Wine Talk

Snooth User: JenniferT

Significance of "wild ferment" wine

Posted by JenniferT, Jan 15, 2014.

I am planning to make a recipe that suggests wild ferment sauv blanc as a wine pairing. I loosely get the concept of wild fermentation but I don't really understand how that would translate into a different wine (and, consequently, a different pairing). I'd love to hear any feedback you guys have.

I guess it would be great to do some research and try to get an opportunity to get two wines from the same producer (one wild-ferment, one not...but otherwise more or less identical)...and ask them what they think the wild ferment process contributes in terms of the taste profile of the wine. Not an easy task, so that one might take awhile. (Asking you guys, on the other hand, is fairly easy!)    :)

I'll probably take a drive out to one of the bigger wine stores over the next day or two and ask their sommelier what he thinks as well.

Here's a link to my recipe, if you're interested.



Reply by outthere, Jan 15, 2014.

Bottom line is it doesn't. It's chic but you won't be able to tell the difference between a native yeast fermentation and an inoculated fermentation. Sounds great on a label though and all the hipsters are into buzz words like that.

Reply by JenniferT, Jan 15, 2014.

Huh, thanks OT! It sounds like the answer is that there really isn't one.  

That would mean that "wild fermentation" seems like yet another confusing but meaningless-to-me "natural" yeasts (in terms of "natural winemaking").

But I'm guessing the end product it really comes down to the different characteristics that can be attributed to different yeast strains...regardless of if they are "natural/wild" or not.  

Reply by JenniferT, Jan 15, 2014.

I did find a related article that I liked, if anyone is interested....


Reply by JonDerry, Jan 16, 2014.

It may be fluff, and in line with the "organic" movement. It's the trend now to be do-gooder environmentalists, and it's a good trend though can also be annoying and doesn't have merit on its own.

It's to the point where those who admit to inoculating are knocked down a peg in the eyes of many, and can also be questioned "if they inoculate, what else are they doing?"

Reply by outthere, Jan 16, 2014.

They inoculate to ensure timely and complete fermentation whereas with wild yeast they are at the mercy of whatever is floating in the air, like that bretanomyces from the guy down the street making beer. As our dear friend Forrest Gump stated - "You never know what your going to get."

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jan 16, 2014.

Some wineries are located away from the grapes.  They might even be in cities, like the members of the East Bay Vintner's Alliance.  Who knows what yeast strains the "natural" yeasts would compete with?  Do we insist (other than with sourdough bread) that the yeast be "wild" or "native" when we buy bread or beer?  Of course not.  It's dang ingredient. 

When we did the Pinot throw down, James Hall explained that he often lets the fermentation start with native yeasts, then inoculates and adds a predictable yeast that he prefers.  If you read Lukacs's "Inventing Wine," you learn that the unpredictability of fermentation because of the failure to understand that the mechanism of spoilage (contamination by microbiological organisms) had to be controlled, but that the action of yeast (itself a microbiological organism) was necessary.  It was only when they could kill the bad bacteria with sulfur (another dirty word these days) and then add a good yeast that they could even reliably make wine that didn't suck to start with and then get worse very quickly.  It was especially important to use yeasts that could work in a variety of temperatures before that also-unnatural thing called temperature control was common.   (Buy the book used or something, because it's only so-so IMO, but the parts about the revolutions in wine making--topping off, bottles, Pasteur's insights into microbiology, temperature control are repetitive like the rest, but good.)

I don't want MegaPurple in my wine (although it seems pretty harmless) and I am leery of acidification, chaptalization, and a host of other ways of making spoofy wines, but, as the son of a microbiologist and someone who used to bake all his own bread (and ate only home-bake bread growing up!), my feeling for yeast is that we've harnessed it as a helper pretty well and ought to take advantage of that.  Not to say some natural yeasts won't work--and more power to you--but there's nothing wrong with adding what you like.  Frankly, I don't think anyone could say what a wild-ferment would taste like, because you can't predict what yeast you will have in which winery and there are thousands--maybe millions--of strains of yeast.  Here's a pretty good link to information just about some of the commercial ones.

Reply by GregT, Jan 19, 2014.

  Frankly, I don't think anyone could say what a wild-ferment would taste like, because you can't predict what yeast you will have in which winery and there are thousands--maybe millions--of strains of yeast.

And to take that further, nobody can define what "wild" is.

Is it a yeast that blew out of your neighbors winery on the other side of the valley? One that your neighbor bought specifically to make wine? In other words, is it a feral yeast?

Is it a yeast that you dragged in on your clothes after visiting a winery in another country?

Is it a yeast that has been hanging around your winery since you built it?

Is it a yeast from some completely different fruit, say strawberries?

You don't know what it is unless you plate it and examine it. And then the yeast that starts the fermentation is not necessarily the one that finishes the fermentaton, and in fact, there may be several yeasts that take you from grapes to wine.

If you bake a lot of bread, you will have yeasts that take up residence in your kitchen. These days, I just put out some water and flour and it starts bubbling fairly spontaneously. Every once in a while, I know it's a different yeast because the flavor and aroma will be very unique. For example, one smells like parmesan cheese. That one also doesn't work too well - it dies quickly and doesn't give a lot of lift to the dough. So I have to start again.

In addition, yeasts work in conjunction with bacteria, which is why commercial yeasts for breadmaking tend not to be as satisfactory as the "wild" ones that may have a nice partnership with some bacteria. Same thing in wine.

So as mentioned above, it's all trendy to talk about "natural" yeasts, etc., but defining exactly what those are is another story.

Finally, remember that if you discover a yeast you really like, and you decide to propagate it and share it, you turn it into a "commercial" yeast, even though last year it was a "natural" yeast. In that case, the distinction becomes ridiculous.

If you think about it, the issue is very ridiculous in a certain sense. You plant a vineyard.You decide first of all, which grapes you will plant - all of them being hybrids of this or that parent. You decide what kind of spacing to use, what kind of trellising, what kind of pruning, whether to irrigate or not, whether to spray or not, and when and how to harvest. You've done a lot with your grapes. But somehow if you make the same kinds of decisions with your yeast, that's an issue? The only people who should have anything disparaging to say would be the people who have no idea what they've harvested because they just collected whatever fruit was growing in the field.

Reply by JonDerry, Jan 20, 2014.

Thanks for breaking that down Greg.

There is a huge gap between knowledge and reality regarding the all encompassing "organic movement". It's frustrating, but it's what producers have to deal with in the marketplace. 

Reply by GregT, Jan 21, 2014.

Yeah, the "organic" thing kind of bugs me. As a matter of principle, I would like things to be organic insofar as that means no antibiotics, no petroleum-based fertilizers, no pesticides, etc.

But in truth I'm not sure those are really absolute because if I had termites, I'd spray the hell out of them and if there were a way to destroy phylloxera or the glassy-wing sharpshooter or some of those other bugs, I'd probably do that too.

OTOH, there are some concoctions that are on the fence. For example, if you crush up chrysanthemums or a kind of daisy and put that in water, you can make a pesticide that is effective against some bugs. Napoleon had his men wash with that because it killed lice.

Then again, if you have disease and don't spray, you risk not only damage to your vines, but also to your neighbor's vines. Alternatively, if you don't have bugs and don't need to spray, it may well be because all of your neighbors did and you're a free-rider on their work. Both of those seem to be at issue with this guy:

And BTW, the spray in question is the flower one I mention above. That should be organic. Maybe not biodynamic, since they have their own concoctions, but it's in the same spirit.

In any event, the late Joe Dressner used to go off about "commercial" yeasts and how he could taste a wine and tell what it was fermented with. I will say that a lot of his wines had a similarity in the aromatics but that might just be because that's something he found appealing and so imported wines with that characteristic.

If it was because of the yeast and if I liked the result of that yeast, I don't see why you couldn't inoculate a wine with it and still be organic. He used to complain that some of the commercial yeasts came from strawberries, as if that was something bad. Uh, gee, are we saying that if a strawberry can't be organic? I never understood that.

If you have a fairly reliable yeast that has taken up residence in your winery, and if you like the results of it, I'd say go ahead and use it. But again, it's not just a single yeast that usually does the work - it's often more like a tag team of yeasts that step in at different stages, so you'd have to have a good team of yeasts and bacterias. I'm certain that in some wineries, that is exactly the case.

However, there's also a risk factor.

If you think about it, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever about winemaking that is "natural". You take a vine that was bred on one continent and graft it onto something from another continent and once you've done that, natural is out the window. Then you plant your vines in neat rows, something Mother Nature would never do, and then you pull leaves, do green harvest, train onto wires, blah blah blah.

None of that is natural in any sense.

Then you pick on a certain day when you feel you have the right sugar and ripeness to make the wine you want. Your neighbor might pick earlier or later because he has a different aesthetic. Again, neither is "natural", they're just preferences.

Then you make your wine - maybe destemming, then crushing, then maceration and you decide how long, and at what temp, then punch downs or pump overs, or maybe if you're a real "natural" guy you use stainless steel and temperature control exactly like you would never find in nature so you preserve the terroir.

So at some point you decide to just throw all of that to the wind and go completely random on your yeast? That seems reckless and actually borderline insane, but it's not my money.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jan 21, 2014.

Pyrethrin is the chemical from chrysanthemums, for those following; there's a synthetic called permethrin and they are extremely similar.  If you own bug-proof clothing or have made your clothes bug-proof for a trip to a malarial region, you used (probably) the synthetic version but the difference is negligible.  But you could argue for one being organic and not the other.  And there are other things that can be done as organic that would make you scratch your head--spend some time with Will Bucklin and he'll break it down for you. 

Without a doubt, the natural yeast/wild ferment thing is marketing first and foremost.  I can't find it now, but there was just a good piece in Wine Spectator about a female vigneron in CdP who received a gift of some fermenting wine from a mentor of hers so his yeast could colonize her cellar, which had unsatisfactory yeasts.  And guess what?  His took over.  Natural? 

Reply by outthere, Jan 31, 2014.

This question was asked in a forum on another wine site of Terry Theise who is a Wine Importer James Beard Award winner, author, authority on everything German in the wine world.

"The subject of inoculation as opposed to native yeast fermentation has generated a lot of discussion. Terry, could you please give some examples of wines of both types that you feel deliver fidelity with respect to sense of place? And do you feel there are wineries of note that ferment on the native yeast that do not? I'm not asking you to name names on the latter point, just to address the topic, if you would. "

His response was:
"It's actually too huge a topic to go into here. I write about it in my book, and touch on it in my Germany catalogue. Yet though the topic looms so unnaturally large, in reality it's little more than ephemeral. 
Every single wine with which I work "delivers fidelity [to] sense of place," or else I wouldn't buy and sell them. And they hail from a wide range of fermentation practices. 
An interesting estate to examine is Selbach-Oster, because Johannes ferments some wines spontaneously with ambient yeasts (which the Germans call "spontis") and others with cultured yeasts, and some of his wines are blends of both. It's impossible to say that one style conduces best to terroir expression, though there is a doctrine being promulgated that would insist you believe it is not only possible to make that claim, it is morally superior to make wine that way. If only the world were that simple. If only such questions were less ambiguous. We'd barely need to think any more.
But I'll go this far. It's entirely OK to prefer the taste of one method over that of the other. (That is, assuming one actually CAN taste it without knowing the method in advance...)
So Ken, I'm afraid my answer won't be terribly satisfying. Choice of fermentation yeasts (to the extent it actually is a choice) is an ancillary matter that's interesting to consider in all its parameters, but my experience has been that the more I delved and the more I learned, the LESS certain I was that there was a "superior" approach, let alone one that best expresses terroir."
Reply by Richard Foxall, Jan 31, 2014.

All of which proves one thing:  The less significant something is in wine, the more we debate it and the more words we use. Spoken as one of the guilty parties.

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