Thursday, April 03, 2008

Natural Yeasts and Terroir

Here is a quote from Philippe Pacalet, wine maker in Burgundy. Pacalet wrote an introduction to Jules Chauvet's "Etudes Scientifiques." Chauvet is thought of as the father of natural wine making in France, and Etudes Scientifiques is a collection of his studies and writings. This quote is lifted from an article on the Chambers Street Wines website. The whole essay is worth reading, but this quote particularly caught my attention:

The entire theme dedicated to indigenous yeasts is eloquent on this subject: to make a wine of terroir, one must utilize the biomass (yeasts, bacterias, funghi, microbial life) existing in this terroir. The quality of these native yeasts, that is to say their biodiversity, is essentially tied to this notion of terroir. The different types of yeasts which succeed each other in the course of the alcoholic fermentation are thus a “key” which reveals to us the vineyard’s unique characteristics and typicity.
Makes sense, right?

Mark Vlossak makes wine at St Innocent, one of my favorite Oregon producers. Three out of every four years, as conditions allow, Mark uses no sulfur dioxide during fermentation. Sulfur dioxide suppresses the natural yeast strains, and he doesn't want to do that. He likes "the things that grow" without sulfur dioxide during fermentation, what they add to aroma and flavor. But Mark says that the natural yeasts at his disposal cannot ferment past 5 or 6% alcohol and often produce "stinky" by-products. Here is what he said when I asked him whether or not using natural yeasts is important to him:
There are no unnatural yeasts. All yeasts used to make wine are derived from indigenous cells. Just like vines are propagated from cuttings, sometimes from other places, yeasts are derived from cells. The real question is, are the yeasts a good match for the terroir and the wine you are trying to make.
This also makes sense, right? If the natural yeasts cannot turn juice into wine, or do so but also contribute nasty aromas, then you have to supplement with other yeasts. The question is not whether or not the wines taste good, but do they express the terroir in the Dundee Hills or in whichever of St Innocent's plots we are talking about?

Greg Sandor of Bridge Urban Winery talks about how exciting it was for him to participate in an experiment at Cornell University in which 40 different yeasts were used to ferment the same grape juice, about tasting the results and determining which strain makes the best wine. I don't know if he brings that approach to making wines at Bridge, but if he did, would that render his North Fork of Long Island wines terroir-less?

Can wine express terroir without naturally occurring yeasts? Must you use only the naturally occurring yeasts, or can they be supplemented with industrial yeasts? There are people with very strong opinions on this issue. I am not one of them, as I just don't know enough about it.

But I will say this - insisting that nothing "unnatural" be added to wine might rule out a lot of wines in the terroir department, most Champagnes and many Burgundies, for example. Sugar, a human-made chemical no more or less natural than sulfur dioxide is added to Champagne in the dosage, and to some Burgundy wines if they are chaptalized. So do only non-dosage Champagnes and un-chaptalized Burgundies express terroir? I think you can shoot yourself in the foot trying to make hard and fast rules.

I gravitate towards the Pacalet way of thinking, which I see as akin to the Alice Waters way of cooking and eating. But I don't think of it as "correct" in a universal sense, something that everyone should do, like thou shalt not use unnatural yeasts or something.

For me wine is food, and I like to learn about the ingredients before buying it. Loading this information on a wine label is impractical, expensive, and unromantic. It would be great if there were some cost-effective way to gather and display this information so that interested consumers can go to one source before making purchases.


Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert (as 5 minutes of conversation on the topic would amply demonstrate) but the distinction I see here is between Pacalet's vs. Vlossak's use of the term "indigenous." A yeast strain may have been derived from cells indigenous to India, but it strikes me as hardly "natural" to inoculate a batch of Oregon Pinot Noir with such critters. Pacalet seems to be advocating use of what comes in on the grapes.

Then, as you point out, there are the separate issues of sugar, sulphur, etc. I know you've tried some Peyra wine(s): that's an example of no additive winemaking, but half the people who try it hate it.

Deetrane said...

Wow. I have to say, this is the best blog post you've written. It's the first discussion of a technical wine-making matter that I actually could relate to. I'll bet a lot of other readers will agree. You write in a way that is extremely knowledgeble, but totally accessible on many levels to people who don't know nearly as much. Bravo - you have a real talent!

P.S. Yes, I am a close friend of Neil's, but most of my comments are wise ass attempts, so this one is obiously genuine.

Deetrane said...

Oh yeah - what a crazy picture!

Joe Manekin said...

Good post, Neil. I too am not well versed in the use of cultivated vs indigenous yeasts, at least from a technical perspective. What I do know is what I like. And more often than not wines that are fermented using indigenous yeasts are more flavorful, more lively, and show a lot more complexity, interesting texture, and varieties of flavors that make wine the unique agricultural product that it is. Further, some wines using cultivated yeasts are so tutti-fruity and processed tasting.

With regards to labels and ingredients, I absolutely think that anything used to make a wine (from grape variety to additives) should be mentioned. Think of it as full disclosure, and a way for a consumer to know what is in the bottle. Using that information people can better learn what they like and how to buy more of what they like.

Brooklynguy said...

hiya steve l - i agree with you. there's no question that St Innocent's wines are delicious, and to me they are unmistakably Oregon. But I think Pacalet or Chauvet would say that something Oregon is lost if Vlossak uses yeasts from elsewhere, yeasts that impart elsewhere's flavors or aromas. I guess it comes down to whether or not you care about that.

Deetrane - Just ask if you want to borrow money, this really isn't necessary.

Hey Old Skool - see, that's the other thing. I've been finding lately that the wines that have the most energy and personality in the mouth, those that excite me the most, they've been natural yeast wines. Except in Champagne - I have no idea about what they're using.

And I agree in principle about wine labels. Think food though - they can write "natural flavors" as an ingredient and who knows what the heck that is? It would work out the same way in wine. And it really wouldn't be very romantic would it? I like the idea of some sort of registry that all retailers must display, a book that lists the techniques used in each wine. Producers must submit the info each year.

Joe said...

Hi Neil, you raise a great point - when is "un-manipulated" wine truly "un-manipulated". Since man is involved, then there is manipulation, sometimes to a greater extent, sometimes less, but always there. I like the way you've lobbed it up for us to consider. Never heard of native yeasts that don't work right - I have to spend more time in the vineyard. Great post.