Of Esters & MLFs.
Chapter Twelve. Parts Three & Four.
The Ester Ouster
The cellular make-up of grape skins hold barely detectable aromatic compounds that are magnified during fermentation. Without fermentation these compounds would remain trapped inside the grape skins and then this would be a boring blog about grapes that no one will read … as opposed to a boring blog about wine that no one will read.
The cellular make-up of different grape varieties translates into aromas that are unique to that variety. During fermentation these compounds interact with yeast, alcohol and acids to create flavor substances known as esters. These esters also develop and evolve after fermentation, as chemical reactions continue to take place as wine ages. I also continue to develop new chemical reactions as I age but I control them with Depends.
The peach-like aroma found in Viognier comes from the same ester found in peaches, just as Cabernet Sauvignon shares certain esters with black currants. To give you an idea of the complex flavor capabilities of grapes, over 200 different esters can be produced through fermentation, which coincidentally, is half as many Esters as can be found in the Minneapolis phone book.
MLF (It Has Nothing to Do With Moms.)
After the initial fermentation process, the primary one that produces wines buzz-factor, red wines and some white wines undergo a secondary fermentation that changes their acidic composition and results in a textural metamorphosis. MLF (malolactic fermentation – which is a lot easier to say than it is to pronounce) converts tart-tasting malic acids like those found in green apples, into creamier lactic acids, like those found in milk. But don’t worry, it’s skim milk so wine that undergoes MLF won’t make your butt look fat.
Red wines undergo MLF naturally, whereas it must be induced in white wines. The winemaker rarely puts white wine through 100% MLF, choosing instead to transform only a portion of the harsh, sour acids. After undergoing MLF, wines lose the sharp edges associated with tart acidity and feel smoother and richer (like Ivana Trump felt after divorcing The Donald). Think of the crisp, tart traits of Sauvignon Blanc versus the creamy, buttery quality of some Chardonnays and you will better understand of the effects of MLF.
Diacetyl, the compound that gives butter its buttery flavor, is one of the esters produced during MLF. The amount of malic acid and type of lactic bacteria effects how much diacetyl is produced, so winemakers must learn how to control these compounds. As the diacetyl level increases in wine, the flavor becomes more buttery and may eventually resemble the flavor of butterscotch.
This buttery trait has been the hallmark of California Chardonnay dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. As is often the case with New World winemaking, this style can be overdone. When the wine buying public grows weary of the excessiveness of domestic winemaking, the reactionary response from wine producers tends to be, well … excessive in the opposite direction.
When consumers grew tired of over-oaked Chardonnay, wine producers started a trend towards totally un-oaked wines. Virgin wine is a common term for wine that has never seen wood. Really. Sometimes you don’t have to make this stuff up – it just falls in your lap.
If you ask most wine consumers what their biggest complaint is they’ll probably answer, “These pants make my butt look fat.” But if you ask them what their biggest complaint about wine is, they’ll likely say, “This wine makes my butt look fat.”
No, no, that’s not it! They’ll say, “New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon can be overblown and inconsistent”. This has created a bit of a backlash from wine consumers who often remark, “I’m looking for ABC.” The acronym stands for “Anything but Chardonnay” or “Anything but Cabernet.” In just twenty years of wine retailing I’ve seen the stylistic pendulum of California winemaking bounce back and forth more times than a beach ball at a Jimmy Buffett concert.