The Boston Phoenix
September 9 - 16, 1999


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What's behind all that buttery wine?

by Thor Iverson

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The goal of "Uncorked" is to demystify wine. To that end, I devote a lot of space in the column to explaining wine terms both essential and arcane. Here's one that's pretty important but little understood, probably because it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue: malolactic fermentation.

You've probably seen this term (or one of its variants, ML and malo) in tasting notes, or on the back labels of wine bottles. And maybe you've dismissed it as meaningless winespeak. But it's not meaningless. Malolactic fermentation can have profound consequences for the taste of a wine -- especially a white wine -- and its compatibility with food. And knowing whether a wine has undergone malo can tell you a lot about its taste before you even open the bottle.

Any wine contains a number of different kinds of acids. Malolactic fermentation is nothing more than the conversion of malic acid (the kind found in apples) into lactic acid (the kind found in dairy products). In other words, it takes a sharp, crisp acid and turns it into a softer one.

Usually this happens naturally, sometime after the alcoholic fermentation (the one that turns grape juice into wine). When it doesn't, it can be artificially induced by the addition of a specific bacteria, which allows the winemaker to control the aggressiveness of the wine's acids. Alternatively, the process can be blocked so that the wine retains a more vivid acidity.

Most red wines undergo malo. But with white wines, the decision to allow, encourage, or block malolactic fermentation is an important stylistic choice for the winemaker. Knowing about it can work to your advantage if you know what to expect. For example, white wines from Germany, Austria, Alsace, and the Loire Valley rarely undergo malo; the winemakers in those regions feel that the wines are better balanced (and more ageable) when they retain their crisp acidity. Taste a Vouvray (made from chenin blanc) next to a domestic chenin blanc, and you'll see the difference: the American wine will be soft and gentle, while the Vouvray will virtually leap out of the glass.

On the other hand, many winemakers look for a buttery, creamy, "thick" taste in their wines. Chardonnays from California and Australia are especially known for this, and it's often the result of a combination of malolactic fermentation (one of the byproducts of which has a buttery flavor) and heavy oak treatment.

Domestic wine labels are especially helpful in identifying malolactic fermentation, because they'll often tell you what percentage of the wine has undergone malo. When labels give no indication, it is generally (but certainly not always) true that the most expensive, reserve, or single-vineyard whites have undergone more malo than the cheaper, basic whites. Foreign labels rarely indicate such things, which is why you have to know the regional styles. The rule of thumb is that the farther north the region, the less likely it is that wines made there will undergo malo.

Like many winemaking techniques, malo is neither good nor bad by itself. It is, however, often abused. The popularity of buttery wines encourages winemakers to employ the practice without regard to subtlety or balance. In fact, malo can make a wine so soft that artificial acidity has to be added back in to give the wine structure. Full-malo wines can be impressive at comparative tastings, but ponderously heavy to drink, and positively leaden at the dinner table.

Here are a few wines (not necessarily recommended) that undergo varying degrees of malolactic fermentation:

1997 San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($12). Irises and dandelions on the nose; an assertive blend of lime, green-apple, and lily flavors, with tart acidity. Excellent wine. No malo.

1996 Badia a Coltibuono Trappoline ($12). Attacks with sharp green-apple and lime flavors, but softens on the finish. Very light. A textbook example of partial malo.

1997 Clos du Bois Chardonnay Alexander Valley Selection ($15). Fresh melon, orange, and apricot flavors. Fruity, very light oak, and excellent acidic balance. Partial malo.

1997 Coppo Gavi la Rocca ($18). Flowers, lime, and lemongrass, with a soft and unfocused grapefruit character. Partial malo.

1994 Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains ($25). The most delicious, complex California chardonnay I've ever tasted. Cooked tropical fruit and roasted nuts, spices, buttercream, coconut, and tremendous balance. Full malo.

The wine indifference -- or ignorance -- of restaurant critics is a common complaint among wine lovers. But better to pretend wine doesn't exist, as is the Boston Globe's usual practice, than actively to disdain it. Imagine my dismay, then, when one local critic sent American wine appreciation back a few decades last month, writing: " . . . there is a crowd that delights in remembering where Brouilly is, that Mentou-Salon [sic] is like Sancerre, and so on, but these are the people who, by January, will be staying home and drinking their fine wines, talking about their summer homes in Barnstable County."

This is obnoxious on a number of levels. Foremost is the reverse snobbery inherent in the statement: it's okay to like wine, but get too serious about it and you're going to be labeled pretentious. And there's a level of hypocrisy at work as well, because the preceding paragraph of the review in question included an 88-word dissertation on differing philosophies of couscous. If one is meaningful, why is the other an affectation?

More aggravating is the conflation of wine enthusiasm and wealth. This is a pervasive and destructive myth that winemakers, retailers, and even wine writers have spent decades trying to overcome, and this sort of attitude makes it clear that there's still a lot of work to do.

Finally, and somewhat ironically, the critic misspelled "Menetou-Salon." Maybe he left his atlas in Barnstable County.

Thor Iverson can be reached at at

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