Wine

Does Malolactic Fermentation Have a Place in Rosé Production?

As climate change drives up temperatures and grape acidity drops, malolactic fermentations have mostly died out for rosés. But for a few key regions, grapes, and producers, rosés with malo still have a place

When acidity isn’t sky-high, what does malolactic fermentation bring to the table for rosés? Photo courtesy of Château de Manissy.

Before cellar hygiene, temperature control, and modern winemaking, malolactic fermentation (often referred to simply as malo) usually happened by default—even in rosé wines. Before climate change, when acidity levels were consistently higher, it was even welcomed.

Now, more frequent hot summers are prompting many producers to block malolactic fermentation. Romain Ott, the winemaker of Château Léoube in La Londe, blocked it in the hot 2022 vintage since the wines “already had rondeur [roundness], creaminess, [and] slightly lower acidity levels.”

With today’s fashion for freshness and elegance in wines, fermentations have become increasingly controlled. And with high-sugar, low-acid grapes the norm in the pink wine hotspot of southern France, malolactic fermentations have mostly died out for rosés. However, a revival of traditional and age-worthy rosés—as well as a broader adaptation of high-acid, climate change-resistant hybrids—has some producers changing their approach, and rosés with malo seem to be making a comeback.

Malolactic Fermentation in Rosé Wine

Grapes contain two main kinds of acid: malic and tartaric. As they ripen, sugars accumulate and acidity levels drop, especially malic acid. In cool vintages or climates, barely ripe grapes have very high acidity, which can be softened by undergoing malolactic fermentation, a bacterial fermentation that converts crisp green-apple-like malic acid to creamier lactic acid.

This fermentation is usually carried out by lactic acid bacteria after the primary (alcoholic) fermentation has finished. When these bacteria process malic acid into lactic acid, minute amounts of other chemicals are created, such as diacetyl, which is responsible for the buttery notes commonly associated with Chardonnay, but not so much with rosé.

No research has yet been carried out on malo’s specific impact on rosé. Although noticeably creamier on the palate, in analytical terms the impact of malolactic fermentation on rosé is more subtle in these relatively low-acid wines. Southern French rosés typically have under one gram per liter of malic acid even before undergoing malolactic fermentation, which means that the impact on overall acidity and pH is relatively limited. Total acidity is reduced by less than half a gram per liter, and pH is increased by no more than 0.1 units.

Malo in Traditional Southern French Rosés

Winemakers that allow or encourage malolactic fermentation in their rosés are rare. However, Régine Sumeire’s Pétale de Rose, the rosé that kicked off the pale craze in the ’90s and has since set the standard, always undergoes malolactic fermentation, even if few other Provencal-style rosés follow suit. Today, two hotspots for rosés with malo stand out, both in the South of France: Tavel, and a stretch of coastal Provence around La Londe. 

A widely held belief amongst Tavel winemakers is that malo is the soul of Tavel. Florian André, the winemaker at Tavel’s Château de Manissy, feels that it should be carried out for the sake of balance and complexity, even if the analytical acidity levels are low. He also acknowledges that, historically, Manissy included the white varieties Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Picpoul, which provided acidity and allowed for malo to take place.

In Tavel, malolactic fermentation is also a question of traditional house style. For example, Guigal, who recently purchased Château d’Aqueria in 2022 also makes a Guigal-branded Tavel. According to Philippe Guigal, “the style of Aqueria has always been no malo, but for our Guigal-branded Tavel, we have always done malo.” Even so, Tavel’s Richard Maby, the owner of Domaine Maby, is adamant about blocking malo. “We’re picking grapes very, very ripe, we have no choice but to block malo to preserve the acidity for the sake of balance.” 

Florian André rests with a glass of wine on some Château de Manissy barrels
Florian André (pictured above) believes that malo is necessary for a nuanced profile, even for a low-acidity rosé. Picture courtesy of Château de Manissy.

Provence’s coastal La Londe area, roughly halfway between Bandol and Saint-Tropez, is another hotspot for rosés undergoing malolactic fermentation. Harvests are often quite early here, from the second half of August to the first two weeks of September. Ott, usually an ardent supporter of rosés with malo, carries out malo depending on the vintage and cuvée, and depending on the acidity analysis and the flavor profile. If the wine has a sensation of bitterness that is not related to unripeness or harvest date, malo can soften the malic sharpness. The 2022 vintage, for example, did not need malo and was naturally showing a round texture and softness. Ott finds that Mourvèdre often benefits from the softening of malo. Alexandre Le Corguillé, the winemaker at Château les Mesclances, agrees that malo is not necessarily carried out every year.

Bandol has a more checkered history with malolactic fermentation and rosés. Widely carried out until the 1980s, it is today relatively rare, with only half a dozen producers encouraging it in their rosés, including Domaines Pibarnon, Lafran Veyrolles, and Croix d’Allons, most notably. Jean-Marie Castell, the owner of Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles sees Mourvèdre as particularly suitable for rosés with malo due to its naturally high malic acid levels. But, similarly to producers in Tavel, he attributes the ability of his wines to undergo malo to the freshness conferred by including some saigné rosé in the blend.


An array of glasses full of rosé surrounding a rosé bottle
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Malo in Today’s Global Rosés

Common to all these regions is the belief that malo is most useful for rosés destined for aging. Malo creates a more stable wine by eliminating the risk of uncontrolled malolactic fermentation months later in the bottle. “When we want to make an age-worthy rosé, we do malo,” says Marie Laroze, the winemaker at Pibarnon. Indeed, most oak-aged rosés undergo at least partial malolactic fermentation.

Similarly, the human element of terroir cannot be ignored when it comes to malo and rosé. Many producers try to reduce sulfur dioxide at bottling, which impacts the stability of the wine. Malolactic fermentation adds another layer of stability during transport, which is seen to be particularly important for rosés exported to distant markets.

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

Others suggest that malolactic-fermented rosés have a bright future with high-acid, disease- and climate change-resistant hybrids. Foncalieu’s NU.VO.TÉ, an Artaban and Vidoc blend, is a particularly good example. Initially planned as blocked-malo rosé, low sulfur during the winemaking process for the first vintage (2019) resulted in spontaneous malolactic fermentation. Given the varieties’ naturally high acidity, it was decided that the silky creaminess and slightly lower acidity conferred by malolactic fermentation made the wine more approachable and easy-drinking. Malolactic fermentation has since been carried out intentionally in subsequent vintages.

For all its contributions to great rosés, it is hard to see malolactic fermentation becoming a major trend. And while it’s unlikely to be adopted by most rosé producers, it seems to work well for niches of terroir, grape variety, and winemaking style.

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Elizabeth Gabay, MW, has been working with the wines of Provence since the mid-1980s and has lived in the region since 2002.  She has written two books on rosé and is currently writing a third on the rosés of southern France.

Ben Bernheim grew up in the South of France, becoming firmly involved with wine through his university tasting team, after which he worked on vineyards and then as a hotel sommelier. Since 2020, he has specialized in building awareness of premium rosés and is the co-author of the book Rosés of Southern France.

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