer, rounder and more complex. This trend has largely been reversed such that today most California Chardonnays are either being made un-oaked (often noted on the label), or treated to a lighter dose of oak to allow the fruit flavors to shine through. You can still find a full bodied "buttery" Chardonnay, but they are in the minority.

So there you go with a run through of the various body styles of white wine. Next time we'll start exploring the body of red wines . Tannin is the big difference there. So, until next time, explore some medium and full bodied white wines. Serve them cool, not cold, and enjoy! Cheers!


Medium Bodied and Full Bodied White Wines

Light bodied white wines are a great place to start when learning about and tasting wines.  They are fresh and crisp with bright fruit flavors and high acidity.  So the next step up is into medium bodied and full bodied whites.

As I have been researching and putting together notes on white wines, I've found that it's been tough, as expected, to describe and define a wine's body.  That's because there are not strong lines between the categories of light, medium and full bodied wines.  But the characteristics of alcohol levels, tannin, residual sugar and acidity do give some basic guidance on a wine's body.

While white wine with less than 12.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) would be considered light bodied, medium bodied white wines are said to have 12.5% to 13.5% ABV and full bodied white are those with greater than 13.5% ABV. These are general guidelines, but at least this is one of the few characteristics that is actually shown on a wine's label (ABV percentage is legally required to be printed somewhere on a bottle of wine).

A wine's residual sugar (RS) is also a telling characteristic of its body, but it is directly related to a wine's alcohol level. The lower the alcohol level, the more residual sugar; the higher the alcohol level the lower the alcohol level. So you can expect a light bodied, lower alcohol, wine to have some residual sugar and to have a slightly sweet taste.  The medium and full bodied white wines will have higher alcohol, lower RS and little to no sweetness to them.

The acidity of medium and full bodied white wines is much lower than light body whites.  While the acidity in a light bodied white wine will give it a bright, crisp and mouth watering finish, medium and full bodied white wines will not. These will be richer and smoother.

And finally, there's the characteristic of tannin. This is something that isn't really a factor in white wines. Tannins come from the grapes skin, seeds and stems.  Most every white wine is pressed and the juice is immediately separated from the skins, seeds and stems. So tannin levels are next to zero.  So called "Orange" wines are made from white wine grapes and they to get contact time with the grape skins, seed and stems, giving them the characteristic light orange color (not the flavor of an orange). Tannins do play a huge roll in red wines and we'll say more about this when we address the medium and full bodied red wines in future postings.

In addition these four characteristics, one must consider that a wine's body is also influenced by the wine maker.  The grape variety isn't necessarily the key to determining the body of a wine. Take Chardonnay for example. A Chardonnay that is produced in stainless steel or concrete tanks is considered light bodied. But, if the wine maker chooses to age the Chardonnay in neutral oak it's going to be medium bodied. A Chardonnay that goes through the addition step of Malolactic Fermentation and is aged in new oak will be full bodied.  So, it isn't just the grape variety that determines a wine's body, it's also how it's made.

While Chardonnay is a great example of a medium or full bodied white wine, there are certainly others. And we'll get to them next time. Cheers!