Wine lingo 101: Malo and bottle shock

March 21

Shortly after becoming infatuated with wine, I attended a public tasting in the District sponsored by the Sonoma County Vintners trade association. I walked around the room tasting buttery chardonnay after buttery chardonnay. As I turned from one winery’s table, I noticed a couple who had been poured their samples just before me, staring quizzically into their glasses.

“I think they overdid the malolactic on this one,” the man said. That sent me scurrying for my wine reference book when I got home. It was my introduction to malolactic fermentation, also known as malo or MLF, the process that transforms wine from tart (think green apple) to buttery (think movie theater popcorn).

Some months later, friends invited me to the annual new-vintage release party at Byrd Vineyards near Mount Airy, Md. This would’ve been 1989 or 1990, and Byrd was a darling of the state’s fledgling wine industry. (It closed in 1996.) The event was held for the winery’s regular customers and club members and their guests. Unfortunately, the wine I remember most was the one I liked least: It was just plain weird and nasty.

“Bottle shock,” I heard someone mutter. A few minutes later, owner-winemaker Bret Byrd welcomed the guests. Discussing that particular wine, he acknowledged it wasn’t performing well that evening. “The tanker arrived from California late yesterday,” he said, “and I was up all night bottling it.”

That was my first lesson in bottle shock, the idea that wine needs to settle down for a period of time after being handled roughly. That’s why wineries typically hold their wines for at least several weeks after bottling. It was also my first realization that not all local wine is local.

Malo and bottle shock are part of wine lingo, a special vocabulary that sets wine apart from other specialties or hobbies. That vocabulary can be used to enforce an air of exclusivity, as though only true initiates are entitled to speak it. Just as often, it is used to ridicule those of us who choose to dedicate an inordinate amount of time, income and basement space to wine.

But that vocabulary should unite us and help us share our love of wine. Yes, vinogeek-speak can sound silly and can be easily taken out of context, but learning the terms in even a basic way can help us better understand and appreciate wine. That, in turn, will increase the satisfaction and value we get from it. After all, do we make fun of scrapbookers for using a Cricut, or cooks for arranging their mise en place?

Readers, friends and acquaintances often tell me that wine’s vocabulary trips them up. They like wine, but they don’t really know how to describe it or what they like about it. So I’ll devote the occasional column to explaining wine’s geek-speak zeitgeist — not as a dictionary dissertation, but putting the words and concepts in the context of their usage and meaning.

So what about that malo? It’s a process in which the tart malic acid converts to softer, less acidic lactic acid. Almost all red wines go through malo; if you know a winemaker and visit in late fall, ask for a taste of red wine pre-malo, and be prepared to pucker. Malo is more relevant (or at least noticeable) in white wines, especially chardonnay. It is one tool a winemaker uses (along with fermenting and aging in barrel) to give richness and body to chardonnay.

Malo occurs at warmer temperatures, so it can be controlled through refrigeration in the winery. In the buttery old days, winemakers typically allowed all of their chardonnay to mellow with malo; today some of the blend might be kept cold to preserve freshness. And crisp white wines such as sauvignon blanc and Riesling rarely, if ever, undergo malo. Our modern preference is for those wines to remain refreshing, with bracing acidity.

If any particular wine lingo trips you up, let us know via food@washpost.com.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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