Thursday, May 21, 2009

Malo in a Bottle

Some say that to break the rules, one must first know the rules; that to produce great art, no matter how abstract, one must first master the fundamentals.

One of the things I love most about natural wines is their intrinsically unpredictable nature. Winemakers, no matter how talented, take known risks when they choose to ferment using only natural yeasts, to minimize or even abolish the use of sulfur in the vineyards and in the cellar, to work in a relatively noninterventionist manner.

Cour-Cheverny "Les Sables," Domaine Philippe Tessier 2005
$19. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
In spite of its slight haziness, the strongest first impression made by Tessier’s “Les Sables” was not visual but rather aromatic, one of those scents that you know without a doubt, even if you can’t immediately pin it down. In this case it was butter cream… butter cream icing to be exact. The wine was confounding in other ways as well: drinking like a cross between mead, Chenin and Ribolla; definitely sporting a few grams of residual sugar although feeling completely dry; there was even raspiness in its texture, lending the wine an assertive, intensely textured mouthfeel. The aromas and flavors: just as unusual…. Along with that butter cream icing there were primary notes of melon, honey and orange oil; at one moment, there was a suggestion of slight oxidation, maybe even flor; at the next, the wine smelled intensely autolytic, almost like a richly yeasty style of Champagne; and finally, on day two, it was gin that I smelled, right down to the juniper berries and pine.

There were definite signs – from general cloudiness, to the occasional stranded solid to a distinctly petillant prickle – that this went through at least partial malolactic fermentation in bottle. Does that make it a flawed wine?

If you compare my notes with those of The Uncorker, there’s little question that we tasted two very different examples of the same wine. So, there’s bottle variation in the mix as well. Another fault?

That all depends, I suppose, on how you look at things. If wine is indeed a living thing, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be differences, whether subtle or extreme, from bottle to bottle. Of course, the more extreme, the more difficult it becomes for the market to bear the wine.

My pals Jeremy (of Do Bianchi) and Cory (of Saignée) checked out the skin fermented Chardonnay from Natural Process Alliance at Terroir SF a little while back. Another example of malo in a bottle – even if the “bottle” is steel. Judging from Jeremy's photo, it was darker and cloudier than Tessier’s Cour-Cheverny, but you get the idea.

The occasional wacky bottle of natural wine would most likely be taken in stride, even embraced, at wine bars like Terroir in San Francisco or Ten Bells in New York, where the staff and clientele alike seem ready and waiting for such possibilities. On a wine list at a suburban restaurant, on the other hand, things might get dicey.

To quote from the literature on malolactic fermentation used at the University of California at Davis:

“Malolactic Fermentation in Bottle: increases turbidity due to cell growth; produces noticeable gas as CO2; may produce polysaccharides material ( haze and/or ropiness); may raise pH allowing growth of spoilage organisms; and does not allow for control of flavor/aroma profile of wine. Cloudiness or turbidity is objectionable in wine. Many consumers do not understand the source of the cloudiness so equate it with spoilage. The decarboxylation of malate yields carbon dioxide, which will produce noticeable bubbles in the wine. This is again undesired because many consumers do not understand the source of the CO2, so equate it with an inferior or spoiled product. The bacteria may produce other unwanted products that are noticeable in the bottle.… Also if the reaction occurs in the bottle, the winemaker has no control over the process.”

While I expect Philippe Tessier (and other natural winemakers like him) understand and can apply the clinically correct approach taught at UC Davis, he chooses to do things differently, knowingly taking on risks in the process. Tessier farms organically. He vinifies his wines on their ambient yeasts and uses only a soupcon of sulfur at bottling time. He does these things not to make his wines easier to sell or easier for the average consumer to take in stride; he does them because he believes it makes his wines better – truer expressions of both his land and spirit. Whether or not Monsieur Tessier intended for his Cour-Cheverny to go through malo in bottle, and I expect he did not, the wine was still delicious. And I respect the risks he takes, even if it means an occasionally wacky bottle, unpredictable result or negative reaction.


Do Bianchi said...

When Tracie B and I were at Terroir on Sunday night, Guilhaume poured us an NPA Chardonnay that had been opened for 2 weeks and another that had just been opened. They were both entirely alive and yummy but completely different — and not just different because of age but rather because of the evolution of the wine.

The vid of SOS is rad. Andy Summers gtr sounds so raw and awesome. My tele was built by the same luthier that builds his guitars these days, John Carruthers.

Great post and thanks for the shout out...

saignee said...

I recently had some wine from Binner that had gone through malo in the bottle and it was an ugly thing to taste. I have yet to try the Tessier cour-cheverny, but it has been on my radar for a minute. Thanks for the shout out.

Director, Lab Outreach said...

So would you accept the bottle for refund at the store? Just curious.

Also curious if you know whether refermentation is always malolactic? Had never thought about that before.

David McDuff said...

It seems I'll have to wait for a trip out West before I have the chance to taste any of the NPA wines.

I dug the Police video too -- an obvious choice/inspiration given the title of my post. (In the way of strange synchronicity, I'm watching Andy Summers (and the Police) on "Spectacle, Elvis Costello with..." right now.) Definitely a great guitar sound, and so much rawer than his later style.

You and Cory are both more than welcome for the shouts-out.

Malo in the bottle can indeed be ugly, thus the not entirely erroneous/vanilla info from UC Davis. In this case, it yielded interesting, even enlightening results. In others, it can result in a downright bacterial mess. Sounds like that was the case with the Binner.

Herr Director,
Even though I enjoyed the wine, I'd take it back (if I sold it, which I don't) in a heartbeat. It's not what the winemaker intended. Technically, it's not "the wine." And the shop where I work has a very liberal, customer oriented return policy. But, again, this is one of those cases where the unintended/unexpected yielded something compelling rather than something foul.

As to your other question, it's entirely possible for refermentation to be primary (rather than malolactic) alcoholic fermentation. Just think of the pseudo-myth of Dom Perignon seeing stars after fermentation recommenced in the spring following a cold winter in the cellars. The Methode l'Ancienne is pretty much based on bottle refermentation, as is much of the Pet-Nat movement. It's also been known to happen less intentionally, via a combination of residual sugar and a light enough filtration that a speck or ten of yeast manages to survive in the bottle.

(By the way, The Police are now playing "Message in a Bottle," as I'm watching, on "Spectacle." Freaky.)

Samantha Dugan said...

Now speaking as a "wine geek" I will say that I find these blips of variation totally facinating and as you said, part of natural winemaking and in part adds some personality but as a retailer, whole nuther story. One or two bottles, I don't bat an eye but when I have 10 cases of Verget Syrah Rose go all wacky on me...gotta make a call and arragnge a pickup. While my customers are up to something interesting, it can be, as Saignee so beautiflly put it, "ugly" especailly when the spritz is more of a stinging, and the aromatics remind me of sitting in the hair salon waiting for my Mom's perm to set...foul.
Would our store take a wine like that back, sure but not before tasting it with the customer, (if they were down to taking a few minutes) and pointing out that there is some merit in the wine, (although that Verget..blech) and pointing out how passionate the winemaker was about making a pure wine, that he took such a risk, more times than not the customer will not write off the estate and be willing to give it another try, maybe in another vintage, but it is better than punishing the estate for one "off" bottle, batch or vintage.
Great post, love it when you make me like think and junk!

David McDuff said...

Hey Sam,

Sorry it's taken a few days to respond, but I'm very much in agreement with your thoughts on this (and I'm glad to have provoked them).

Though I have no statistical evidence to support it, my gut tells me that this was a one-off bottle rather than a rampant issue with the Tessier C-C. Having drunk it, I can also reiterate that it was a definite example of interesting bottle variation rather than disastrous variation. As a retailer myself, there have certainly been a number of occasions, whether with natural wines or more conventional wines, when we've had to return an entire lot of wine. Extreme reductivity, acetobacteria run wild, hygiene issues and, yes, bottle re-fermentation are all issues that come to mind with such cases.

I also respect the time you try to take to educate your customers when they return such bottles. Our shop tend to take a "the customer is always right" approach, which may be great from a simple customer service perspective but doesn't go nearly as far toward actually educating the customer about the specific issue (if indeed there is one) and, as you say, of keeping them from running scared of other wines/bottles/vintages from the same producer.

Thanks for the great comment.

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