Choosing Yeast, Boosting Alcohol: Wine Wizard

I recently inadvertently added the wrong yeast to a new batch of frozen Chardonnay juice. I had planned on using Lallemand’s ICV-D47 but picked up Red Star’s Côte des Blancs, it was four days into the fermentation before I caught the mistake. I immediately went to Daniel Pambianchi’s book Techniques in Home Winemaking to learn about the qualities of Côte des Blancs and found out it is not recommended for malolactic fermentation, which I had planned on doing. The wine is fermenting at a temperature of 58 °F (14 °C) and the SG is 1.042. When I started, the readings were S.G.: 1.102, pH: 3.4, TA: 0.72. My question, why is Côte des Blancs not recommended for MLF? If I do inoculate what are the down sides, if any?

Bill Holder
Brantford, Ontario

I’m glad you wrote in this question. It points to the importance of thinking about our wines in the big picture sense. Decisions we make in the beginning can affect what decisions we may be able to make — or have to make — later on. In your case, you’re worried that your choice of yeast — Côtes des Blancs — may keep your Chardonnay from going through malolactic fermentation later. The bad news is, yes, it may prevent it but the great news is that there are a couple of things you can do to mitigate the problem.

First off, let’s talk a little more about your yeast. I talked to the man himself (Daniel Pambianchi) and he confirmed my thoughts: Côtes des Blancs yeast is a very hungry yeast and a very “gourmet” eater. What this means for fermentation is that while Côtes des Blancs chews through the sugar in your Chardonnay, it is also gobbling up the amino acids, nitrogen, vitamins and other micronutrients vital for a healthy fermentation. Unfortunately, Malolactic bacteria happen to be what microbiologists call a “fastidious” fermenter. Like yeast, they too need some of these same micronutrients to survive, grow and thrive. The good thing is that you can pre-emptively feed your juice or must with a commercial yeast food mix like Superfood or Fermaid K. There are a lot of alternatives out there on the market, just pick a balanced one without a lot of Diammonium Phosphate, which one winemaker I used to work with called “junk food for yeasts.” If you use a nutrient-needy yeast you should also, after primary fermentation is over, supplement your new wine with a malolactic booster like Leucofood. These MLF-specific mixes carry a laundry list of micronutrients especially formulated to meet the needs of malolactic bacteria. I sometimes add a small dose of MLF nutrients to my wine anyway if I suspect I have any conditions that may inhibit malolactic fermentation like high alcohol, low pH or low temperature. ML bugs are notoriously picky about their environment so it’s important to coddle them a bit to encourage them to do their job.

You also could try a partial-ML Chardonnay, a style that is gaining traction in the commercial winemaking world. With more malic acid left in the wine, the flavor profile is crisper and fresher and the wine is a bit more refreshing to drink. However, having residual malic acid in a wine puts it at constant risk for a malolactic refermentation, which, if it happened in the bottle, would leave you with spritzy and possibly cloudy wine. Partial-ML wine needs to be stored cold or sterile filtered, both before and during bottling, in order to prevent this from happening.

Lastly, I assume that when you pitched your yeast the juice wasn’t still frozen! Ideal yeast pitching temperature will differ depending on the yeast strain used, but I never inoculate a lot that is below 55 °F (13 °C). Best of luck to you and your malolactic bugs.

I made some wine about four months ago but the level of alcohol is at 8%. Is there something that I can do now to increase the level of alcohol?

Panayiotis S.
via email

Absolutely. There are many things that you can do to increase the level of alcohol! The beautiful thing about being a home winemaker is that you are not creating commercial beverages, only those for personal use, and so you may do anything to your fermented potables that you wish. Table wines typically contain 12–14% alcohol and depending on the pH (more acidic means the wine is more stable) can taste good and age just fine at 11%. Get much below that, however, and you run the risk of early aging, spoilage and just a plain unbalanced flavor profile. Alcohol isn’t just there to make us and our friends happy — it contributes greatly to a wine’s body, mouthfeel, taste, and microbial and oxidative stability as well.

If you simply want to add some alcohol to your wine to bump it up, you could do the simple thing and pour in a little bit of vodka or other neutral spirits. The purist in me rejects this idea, but say you’ve got a lovely, fresh, low-alcohol peach wine you’d like to not lose, you can add a few percentage points of alcohol, add maybe a little sugar, and all of a sudden you have a nice liqueur-type beverage that you can make spritzers, cocktails or summer sorbets with. Delightful! Using this method, however, you have to expect that your end result won’t taste exactly like wine — it’ll be nice but it will be different.

Don’t rule out the possibility of blending with other wines. This works best for home winemakers with a lot of inventory, but if you’ve got a cuvée that is high alcohol that matches your low-alcohol wine (or at least marries well with it) you may be able to create a better drink by mixing the two together. The old Wine Wiz adage here is to do bench blends first, that is try a small volume (say, 100 mL) of a representative sample before you actually do the work to the whole batch. See if you like the test result before you waste the time and the wine; you may be surprised at how creative you can get.

The best solution of course is to avoid having a low-alcohol table wine in the first place. The easiest way to achieve sufficient alcohol is to make sure you are not picking your grapes too early, or if you are buying juice or concentrate, making sure you’ve got at least 22 °Brix. I usually pick my whites around 24 °Brix and my reds around 25, for ripeness’ sake. You want enough alcohol but also enough flavor. Grapes picked too soon can yield green flavors, harsh tannins and shrill tartness in addition to disappointing alcohol levels. Home winemakers can also chaptalize, that is, add sugar. If forced to do so, I prefer to use grape concentrate (red or white depending on my plans) rather than table or other simple sugar, which carry none of the flavor complexities or necessary nutrients of the grape.

You can always just plan to drink your low-alcohol wine relatively soon. Most meads, ciders and beers are at or under 8% alcohol and taste best when consumed within a year of being made; you can adopt the same attitude with your wine. Sometimes when I have a “light” wine, I plan on drinking it in the summer or springtime, mixed with a little fruit nectar and some sparkling water during one of my brunch parties. That way you get to enjoy the loveliness of your creation, share it with friends, and not worry so much about an unbalanced table wine that may not show so well on its own.

UC-Davis graduate and professional winemaker Alison Crowe has been answering hundreds of your winemaking questions as the “Wine Wizard” since 1998. Her Wizard columns have been collected in The Winemaker’s Answer Book which is available at  winemakermagstore.com. Do you have a question ? Send your inquiries to her at: [email protected]Unfortunately,  Alison cannot respond personally.