Today’s Wine Word: Wild Fermentation


A little wildness in the cellar, eh? Very apropos as we’re well into the 2012 harvest, by now, and tanks and barrels are busily bubbling away as we speak.

In a recent post I managed to record a one-minute description of how wine is made – whew! In that post I mentioned that wine was probably discovered by accident because yeast is everywhere, just like bacteria. And, all you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. Wild yeast strains come in with the grapes and often take up residence in the winery.

The vast majority of wine is made by inoculating the juice or must (crushed grapes) with cultured wine yeast. It’s the best way to make sure the job gets done and, these days, also because the winemaker can select a specific yeast that brings out the black currant character in Cabernet or the floral nature of Muscat. They can select heat and cold tolerant strains, low-foam strains, yeast that tolerates high alcohol…

But in fine wine production, some winemakers choose to go native – they let nature take its course rather than adding wine yeast. It’s a calculated risk. Since the winemaker doesn’t know what kind of yeast is at work, or how much of it is present there’s a chance that he’ll have a “stuck fermentation” which means the yeast has petered out before the job is done, leaving him with a tank of sweet Cabernet – yum!

Of course, the winemaker can try to get things going again by adding yeast or yeast food. Sometimes they take several gallons from a tank that’s fermenting well and add it in to the stuck batch to encourage the fermentation to finish up. So, all is not lost, but the result may not be quite what that winemaker had in mind.

Those winemakers who pursue wild fermentation are looking for added complexity. The theory is that there’s not one dominant strain present, but that several different strains are involved and they die off at different times during the fermentation, each adding its own layer of complexity.

Because the sensory difference between wild and inoculated fermentation is quite subtle, it’s often reserved for subtle varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Actually, when I was at a seminar at UC Davis, a PhD said, unequivocally, that consumers can’t smell or taste the difference between wild and inoculated fermentation in wine. I guess that’s as subtle as it gets!

So, why bother? Well – there are those winemakers who sincerely want to do everything they can to make their wine distinctive. The idea is that no one variable makes a big difference but, if he’s taken extra care every single step of the way, it adds up to something really special. Very commendable.

But then, the cynic in me wonders how much of it is driven by marketing. Everyone is looking for a way to differentiate himself – to break out of the pack. Wild fermentation is something that can be used in marketing pieces and there are those buyers who are drawn to wines made in a “natural,” “non-interventionist” way.

And, when it comes to marketing, semantics count, big time. I have a client who likes the cachet of referring to wild fermentation on his labels and in his winemaker notes. I have another client who isn’t comfortable with the word, “wild.” It sounds too much like things are out of control for him. In that case we go with “native-yeast” fermentation.

What do you think of the “non-interventionist” movement? Are you more likely to buy a wine that’s as natural as possible? Or are you focused on the quality/price ratio?

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