Lignification, Maceration, and Malolactic Fermentation, Oh My!

Dorothy in Wizard of OzI feel like Dorothy in Oz-Land when I start thinking about all of the terminology that my winemaker friends use about their vineyards. This weekend, head spinning, I sorted out a few terms with the experts.

Try these on for size, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. If they don’t take you home, at least drop them into the conversation next time you talk wine. They’ll impress your friends.

When Oregon Grapes are Ripe,
they Undergo Lignification

Stuff goes brown. That’s the essence of it.

As grapes mature throughout the growing season, the seeds within the berries evolve, becoming more brown in color and wood-like in consistence. As harvest time grows near, winegrowers will frequently sample berries in order to expose the seeds so they can inspect their color. When seeds begin to lignify, they become brown, a key indicator of ripeness. Similarly, the stems of the clusters will become brown with advancing lignification (or, increased woodiness). Lignified seeds and stems are generally desirable attributes, because the tannins that they contribute to the final wine do not have a “green” character. This is also important when the winemaker intends to use whole cluster fermentation on the grapes, because the brown stems contribute a stronger tannin structure to the wine.

below, grapes that have experienced lignification – the stems are brown and woody, no longer green

lignification in grape stems

To make Oregon Wine, Many Winemakers Use Maceration

The short version: soak the smashed grapes and they get more color and flavors, especially tannins.

Maceration is the process of soaking grapes or must in either juice or alcohol in order to extract larger amounts of phenolics, including color agents, flavor agents, and tannins. An important process in red wine making, maceration is done by holding the crushed grapes for a period of time at a cold temperature to inhibit fermentation while color and tannin flavors increase.

Oregon Chardonnay is Often Subjected to Malolactic fermentation (ML)

Malo = Buttery, creamy flavors.

Often referred to as “malo” or “ML,” malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that often happens spontaneously, but is sometimes induced by a yeast culture. Malic acid is one of the two main acids in wine (the other is tartaric) and is unaffected by the primary fermentation process. Malic acid tends to be harsh, and malolactic fermentation turns Malic acid into softer Lactic acid. ML fermentation softens wines and can provide added complexity and a creamy texture and flavor. ML is frequently desirable in both red and white wines, but too much can reduce the fresh flavors that come from acidity in the wine and turn them flabby. The decision on how to handle ML is made by the winemaker depending on the chemical composition of the grapes and the style of wine he or she wishes to make.

Author: Jean Yates

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