A Bug's Life - Minding the Malolactic in English Sparkling Wine

Acidity is at the centre of English Sparkling Wine's story, but I doubt I'm alone in sometimes wondering whether it's the hero or the villain. Is is 'electric' and 'vibrant', or 'piercing' and 'shrill'? Is it a glowing, brightly-lit highway which delivers a continuous stream of flavour, or a giant pothole that throws the whole wine off the road?  In general, English growers have learnt how to encourage their grapes to shed as much acid as possible. Nevertheless, there is one tool that is often used in the winery to further tame the beast; malolactic fermentation (MLF).

For a primer on malolactic, read this excellent piece over on the Wine Society website. In a nutshell, MLF enables a winemaker to convert the harsh, bright malic acid that is so prevalent in cool-climate grapes into creamer, less acidic-tasting lactic acid. The bacteria used to do this conversion (which is not actually a fermentation of any kind) do a fairly quiet job but, depending on the approach used, tend to offer up a variety of flavours and textures into a wine which could be described as creamy, buttery or even yoghurty.

Sounds attractive? Well, a few hardy English folk choose to keep these friendly microbes away from their wines. It's fairly common to avoid malolactic in Champagne for wines that need structure and backbone, but here in England we're never short of an H+ ion or two. Is it foolish to refuse the offerings of these most specialised of microbial allies?

Is MLF Necessary For Balance, Or A Stylistic Choice?

The current release of Nyetimber's Classic Cuvée MV

"We aren’t dogmatic about MLF, but we haven’t found an occasion yet where we think non-MLF would suit us (and we have occasionally trialled this just to be sure). Given that none of the broad spectrum of vintages that we’ve had since 2008 have been appropriate for non-MLF wines, I can’t see a time in the foreseeable future that we don’t use it." Brad Greatrix, Nyetimber

It seems to me as though malolactic is a small but important part of the picture when it comes to the textural finesse of the current Nyetimber wines - they are always elegant and bright but avoid austerity. You would choose to age them just as much for flavour development as to round them out or soften them. I don't know if others would agree, but the recent editions of MV have had slightly toned-down dairy flavours compared to some of the very first I remember trying. Nevertheless, Nyetimber without MLF would be radically different.

Fox & Fox's electric non-malo 'Essence' Blanc De Blancs

Forty miles to the east of Nyetimber's home in West Sussex, Fox & Fox choose not to put the fruits of their 12.5 hectares through MLF. Their wines are made by Will Davenport, which seems a natural fit; with the work involved to get MLF going in English musts, it qualifies as the sort of intervention Davenport tries to avoid. The wines come out of the stable brightly-lit and stark naked - they are quite unique in their direct, brilliant freshness. In Jonica Fox's words,

"I prefer the focus on the fruit. We aim to manage acidity though vineyard quality ambitions, ageing, (pre and post-bottling), balanced dosage and time under cork. I think of our wines in terms of purity and minimal manipulation."

The directness does make me slightly more inclined to tuck them away in the cellar, but there is something to be said for tasting them before the effects of extended cork age and dosage start to kick in. I'd encourage anyone to put a glass of the 2014 'Essence' Blanc De Blancs next to a glass of Nyetimber Blanc De Blancs to get a sense of two formidable English Chardonnay wines with very different DNA profiles.

In unpicking this stylistic variation, Lyme Bay and ex-Langham winemaker Liam Idzikowski points towards a delineation between wines that try and emulate Champagne and wines that don't:

"I think MLF is definitely a stylistic choice in England because there are some fantastic wines made without it. If the wine is going to be styled on Champagne then MLF is very important. Higher temperatures degrade malic acid in grapes, and Champagne’s continental climate has considerably more ‘hot’ days then ours. Interestingly many are moving to partial malolactic fermentation to maintain acidity levels which were once too high."

As well as lower levels of acidity, a certain creaminess is part of many people's perception of a Champagne-type flavour. MLF is a way to introduce this into a wine without having to wait for the effects of extended lees-ageing to provide some textural interest, even if the effects are really completely different. Nevertheless, most (but not all) producers agree that MLF enhances early drinkability. Jonica Fox again:

"For high-acid wines it can make them more approachable at the point that they meet the statutory minimum times for ageing in bottle. That can be important economically for wineries too."

Avoiding MLF is not a choice many winemakers make for wines that are designed to be drunk within 2-3 years of vintage. With the onerous financial pressure bearing down on sparkling wine producers in this country, any natural tools available to get balanced wines on the shelf earlier are always going to be attractive. The interesting exception to this is with Rosés and Blanc De Noirs, which, with the help of ripe Pinots and judicious dosage, stand a better chance of getting away with it than Chardonnay-based wines. 

Sour Cream?

MLF is not necessarily a straightforward process to get right, and it's not unheard of to find wines that show out-of-balance MLF characters. I asked Liam about the difficulties of getting a good result:

"Because of the high malic acid content and low pH in English grapes, malolactic fermentation is very difficult to manage. Poorly timed and poorly managed MLF can result in undesirable levels of volatile acidity (vinegary/nail varnish aromas) and/or diacetyl (buttery/dairy smells). Further to this, winemakers who de-acidify heavily with potassium bicarbonate and then go through MLF will find wines with a high pH – this is because potassium bicarbonate removes tartaric acid but not malic acid. I think when you look at wines that have been well-managed, then the high levels of malic are not detrimental because you can end up with a wine that still has a crisp acidity and low pH. I would sooner make an English sparkling wine with high malic acid levels than an English sparkling wine without enough acidity."

Of course the vast majority of wines successfully undergo MLF without any negative sensory effects, but as you taste your way around sparkling wine they do pop up sometimes. Brad Greatrix explains:

"Those sorts of characters usually result from particular strains and/or handling issues. For example if you apply sulphur dioxide too soon after MLF completes sometimes you can trap some of the aromas in the wine. I’m convinced that it’s an avoidable issue because I’ve seen some very high malic base wines go through MLF without overt ‘malo’ characters in the resulting wines."

If you'll permit a bit of theorising, I would suggest that the character of English wines makes these overt characters even less attractive than they are in Champagne. The delicacy of our fruit and the fact that it is often more towards the crunchy/fresh end of the the spectrum than a warmer, riper one, means that strong dairy flavours don't always blend so well, especially in bright, youthful styles. Some believe the textural benefits and spicy, toasty flavours of oak-ageing can support and frame the effects of MLF, but that may be an easier balance to find in Champagne - most English Sparkling Wines keep the influence of both MLF and oak ageing as subtle and transparent as possible.

Debugging: non-MLF English Sparkling Wines To Try

I think it's worth paying attention to MLF in England - our high acids are such a part of our style that the wines present a brilliantly clear opportunity to taste this under-the-bonnet process in action. As most of what you'll find will have been put through MLF, here are a few shining examples that buck the trend:

Wiston's 2009. No MLF and only just released - a real sleeper with time ahead of it.
  • Word has to go out to Breaky Bottom as examples of wines for which MLF would be an unimaginable stylistic shift. Long lees ageing achieves some of the goals of texture and creaminess that MLF often shoots for, but the Breaky Bottom wines don't sacrifice a whisker of their laser-sharp fruit. Just as with Wiston's 2009, Peter Hall's Seyvals seem to move at a glacial pace; surely great arguments for the longevity of non-MLF wines.
  • Rosés are often prime candidates for avoiding MLF with their emphasis on fresh fruit; this is the case with Owen Elias's Balfour Rosé at Hush Heath as well as Sam Lindo's at Camel Valley's. With ripe grapes and adequate dosages these are highly expressive wines, whether as fresh Pinot Noirs with short lees ageing (Camel Valley) or blends with a more developed style (Hush Heath).
  • Fox & Fox's brilliant 'Inspiration' 2013 is a rare Pinot Gris-based Sparkling Wine. I can't think of a better example of a wine that would have suffered aromatically from MLF - the delicacy of its fragrance would have been unlikely to make it through the process unscathed. 
  • Wiston Estate's 2009 Vintage avoided MLF, whereas the 2013 went through it. Both are beautiful wines, but the 2009 has a special energy of its own - part of that is down to the vintage, but part of it is also the incredible purity at its core that keeps it feeling almost as youthful as the 2013, despite the vinous winemaking style. If, like me, you are an acid freak, it's a wine you have to try.