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Yeast in wine

In day to day life, the only yeasts we tend to come across are ‘dried active bread yeast’ or the sort that you need a cream for (and the less said about those, the better). However, hundreds of strains of yeast occur naturally all around us. In vineyards, certain strains will cling to the grapes and the cellars, so crush grapes in a barrel and the yeasts will set to work converting sugar into alcohol. Without this step, the wine is just grape juice (and probably not very nice at that!)

But how does a yeast affect a wine? Well, in terms of the alcoholic fermentation itself, some yeasts struggle to survive in higher alcohol conditions, so may die off before the fermentation is complete. This is what’s known as a ‘stop fermentation’ and its partly thanks to this phenomenon that White Zinfandel was gifted to the world. Certain yeasts can also trigger a malolactic fermentation, which turns the malic acid (which tends to have sharp, citrus fruit flavours) into lactic acid, which is softer and can give hints of butter and cream. Going further, each yeast strain will react with different compounds within the grape to unlock certain flavours. For example, strains Zymaflore VL3 and X5 are used for Sauvignon Blanc to enhance exotic fruit characteristics.
Winemakers can use these inoculated yeasts to enhance the natural characters of their wine, but natural winemakers will tend to champion the ‘indigenous’ yeasts that cause that spontaneous fermentation. This is because they believe those yeasts are an intrinsic part of the terroir, and therefore character of the wine. In Jerez for example, sherry producers will go to great lengths to ensure their flor yeast is maintained in the environment year after year.

There is nothing wrong with either approach, but in a world that is questioning what goes into a bottle more and more, the difference is becoming more important, and the use of wild yeast is being indicated on the bottles of winemakers who are proud to be using the yeasts nature provides, rather than working to a ‘recipe’.  Either way, the differences can be huge – there’s no trifling with yeasts!

As a natural wine company we would tend towards the school of thought where natural yeast is best (not that wines made with natural yeasts can’t be bad too), as we believe that wine shouldn’t be made to a recipe, but should be a true reflection of its time and place.