2010 White Harvest Hits the Bottle

By Posted on Feb 14 2011 | By

On August 11 of last year, I posted a report on my 2009 wine production. In it I included an assessment that the hot and dry 2010 Virginia growing season held the threat of heartache for winemakers; especially for the production of white wine.

The heartache never materialized.

Blistering summer temperatures can drive up sugar levels and drop acidity in white grapes that is not conducive to making aromatic and bright white wines.  But if my experience is mirrored by the professionals around the state, the Grape Class of 2010 graduated magna cum laude.

As expected, the juice I was able to procure last September was, indeed, lower in acidity than hoped for.  But that’s not unusual in Virginia.  When the deficiency occurs winemakers can add natural grape acids to produce balanced wine.  The addition can be done both before and after fermentation, but ideally the correction is performed before the juice is converted into wine.

Let’s Get Technical
In my case, I treated most of my white juice—Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay with additions of tartaric acid, the major acid found in wine. Only my Seyval Blanc was procured with good acidity levels.  For those unfamiliar with winemaking, the thought of adding acid to juice may seem off-putting.  But it is a critical component of sound winemaking if the harvested fruit is deficient.  Without it, the final product would be flabby and boring with a one dimensional character.  Bump up the acid to proper levels and the wine comes alive.  Think of a generous squeeze of fresh lemon on a tender filet of Mahi Mahi; the sea catch’s flavor is enhanced and intensified.  Ditto for wine.

This year I also committed to blocking a secondary fermentation called malolactic in all my whites.  While not a true fermentation process, it converts the malic acid in a wine to lactic acid, softening the mouthfeel and producing butter notes on the finish. It is most commonly used in making Chardonnay.  Remember tasting notes that mentioned a “buttery Chardonnay”?  The wine went through ML, or malolactic fermentation.

But I prefer white wine that is bone dry, bright and razor sharp, so I prevented ML through an addition of sulfites.  Most commercial wine is treated with a minuscule amount of sulfur.  It inhibits microbial activity and permits wine to age for longer than a year or so.  It is probably the single most important additive in producing sound wine.  Dried fruit, by the way, has several more times sulfur added to it to preserve the product.  Sulfur is widely used in commercial food processing.

White Wine Undergoing Malolactic Fermentation

One mystery that I again encountered was the failure of sulfur to stop a slow, inexorable ML from occurring in my Chardonnay.  I have discussed this issue with professional winemakers who are hard pressed to believe the ML process could proceed with sufficient levels of sulfites in the wine.  Nonetheless, I have three six-gallon carboys of Chardonnay—completely dry—that continue to produce telltale ML bubbles slowly crawling of the sides of the vessels, even with 50ppm of free sulfur in the wine.  The wine completed its primary fermentation back in late September and has been softly perking away ever since, converting the malic acid to lactic.  To assure the process goes to completion, I wrapped the carboys in an electric blanket and maintain the wine temperature at 74 degrees.  ML bacteria are very sensitive to cold and could stop working if the wine became chilled.  Daddy needs to keep his little babies nice and comfy.

Let It Be
So what to do?  Let the wine be itself.  I dare not proceed further with cold stabilization or filtering because home winemakers cannot steri-filter.  If I don’t let the wine have its way in the carboy, it most assuredly will have its way in the bottle.  And I am not a fan of cloudy, fizzy Chardonnay.  It’s here that patience in winemaking is rewarded.  The wine tastes good so I will let it proceed through full ML before it goes into the bottle.

I have now bottled 23 cases of my white wines and they are pouring very nicely, displaying pale straw hues and aromas and flavors ranging from white peach and lemon to tropical fruits; all framed with bright acidity.  Jean and I can’t wait for the summer months to really begin enjoying our little hobby in the glass.

As for my red wines, about a third of them have completed ML and the rest are chugging away under an electric blanket.  Almost all red wine is encouraged to go through ML and it will not be till early summer before I consider bottling any of my Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot blend or Cabernet Sauvignon.

But that’s not a problem. Last year’s reds are pouring just fine.

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