"There's no way I'm drinking that!" was the response I got from one otherwise happy-go-lucky wine taster at last weekend's The First Sip. She was peering into a glass of muddy, light-brownish liquid, which was 2010 Chardonnay in the making.
I was pouring finished, brilliant-gold 2009 Van Ruiten Chardonnay, showing nice creamy citrus and apple flavors, then referring the fearless over to the barrel to my right for a sample of the ugly 2010 version.
The challenge of having that first sip in November is that most new wines are going through what we call in the business "ML," "malo" or "that funky phase."
During this time, malo-lactic bacteria are breeding wildly, eating up the very sharp malic acid - think overly tart green apples - and pooping out the much more smooth lactic acid. This secondary, malo-lactic fermentation stabilizes the wine and softens it at the same time.
Winemakers usually avoid tasting wines going through ML, because the swarms of natural bacteria are also spitting out a constant stream of carbon dioxide along with a temporary earthiness or even sweaty socks flavor.
Van Ruiten's Chardonnay was - like it or not - a perfect example of the winemaking process for those willing to learn. You essentially had a muddy, carbonated, somewhat acidic beverage, with some emerging nice tropical and citrus flavors serving as a preview of the goodness to come.
By about Christmas, the bacteria will have completed their meal and mostly died off, and the wine will have dissipated its carbonation and funkiness. By February, the cloudiness will have fallen to the bottom of the barrel, leaving the wine looking clear, as you are accustomed to seeing it.
Wineries going for a fruit-forward style of Chardonnay will then rack (pump) the wine into a tank that will be chilled down near freezing to make sure those broken-glass-like crystals of tartrates get thrown away, rather than form in the bottle in your fridge. This style of Chard is bottled in late winter/early spring.
If a winery wishes to make a big, buttery style of Chard, the wine will be stirred every few weeks or so to get all that mud - composed mostly of dead yeast - back up into the liquid, contributing a creamy, yeasty and even more buttery big mouthfeel. New French or American oak barrels can also kick in over the course of 18 months or more of aging to finish spreading on another heaping layer of flavors.