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Malolactic Fermentation: What Is It?

By The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

There is a passage in Rex Pickett’s fabulous book “Sideways” (St. Martin’s Press) when Jack is surprised that his drinking pal Miles likes chardonnay. We know he didn’t like merlot, but Miles is equally disgusted with most California chardonnays. Although the movie is fictional, it is intriguing how close to the truth Miles gets.

Miles accurately says that California chardonnay, unlike French chardonnay, suffers from too much malolactic fermentation, which introduces unnatural flavors such as caramel, banana and spice. Compare a chardonnay that has 100 percent MLF, as the process is commonly known, with one that undergoes, say, 50 percent MLF and you’ll experience a difference in texture. Understanding the difference will help guide you in finding the right wine for dinner.

What is malolactic fermentation?

Simply, it is a process that converts malic acid (think apples) into lactic (think milk) by adding bacteria after or during fermentation. Consider most sauvignon blancs – tart, citrusy and acidic because there is usually no ML. Now, consider chardonnay – buttery and smooth if they have ample MLF.

Burgundy and Bordeaux rarely exercise malolatic fermentation, preferring instead to show off the acidity and purity of fruit. California, on the other hand, uses MLF liberally – sometimes too liberally.

If you like buttery, smooth chardonnays, look for those that have undergone ML fermentation entirely or in part. Sometimes this is stated on the label but most of the time a consumer has to look at the technical sheets found on a producer’s website. Alas, we don’t find these wines very good matches to most food unless there is a creamy component to the sauce.

If you like your chardonnay with acidity to marry better with seafood, look for versions with no or little MLF. A Macon-Villages from Burgundy, which is very reasonably priced, is a good place to start. These wines see little – if any – oak as well.

David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars, for instance focuses unabashedly on chardonnay with full ML fermentation. We love the wines for their richness, but we’re careful with the foods to pair them with. J. Lohr and Rombauer, one of the most popular chardonnays, are also buttery because of ML fermentation.

If you prefer acidity over smoothness, look for unoaked wines that are usually labeled as such. Look for chardonnays from France’s Maconnais and Chablis regions, New Zealand and Chile. Kendall-Jackson also makes a great unoaked chardonnay called Avant.

Here are some reasonably priced French chardonnays that avoid excessive malolatic fermentation.

  • Chateau Fuisse Pouilly-Fuisse “Les Brules” 2019 ($45). Buttery with ripe apple and vanilla aromas, stone fruit flavors with hints of toasted oak and coconut. Good acidity and long in the finish.

  • Arnaud Baillot Montagny Premier Cru 2019 ($35). Unfiltered and unfined, this bottle from the Chalonnaise exhibits a bit of cloudiness that for us portends good things to come. Loads of pure, vibrant tropical fruit and apple character. For the price, it’s hard to beat as long as you can handle some suspended particles.

  • Henri Perrusset Macon-Villages 2019 ($18). Using native yeasts and vineyards grown in limestone, this gem has zest with crisp acidity and fresh fruit built on a mineral base. The wines from the Maconnais represent great values in French chardonnay.

  • Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay 2020 ($15). This historical producer, whose wines are ubiqutuous in this country, deviates from others by using “chardonnay” on the label for those who don’t know it’s the white grape of Burgundy. Simple and medium bodied, it has apple and citrus notes, nice minerality. Good value.

  • Les Tourelles de la Cree Montagny 2018 ($25). This premier cru from the Cotes Chalonnaise far exceeds its price in quality. Chateau de la Cree was purchased in 2015 by Ken and Grace Evanstad, founders of Domaine Serene in Oregon. Although Ken recently died, Grace continues to lead a team of winemakers to produce only top-quality wine. This chardonnay exhibits apple and citrus notes with a dash of melon.

  • Domaine Alain Chavy Bourgogne Chardonnay 2019 ($28). Drawing grapes from young vines planted in Puligny, Alain Chavy delivers a great value. Fresh apple and citrus flavors, distinct minerality and balanced oak.

  • Jean-Jacques Girard Sauvigny-les-Beaune 2018 ($54). About 85 percent of the wine from this region is red, but once in a while we come across a white that represents the same value in quality French burgundy. Apple and spice aromas with rich apple flavors and good minerality.

Wine picks

  • Alma de Cattleya Chardonnay Sonoma County 2020 ($26). We like this chardonnay year-after-year because of its consistent palate appeal. Laser-sharp aromas of apple and spice with soft apple and pear flavors. Balanced acidity.

  • Arano Ribera del Duero Moradillo de Roa 2018 ($27). We’re vowing to drink more Spanish tempranillo this year just to find gems like this reasonably priced monster from the Ribera del Duero region. An offspring of CVNE wines, this relatively new wine sources grapes from the estate’s Moradillo de Roa vineyards. Intense blackberry and floral aromas with black cherry flavors and hints of spice and oak notes. Silky tannins, full body.

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