~For years I’ve been telling people who take my class or read my columns and/or books that the thing separating wine produced from grapes and other fermented fruits is that grapes are the only fruit, when ripened, that have the right volume of sugar and natural yeast to produce a minimum of 8% alcohol. This week I find that I may have to restate that belief.
~First, I received my copy of the recent edition of Wines and Vines Magazine; in it is a story by Tim Patterson about yeast and wine alcohol. Patterson claims that the high alcohol wines coming on the market today may be the result of commercial yeast strains, but they may also be the result of poor understanding of yeast fermentation plus inaccurate grape sugar readings.
~Second, a California winemaker whose wines Robert Parker, and others, have rated highly, posted on the Parker-centric Web bulletin board that he routinely gets high alcohol (as much as almost 20%) by fermenting with “indigenous” yeast only and by adding no nutrients to the fermenting must.
~I had a problem with this winemaker’s claim mainly because I was taught, and prevailing wisdom seemed to be, that indigenous or locally wild yeast cannot ferment much beyond 15% alcohol—they weaken and die off at that point.
~I started a thread on the bulletin board about yeast fermentation and I was rewarded with a bunch of grape grower and winemaker posts that both explained and confused the situation.
~Based on the marathon thread, it remains likely that so-called indigenous or wild yeast may not be able to ferment much higher than 15% alcohol, but it is equally likely that we may never know that for sure.
~The advent of commercially viable yeast cultivars was an advance in winemaking in that it gave more certainty over a fermentation, especially that the fermentation would not be easily interrupted and it could also ferment almost to complete dryness and to higher alcohol.
~The commercial yeasts supersede indigenous yeasts—they take over the fermentation from the locals. What’s more, when their yeast populations grew and spread into the winery and then into the air, the commercial strains mixed with the indigenous wild strains, making unclear which yeast strain either starts or finishes a fermentation.
~The information regarding questionable indigenous yeast strains heightened my problem with the above winemaker’s claim that he used only indigenous yeast and added no nutrition yet he routinely got alcohol in excess of 18%. Plus, he did this while taking in grapes from vineyards in various locations and fermenting his wines at a local cooperative facility, where no one would know how many yeast strains have been let loose into the atmosphere.
~The odds of this fellow’s yeast being indigenous seem so low as to make his claim seem like a complete marketing ploy, and marketing it is—many of his followers/consumers place value in his desire to produce “natural” wines.
~Water and sulfur dioxide have been added to wine for many centuries, so a case can be made that they are “natural” winemaking methods. But modern-day use of the word “natural” carries the implication that the producer of the food or drink doesn’t do much more than stand by and let nature take its course, which in winemaking would likely be a total disaster.
~I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that I think food and drink purveyors should be silenced when it comes to using the word “natural.” All production is a manipulation of some sort; the only natural food and drink production is the one that happens in the fields when no human or other animal steps in to “guide” things.
~This post is also a way of admitting that, while I want to shed light on truth in wine, on the subject of fermentation I have to accept that I cannot do so. It’s simply too complicated, even for those who ferment commercial wine, for me to make a definitive statement about what goes on with yeasts and fermentation.
~On the bright side, many in the wine business have told consumers all along that fermentation is a most difficult process to understand and to unravel; they were not lying to us.
~Thanks to that tiny organism called yeast, wine remains a wonderfully mysterious product, and I am of course happy that the yeasts do their work. I don’t, however, enjoy wine that is hot with too much alcohol.
~I don’t care whether or not a wine seems balanced otherwise, when the alcohol exceeds 14% by volume I generally tune out.
I’m talking about table wine here.
I drink and enjoy fortified wines that come in between 15% and 20% alcohol, but not for the same reason I enjoy table wine. I like table wine with dinner; fortified wines I sip, possibly with cheese, nuts or chocolate.
Then, there is the exception: a hearty soup, and even some fish dishes, paired with sherry.
~I also tune out when I detect that a wine producer is trying to bs me, as in telling me that the high alcohol of the wine is the “natural” result of letting things happen.
~That kind of marketing message does not ring true.
~Besides, if allowed to do what they want to do, grapes would likely turn into vinegar and then into something resembling varnish—naturally.
Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
September 2007. All Rights Reserved.