An unknown culture: yeasts

The next time you hear a wine maker extolling the virtues and distinctiveness of the vineyard, a good follow up question might just be to ask about the yeasts used in fermentation.

Yeasts may be boring, invisible agents of the fermentation process but they have been getting more attention recently. Jancis Robinson is the latest to focus on them in her column from Saturday’s Financial Times, “Forget the grapes, it’s a cultural thing.” To the tape:

The overwhelming quantity of wine on sale today was fermented using commercially available strains of yeast, yeasts specially chosen for their particular and powerful attributes…One prominent New Zealand winemaker claims…that he can make any required style of Sauvignon Blanc from exactly the same grapes, provided he can choose the yeast. The following thoughts have been inspired by Chardonnays that taste like Sauvignon Blancs, a raft of indistinguishable New World Syrahs, and my sense that the flavour spectrum of wines today seems narrower than it has ever been.

She then describes some of the characteristics. Enoferm Assmannshausen®, for example, suggests that it be used “for making Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. It is considered a color friendly strain that enhances spicy (clove, nutmeg) and fruity flavours and aromas.” Lalvin CY3079® is designed “for barrel fermented Chardonnay and aging on lees. Gives rich, full mouthfeel and aromas” while Uvaferm SVG® is designed “to enhance typical Sauvignon character, diminished acidity and with good fermentation kinetics.”

While methods of grape growing and vineyard sites are certainly important, yeasts deserve to leaven the discussion of winemaking more than they do.

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14 Responses to “An unknown culture: yeasts”

  1. I’m actually preparing a piece that explores yeasts and one recurring point when I talk to winemakers is that the aroma/flavor characteristic imparted by yeasts are short lived. They dissipate with ageing and reveal the terroir.

  2. interesting, what happens when you mix all them together?

  3. Weston:

    This post can offer some interesting insights:

  4. To my amazement, not one “Beauty and the Yeast” comment yet. Oh well, as a supplement, I was very pleased by the double entendre offered by Jancis’ column title.

    I never was aware of commercial yeasts prior to this reading. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Cultured yeast for winemaking have been around for a long time. Going by the manufacturer’s comments on the yeast is not a good way to demonize their potential homogenizing quality as it is certainly a stretch to consider yeast as having any long lived effect on the character of a wine. “Natural” fermentations aren’t really natural either, unless you’re making wine in a new winery that has never used cultured yeast. There are much more important factors involved in the homogenization of wines than yeast, such as critics’ likes and dislikes, but I don’t suppose you’ll hear Robinson talk about that!

  6. […] · An unknown culture: yeasts […]

  7. Interesting post, and an interesting article by Robinson. Unfortunately, I don’t agree with her ’cause/effect relationships’ – as others have pointed out, yeast manufacturers have done a great job of ‘selling’ particular yeasts for particular ‘jobs’. It is true that cultured yeasts will behave differently depending upon the environment in which they will live – depends upon fermentation temperature; potential alcohol levels; nutrients of the juice; and the variety being fermented.

    But to jump to the conclusion that this is one of the reaons for the ‘sameness’ in wines today is simply not right. The aromatic ‘additions’ yeast provide are indeed short-lived, and with red wines, really become a non-issue during extended aging. They do have more of an impact with white wines, especially those that are tank fermented.

    I would like to challenge that NZ winemaker to make 5 different tasting and smelling sauv blancs from the same grapes . . . Perhaps he or she will be up for it?!?!?!?

    Thanks again! Cheers!

  8. This is actually the entire concept of Alice Feiring’s book. As she would have it, the only wines worth drinking are made with indigenous yeast, or as others put it, ambient yeast. Does it make a difference? The jury’s out.

  9. Great wines have been made with both indigenous yeast as well as (cultured) commercial yeasts. I second the comments that blaming commercial yeasts for the homogenization is misplaced.

    To the extent that many wineries are chasing the same style, they are likely choosing to do that because they believe their wine will sell better. I doubt that they are accidentally falling into that style because they chose the same yeast as someone else.

    Tastes in wine and food change over time; the good news is, we have access to such a wide variety of wine that no one is forced to drink “international” or any other particular style of wine unless he wants to.

  10. Very interesting comments!

    As to the point that yeasts only work for the short term to affect the aroma, well, virtually all wine, of course, is meant for immediate consumption anyway.

    Yes, that would be great if that NZ winemaker would step forward and make good on his off-the-record claim!

    It would be fun to blind taste two wines that were made with indigenous vs commercial yeasts. But there are so many other factors in play that it’s hard to just control for yeast.

  11. Having tasted many yeast trials (same grapes fermented with different commercial yeast as well as “native” fermentations) I would agree with many of the previous posts that most of the misconception here is due to the salesmanship of yeast suppliers.
    The differences are real but very subtle. I would say that the Kiwi was probably exagerating in order to be quoted.
    Most winemakers would probably agree that native fermentations can add complexity. Unfortunately, uninoculated fermentations often run the risk of increased ethyl acetate (nail polish remover) and acetic acid (vinegar) in the wine due to action by non-Saccharomyces yeast.

  12. I used to sell wines made by Bob Andrake in Olympia, WA (Andrake Cellars and Hurricane Ridge). I had the chance to taste wine at his place that was made with the same grapes, same vintage, same everything except different yeast. Though all of his wines are massive,nearly out of control and way over the top, they were each remarkably, and dramatically different (as different as a high alcohol WA syrah can be). The flavors in one were all in the red range, yet others were dominated by blue fruits.
    It was very eye opening to say the least.

  13. Funny that Larry Schaffer should propose a NZ yeast challenge. I’ve tasted three very different cuvees from a same New Zealand producer of sauvignon blanc, and the use of yeasts was different from one to the next, with clear intentions expressed by the winemaker. Lo and behold, the three wines had marked differences corresponding to the stated effects of the yeast cultures, even though they were made from various combinations of grapes from just two sites, and vinified largely the same way, other than the yeast cultures.

    They were all very pleasant to taste, mind you, but denying that cultured yeasts have a designed influence over the taste and aromas of wines is just as silly as pretending you can pass a Turley zinfandel for a Calera pinot noir just by tweaking yeast recipes.

    Truth is somewhere in the middle: if the yeasts have so little effect, why are winemakers selecting strain X and strain Y, when any kind would do the trick? Or are winemakers just gullible rubes before the Lallemand yeast salesman?

    In the same way, saying that the effects of the yeasts will essentially be gone in twenty years is a bit of a specious argument. The use of cultured yeasts is intended to impart specific flavors in young wines, when they will be tasted, rated and sold. In other words, when it count$

  14. The wine should be naturally made in areas that have enough sun to do so. Wineries are making many tricks to do “wine” with water and yeast. Well this is not wine.
    wineries should be controlled to garanty to the customers that they buy what they think they buy.


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