In Part 2 of his harvest overview, Bruno D'Alfonso talked about fermentation, as his Chardonnay was making the transition from juice to wine. Here, in the final part of this series, he talks about what's happening now in the winemaking process, as the wines begin to take shape in the barrels.
"I inoculate [for malolactic fermentation] when the sugar level is about maybe 1 or 2 brix. You don't want to inoculate when there's too [much] sugar because malolactic bacteria will convert sugar to volatile acidity. The other side of that is that the yeast is consuming the nutrients, and malolactics are more sensitive than yeasts. You want to still have some nutrients in the fresh wine. It's a blend of damned if you do, damned if you don't. What you need to do is have a good balance of nutrients, but not a lot of sugar, and the malolactics will get a good foothold. I don't want to put the malolactic in 100 percent wine because the alcohols are high, and that works against the bacteria as well.
"Another problem is other bacteria can get in there. That's why you want a quick, clean, even fermentation. It goes back to not using these feral organisms. Plus, feral malolactics create histamines at a greater rate than the cultured ones. Those are responsible for giving people these horrible headaches. I know people who take Claritin or some sort of antihistamine before they drink certain producers' wines. The wines that are more soundly made, you won't get those headaches. People have this impression that it's a sulfite problem, but it's not. They're histamines that these bacteria create.
"Especially in a new barrel, the wood has a lot of different sugars itself, and those go into the system. The malolactics will finish first in a new barrel, and later in an old barrel. And in a tank, which is usually outside, it's a cooler place, so the malolactics take a lot longer there. The new barrels finish first, then the older barrels, then the tank.
"We make two Chardonnays. The vineyard-designated La Rinconada is 100 percent malolactic, 100 percent new wood for 18 to 22 months. We don't like to filter that wine. For the entry-level estate Chardonnay, we do partial malolactic, partial stainless, partial barrel, some old wood, some new wood. I used to do [full malolactic] with all the wines. Now my desire is to have a wine with higher acidity, more tightly wound. I like lower pHs, higher acidities--a much more vertical, steely kind of an impression. That's why I do partial malolactics. I like to retain some of that acidity. The big, fat, round, rich wines have sort of fallen out of favor. People like more racy wines these days, which is good. I like them too. I used to drink nothing but those bigger wines. The problem is that people are making these bigger wines, but they're not doing a very good job of it. They're sloppy, the pH is too high, the acidity is too low, they lay on your tongue very heavily, they're out of balance. The higher-acid wines are more structurally sound. They're microbiologically more stable, the flavors are more precise.
"I monitor [the wine] for the completion of malolactic. Once it's finished they get racked, blended, sulfured, a light fining, and then back to barrel. If the malolactic finishes somewhere around April or May, then I pull it out, do the racking, the sulfur and the fining, then it goes back until August. It just depends on what the previous vintage is doing in the market. If it's being sold fast, then I have to accelerate the processing of the following vintage. If sales are going not so fast, then I can leave it in the barrel longer, until after the next harvest. But that also takes up tank space and barrel space, which you really don't want to do. Ideally, you want to bottle the '05 in August of '06."
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