March 07, 2007

It Is Alive

Spring’s not quite here, though spring did unofficially start here in western Oregon last week when we said our last goodbyes to February. Which means things should be happening in the wine cellar as ambient temperatures rise and the new wine from last fall comes back to life.

What things, you ask? Why, malolactic fermentation of course.

Geeks know that “ml” is that still sort of mysterious process where malic acid is broken down into lactic acid, turning a sharply acidic, young wine into something more mature with a softer, rounder texture. Not to mention a slight spritz, as the wine gives off carbon dioxide in the process.

These days, ml typcially happens during or shortly after primary fermentation just after harvest. Wineries tend to innoculate for ml with a special strain of bacteria that quickly and predictably completes the process, free of any delay or worry. The idea is that bad things can happen if ml doesn’t finish quickly. But not everyone agrees with that.

In the old days, ml happened naturally, typically in the spring when young wine slowly warmed up after the cold winter and resumed its chemical activity. The thinking was that, as the sap rose in the vines, the prior year’s wine would return to life in a symbiotic way to finish primary fermentation. No one knew for sure about ml until the early 20th century, and winemakers were certainly surprised to find that a bacteria, otherwise considered the enemy of quality wine, would play such an important and useful role in creating great wine.

Science has since shown us that the ml process won’t happen when the temperature is too cold. So if you don’t innoculate for ml and keep your wine cold over the winter, you can live like the ancients and let your wine complete ml naturally. No additives, no rushing, just natural winemaking. Many wineries still do it this way, but even more will look at you funny at the notion of letting a wine go through ml on its own. Are you crazy?

Well, maybe. It’s true, things can always go wrong if you don’t assert your control over every aspect of the winemaking process. But things can go wrong if you do. And plenty of great wine (perhaps most) was and is made with a hands off approach, so I’m trying my best to experiment with that route and see what I learn.

So you can imagine my delight after pulling the bung on my one barrel of 2006 Pinot Noir from the Wahle Vineyard to do my regular topping and noticing, and then hearing, a slight sparkle in the wine. I’ve been waiting for this moment, partly in fear that it would ever come, but mostly not sure when. That is, how warm would it need to be to reactivate the wine?

Turns out that, after a winter where my barrel was in the 40s down to the upper 30s, a creep into the 50s was just enough to get ml going. Which is great, because that’s still a low enough temperature to keep the wine fresh but obviously not too cold for renewed activity. The wine tastes a bit fizzy but otherwise shows no ill effects of ml so far.

In the next few months, I expect the wine to turn a bit cloudy and taste a bit metallic as ml completes. Then things should settle back down and the truly finished wine will emerge during the summer.

So far, so good. An enologist friend of mine wondered if I knew precisely which strain of ml bacteria was working in the wine. I have no idea, and I don’t really care. So far, things have gone well. And if the ancients could make wine this way, I don’t see why I can’t too.

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