Cream is one of the most familiar ingredients, so it's no surprise that you're noticing it in your glass of wine.
Think back to the last time you uncorked a bottle of wine with friends and talked about what each of you noticed after a few sips. Maybe someone said the wine tasted “smooth”; another might have found it buttery, and your smartest friend of all may even have described it as “creamy.” Explaining what wine tastes like is ultimately a personal experience influenced by the drinker’s palate and reference points — after all, you can’t describe a wine as reminiscent of gooseberries or elderflower if you don’t know what you’re looking for — but when it comes to figuring out what makes a wine taste a bit like something from the dairy aisle of the grocery store, there’s science at play that starts with the winemaker.
Once the harvested grapes are processed, which might involve destemming or crushing them, and pressed to separate the juice from the rest of the grape, it’s time for alcoholic fermentation. This is when yeast is introduced to convert the sugars in the juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After the alcoholic fermentation is over, a winemaker might choose to have the juice undergo malolactic fermentation, a process commonly known as MLF. During this stage, a winemaker will introduce temperature-sensitive bacteria into the juice to convert harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid.
MLF — and the creamy mouthfeel drinkers notice when it takes place — isn’t always what a winemaker wants. It’s typically discouraged in aromatic grape varieties like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, and a winemaker might block MLF from taking place by chilling the wine and adding SO2, to prevent the acid conversion process from occurring.
“MLF is used for a lot of reasons — like poor harvests, unseasonably cold years, cold growing climates, naturally harsh grape profiles, or lower quality juice purchases, among many others,” says Leonara Varvoutis, general manager and sommelier at Houston’s Coltivare. “It’s also a way for winemakers to put their print or style on a bottle of wine.” Chardonnay is likely the first grape that comes to mind with this descriptor, as most wines made using Chardonnay undergo malolactic fermentation, and many are aged in oak. You might also hear Viognier from sunnier climates as well as Pinot Grigio being described as creamy.
Oak aging — particularly new oak barrels — is another common way to impart a creamy mouthfeel on wines. “Use [oak] on something like a Chardonnay, and you get rich, creamy, bodacious, coconutty, buttery, caramel popcorn-y wines. Use this process with a more delicate grape like a pinot gris, and the result is an enigmatic, funky, floral bouquet of soft deliciousness,” explains Varvoutis. If you’ve ever popped a bottle of Champagne (which calls for Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay) and noticed brioche, toast, and cream notes, you’ve experienced the result of having grapes in contact with lees during the winemaking process.
"Lees are dead yeast cells that are left over from fermentation. Though some lees are filtered out, some winemakers choose to leave the wine on the lees to create a more textured mouthfeel in the wine,” explains Carolyn Lassen, sommelier at Husk Nashville.
Butter and cream are ingredients that most everyone is familiar with, which is why they’re such useful tasting notes to look for in wine. Understanding why and how winemakers might introduce these notes into the glass that ultimately ends up at your dinner is a great way to discover both grapes and regions you’re excited about — and is one hell of a fun fact to share with that friend of yours who described it like that in the first place.
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