Posted by Tim Perr
This is now my fourth harvest in the wine business, and I still have a problem figuring out what I’m tasting and seeing in barrel this early on. As of today, we have about 100 barrels of wine more or less finished with primary fermentation (where all sugar is turned into alcohol by yeast). All of our barreled wines so far are from red varietals, mostly Pinot Noir. We have about 10 barrels of Zinfandel and Barbera. And, of course, none of the wine has started malolactic fermentation (ML), which will begin in the next month or so.
ML is the yeast-driven process where malic acid is converted into lactic acid. All of our red wines (and most of our white wines) will go through ML before they are bottled. Malic acid is commonly described as tasting like green apples. Lactic acid is commonly associated with creaminess in wines. To me, red wines taste weird prior to ML. The “malicky” taste and aroma masks even basic varietal elements so I personally can’t even tell the difference between a Pinot and a Cab at this stage.
However, I can distinguish some useful characteristics of the wine prior to ML.
First, color. While the wine is still very murky at this point, I can make out which wines will be relatively dark and which wines will be light. Second, I can begin to taste and smell some general components in the wine. For example, our Zinfandel is already showing a peppery taste. Blueberry flavors and aromas can be picked up in some of our Pinot barrels. I can also taste greenness coming from some of the less ripe lots. Third, I can feel tannin levels with my palate at this point. Finally, I can distinguish relative viscosity between barrels. That is, I can see which barrels are going to produce very concentrated wines and which are less concentrated.
So, while I really can’t distinguish overall quality yet, I can begin to see key features developing in the various wines. I recommend that anyone interested in the winemaking process taste pre-ML wines if they get a chance. I actually think it is very educational to taste wines at all stages from grape to finished wine. I look forward to someday tasting a pre-ML wine and being able to confidently say, “That’s a 95-point wine.”