Yesterday, I went into my local LCBO eager to purchase the trio of newly released Bachelder Chardonnays – one from Niagara, one from Burgundy, and one from Oregon. Thomas Bachelder is the former winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario and I was really looking forward to trying the wines from his new venture. (For more information, read “Thomas Bachelder’s Dream Trilogy of Chardonnays: Niagara, Burgundy, Oregon” at Wines in Niagara.) I found the Bourgogne and Niagara wines easily, but when I couldn’t locate the Chardonnay from Oregon, I asked a product consultant. What did she tell me? – that the Bachelder Chardonnay from Oregon had been recalled because of tartrates. I had to give my head a shake to make sure I understood properly.
This whole ordeal is unfortunate for so many reasons. One is that a probably perfectly good wine has been pulled off LCBO shelves for nothing. Tartrates are completely natural in wine, are completely harmless, and their presence does not mean that the wine is faulty. The only problem with tartrates is their appearance and mouthfeel. To unknowing consumers, they may be mistaken for shards of glass. Another reason this situation is unfortunate is much more selfish – I really wanted to try this wine made by a quality conscious and well-respected winemaker.
What are Tartrates?
All wine contains acids: malic acid and tartaric acid are the dominant ones. Malic acid can be converted into the softer lactic acid during Malolactic Fermentation, but tartaric acid remains in the wine, where it is responsible for retaining a wine’s appropriate pH and helping to reduce spoilage. In cold temperatures, the tartaric acid will combine with potassium, which is also naturally found in wine, and form a solid called postassium bitartrate. Potassium bitartrate looks like little crystals, giving them their nickname, wine diamonds. They may appear as a powdery white substance at the bottom of the wine bottle or your wine glass, or if the crystals link together and grow, they can look like crystallized sugar or shards of glass. The crystals can also stick to the bottom of the cork as in the above photograph. Potassium bitartrate is the same thing as Cream of Tartar which is used in cooking.
Tartrates can be found in both red and white wine, but the formation of wine diamonds is less common in reds wines, as their level of tartaric acid is lower, and more tends to fall out naturally in the aging process. A process called ‘cold stabilization‘ can be used to remove tartrates from wine before it is bottled, and many producers do use this technique for purely aesthetic reasons. However, cold stabilization may effect the wine’s quality. The natural acid content in the wine may be reduced to a point where citric acid needs to be added to adjust acidity levels, and there is the risk of unwanted oxygen being added to the wine during the process (Goode, J., and Harrop, S., Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, 2011). In fact, many believe that higher quality wines should not undergo unnecessary processes, such as fining, filtering and cold stabilization, in order to preserve the wine’s subtle character.
So, if you discover a wine that has wine diamonds, be happy that the wine has not been over-processed. Just be careful when pouring the wine so that the crystals remain at the bottom of the bottle and not in your glass. You can also decant the wine just as you would to remove sediment, even if it’s a white wine. If you do happen to ingest some of these crystals, fear not…they are completely harmless.
NOTE: Today, Wednesday February 22, 2012, 4 days after the wine was pulled from the shelves, I was finally able to purchase the Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay. I was under the impression that there was to be a notice attached to it explaining tartrates, but I saw no notice at all. I can see tartrates in both bottles I bought, but I know that it’s nothing to worry about. Please stay tuned for my tasting notes on the 3 Bachelder Chardonnays.