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Malolactic fermentation

A well-utilised word in wine-speak is malolactic fermentation (“Malo”), a winemaking term which more-or-less also describes a style of white wine. The term is most commonly associated with the Chardonnay grape. So, what is it, exactly?  It is when malic acid (think crisp, sour green apples) is converted into lactic acid (milk, cream, butter), a bacteria-induced fermentation which happens concurrently or following alcoholic fermentation, a completely natural process which reduces acidity in wine.  In red wine production it is par for the course, with almost all red wines allowed to undergo the process as part of its natural cycle, before aging, racking and bottling. However, in white wine production winemakers either choose to encourage the fermentation, typically by an inoculation of desirable bacteria, or they stop it completely. Those who choose to prevent malolactic fermentation do so because they want to maintain the wine`s acidity levels and freshness. A great many of these are produced in steel tanks. Those who favour the process do so to soften the wine and add complexity, and they usually, but not always, choose oak barrels for the purpose. The resultant wine is softened by “Malo” and develops a buttery flavour which works especially well with oak-aged Chardonnays.  The wines, notably, have a textural quality and buttery richness. In practice, a great many Chardonnays are a blend of barrels (sometimes tanks as well) of which some have undergone malolactic fermentation, and others have not. Much of the winemaker`s skill is in blending these together, achieving the sought-after fresh, buttery and complex styles we love to drink with seafood and creamy pastas.  Incidentally, since most finished wine in bottle has seen at least some oak, typically 6-12 months, the same wines would also be expected to display at least some of the characteristics associated with aging in oak. Chief among these, in Chardonnays, is vanilla and toast.  It is perhaps not surprising that many a tasting note refers to buttered toast.

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