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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Making Dry White Wines—To Oak or Not to Oak

White wines are not fermented with their skins. The clear juice of the grapes (white or black) is pressed away from the skins after they are crushed and de-stemmed, and the juice is fermented on its own. The skins are not needed for color to make a white wine, though there may be some hours of skin contact for full-bodied whites (or blanc de noir wines, to be discussed later). White grape skins have little tannin, and temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenters keep the heat that is produced during fermentation from literally cooking the white wine. For less expensive dry white wines, fermenting the juice and bottling the wine without oak aging takes only a few months; so these wines are bottled as little as six months after harvest. Light, dry white wines age more quickly than any other type of wine and are for early drinking.

Fermenting White Wines

The best white wines—particularly Chardonnay—are barrel fermented in oak to give them added complexity; a toasty, yeasty flavor; and greater longevity. Some of these great Chardonnays will even be aged sur lie—on the "lees" or sediment of yeast that falls to the bottom of the barrels after fermentation, which gives the wine an added richness. Further barrel aging for the best whites is shorter than for red wines, however, taking only 6–18 months after the vintage or harvest. That is why white wines are released to the market much sooner than red wines, and why even the greatest whites do not live as long in the bottle as better reds.

Great white wines, especially Chardonnay (and some red wines too), undergo a second fermentation called malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is done in another set of barrels. It converts the tart green-apple-flavored malic acid in the wine to softer lactic acid, which has the flavor of butter or cream. This is the only process that can make a Chardonnay buttery. Malolactic fermentation gives a butterscotch complexity to the great white Burgundy wines of France, which were the original malolactic fermented Chardonnays. Finding these buttery Chardonnays is not easy, since many Chardonnays do not tell you on the front or back label whether the winemaker put the wine through malolactic fermentation. The price level is a good indication, however, because this second fermentation costs a lot more money and ties up inventory for several more months.

Wine is unique among beverages. Its enormous range of flavors and tastes belie the fact that it is composed of acids, tannins, and alcohol. Besides tartaric and malic acids, white grapes also tend to have a lot of citric acid. Citric acid makes these white wines smell and taste like the citrus fruits: lemons or limes. Now you can understand why buttery malolactic fermented Chardonnays are described as tasting like lemon butter, which makes them the perfect wine partner for lobster, crab, and fish.

No one wants his or her white wine to taste like wood, but oak-fermented creamy or buttery whites are very much appreciated with richer main courses. Oak barrel aging is a financial investment in any case, so winemakers decide on the basis of the variety and the greatness of their grapes in a certain vintage year or from a certain vineyard. Some white wines are not meant to be oak aged at all in order for them to retain their fresh, fruit flavors. So the question "to oak or not to oak" that a winemaker must answer before he begins white wine production is a very important one. Some American winemakers initiated the dubious practice of using heavily "toasted" (charred) oak barrels several years ago, but it made their Chardonnays smell and taste like burnt wood. Hopefully, you won’t encounter them in the marketplace, but if you do, the aroma reveals all.

Chilling the Wine and Removing Tartrate Crystals

Finally, most stainless steel fermented white wines produced in the New World go through cold stabilization. In California wineries you can see the frost on the outside of the stainless steel fermenters as the wine is chilled until the tartrate crystals precipitate and can be removed. Tartaric acid is the main acid in grapes. Chilling white wine after fermentation causes the formation of tartrate crystals, which are like the cream of tartar used in making candy and meringues. Tartrate crystals can be the sign of a hand-crafted wine from a great vintage. I’ve seen tartrate crystals in some of the finest dry reds such as Zinfandel or Chianti from Italy, as well as in very sweet whites, and even inexpensive mass market wines. But when these crystals collect in the bottom of a wine bottle, some people think the crystals are ground glass and don’t want to drink the wine. Modern wineries preempt any consumer reaction by chilling the wine to remove the crystals, but even then some crystals may still form in extreme cold.

Adjusting the Wine’s Fruitiness and Sweetness

This brings me to the definition of fruity. Fruity is often thought to mean sweet, but dry white and red wines also can be fruity. Fruity means the character of fresh fruits: red fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, or cherries; black fruits, such as blackberries; blue fruits, such as blueberries or deep blue blackcurrants (cassis); tropical fruits, such as pineapple or mango; and citrus fruits, such as lemon or grapefruit. For white wines in particular, this also may mean they have beautiful aromas of fresh flowers as well as the taste of fresh green grapes. So, in addition to deciding whether to age the wine in barrels, a winemaker also chooses how sweet to make the finished wine. Winemakers control sweetness by stopping fermentation before all the natural grape sugar has been turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast.

White wines can vary tremendously in sweetness or the residual grape sugar left after fermentation. White wines can be made bone-dry with no residual sugar—the austere style of many French dry white wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy—or medium-dry with just the barest hint of natural sweetness like a German Riesling in the dry Kabinett style—or lusciously sweet like a Sauternes or Ice Wine. Real wine experts love all styles of white wine. They know that certain medium-dry white wines are actually better partners than dry white wines when foods have an orange juice marinade, a dried cherry sauce, or a fig or raisin stuffing. As you practice tasting a wide variety of white wines with different food partners, you can expect to gain an appreciation for the wide range of good white wines in many styles.

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