Does Malolactic Fermentation Have a Place in Rosé Production?

Before cellar sanitation, temperature control, and modern winemaking techniques were introduced, the malolactic process (often called by its abbreviation malo) was a common practice, even with rose-colored wines. It was encouraged before the climate changes and when acidity levels were constantly higher.

More frequent and intense hot summers force numerous winemakers to stop malolactic fermentation. Romain Ott, who is the winemaker at Chateau Leoube in La Londe, blocked it in the 2022 hot vintage because wineries “already had rondeur [roundness], creaminess, [and] slightly lower acidity levels.”

With today’s trend for freshness and sophistication in wine, fermentations have become more controlled. With low-acid, high-sugar grapes becoming commonplace in southern France’s hot spot for pink wine, Malolactic fermentations have generally been discarded in favor of roses. However, a resurgence of the old-fashioned, aging roses and a more extensive adaption of high-acid, climate-resistant hybrids has certain producers shifting their strategies, and malo-based roses appear to be getting a makeover.

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Malolactic Fermentation in Rose Wine

Grapes have two primary types of acid: tartaric and malic. As they age, the sugars increase and acidity levels fall, particularly malic acid. In cool climates or vintages that aren’t yet ripe, grapes can be highly acidic and can be tempered by malolactic fermentation. A bacterial fermentation that converts the malic acid, which is a crisp green apple-like flavor, to more creamy lactic acid.

This process is typically conducted via lactic acid bacteria following the initial (alcoholic) process has ended. When these bacteria transform malic acid to create lactic acid, tiny amounts of other chemicals are produced, including diacetyl. This chemical is the reason for the characteristic buttery flavor associated with Chardonnay but not as much for rose.

Research has yet to be conducted on malo’s particular influence on roses. While noticeably more creamy to the taste, the effect from malolactic fermentation is much less evident in these low-acid wines. Southern French roses generally contain less than one gram per milliliter of malic acid before malolactic fermentation, meaning the effect on pH and overall acidity is minimal. The total acidity decreases by less than half a gram per Liter, and pH increases by 0.1 units.

Malo in Traditional Southern French Roses

Winemakers who allow and encourage the process of malolactic fermentation to occur in their roses are very rare. Yet, Regine Sumeire’s Petale de Rose is the rose that sparked the trend of pale roses in the 1990s and has since established the bar. It will always undergo malolactic fermentation even though other Provencal-style flowers follow suit. Today’s hotspots for malo-infused roses are notable, both situated in the South of France: Tavel and a section of the coast of Provence near La Londe.

A common belief among Tavel winemakers is that malo represents the spirit of Tavel. Florian Andre, the winemaker at Tavel’s Chateau of Manissy, believes that it must be carried out for balance and sophistication regardless of whether the acidity levels in the analysis are low. Andre also recognizes that traditionally, Manissy included the white varieties Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Picpoul, which added acidity and permitted malo to be produced.

In Tavel, malolactic fermentation is a matter of the traditional house style. For instance, Guigal, who recently bought Chateau D’Aqueria in 2022, also produces the Guigal-branded Tavel. Philippe Guigal says, “The style of Aqueria has always been no malo, but for our Guigal-branded Tavel, we have always done malo.” But the Tavel’s Richard Maby, the owner of Domaine Maby, insists on preventing malo. “We’re picking grapes very, very ripe; we have no choice but to block malo to preserve the acidity for balance.”

Florian Andre (pictured above) believes that malo is essential to create a balanced profile, even for a low-acid rose. The image is courtesy of Chateau de Manissy.

The coast of Provence’s La Londe area, roughly halfway between Bandol and Saint-Tropez, is another popular spot for malolactic fermentation of roses. The harvests are relatively early in this region, beginning between the second half of August and the beginning of September. Ott, a frequent lover of roses and malo, makes malo according to the cuvée and vintage and based on the acidity test and the taste characteristics. If the wine is exhibiting the sensation of bitterness, which is not related to ripeness or the date of harvest, malo may reduce the sharpness of malic. The 2022 vintage, for instance, did not need malo and naturally showed roundness and softness. Ott observes that Mourvedre frequently gets softer from malo. Alexandre Le Corguille, the winemaker at Chateau Les Mesclances, thinks that malo should not be used yearly.

Bandol is a bit more turbulent in its past with malolactic fermentation and roses. The practice was widespread through the 1980s, but it’s now comparatively rare, with just a few dozen producers promoting the use of it for their roses, such as Domaines PibarnonLafran Veyrolles, and Croix d’Allons, especially. Jean-Marie Castell, the owner of Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles, views Mourvedre as a perfect choice for malo-infused roses because of its naturally high levels of malic acid. Like producers from Tavel, He says that his vein’s ability to undergo malo results from the freshness brought about by the inclusion of SAIGN roses within the mix.

Rosé, By the Numbers

New countries of origin and higher-end cuvées are increasingly becoming part of the rosé conversation. Learn more about shifting demand with our downloadable infographic.

Malo in Today’s Global Roses

The common thread across all areas is that malo is the best choice for roses destined to age. Malo produces an enduring wine, removing the danger of malolactic fermentation that is not controlled after the bottle is finished. “When we want to make an age-worthy rose, we do malo,” says Marie Laroze, the winemaker at Pibarnon. Most roses aged in oak undergo at least a portion of malolactic fermentation.

The human aspect of terroir should be addressed in the case of the malo or rose. Numerous producers seek to lower sulfur dioxide before bottling, which affects the quality of the wines. Malolactic fermentation is another source of stability throughout transportation and is believed to be particularly crucial for roses exported to far-away markets.

Wines like Foncalieu’s NU.VO.TÉ (pictured above) benefit from the creamy texture that malolactic fermentation creates. Photo courtesy of Foncalieu.

Some suggest that malolactic-fermented roses have a bright future thanks to high-acid, disease- and climate change-resistant hybrids. The Foncalieu’s NU.VO.TE, an Artaban and Vidoc blend, is a great illustration. Initially planned as a blocked malo rose, the lack of sulfur in the winemaking process of this first year’s vintage (2019) led to a spontaneous malolactic ferment. Due to the grapes’ natural acidity and high pH, it was determined that the creamy texture and the slightly lower acidity produced by malolactic fermentation made the wine more palatable and drinkable. Malolactic fermentation is now deliberately carried out in subsequent vintages.

In all the ways it has contributed to the best roses, it’s hard to imagine malolactic fermentation as a significant trend. Although it’s likely not to be adopted by all producers of roses, it is a good fit for specific areas of terroir, grape varieties, and winemaking methods.


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