This story of Saccharomyces cerevisiae starts where so many of my stories start, at the dinner table. My wife, Eleanore, and I were enjoying our pot roast (or some such midweek fare) with a bottle of wine a few weeks ago. Nothing new here as this is our ritual most days.
“Whoa! What is this wine? I like it,” Eleanore said with particular emphasis on “like.”
Now, this is out of the ordinary. Eleanore is not much of a wine person. She enjoys a glass of wine with her meal, but remains uninterested in grapes, famous labels and expensive price tags. Frankly, she’d be OK with a mass-produced American lager beer, an inexpensive “critter wine” or nothing at all.
“Are you sure it’s not your dinner companion that makes this wine special?” I asked.
She was sure that it wasn’t. It was the wine itself, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what made this wine so exciting.
Why is it that women are so often attracted to danger? The wine in question was the 2007 Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay. And what’s so dangerous about a bottle of chardonnay, you might ask?
Here’s where S. cerevisiae enters the picture. S. cerevisiae is best known for fermenting 99 44/100 percent of all wines made. As winemaking yeasts go, it’s absolutely fabulous.
1.) It starts fermenting and multiplying fast, thus crowding out less desirable yeasts and preventing other microbes from imbuing your wine with aromas of rotten eggs or worse…much worse.
2.) It’s a goer. It keeps metabolizing sugars into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat until the wine reaches 13 percent alcohol or so. Winemakers (and owners and shareholders) get a little nervous when tens of thousands of dollars of grape juice stops fermenting before its time.
Cuvée Sauvage doesn’t enjoy any of the benefits of S. cerevisiae, or at least not nearly as much as most wines that are inoculated with it. Cuvée Sauvage is known as a wild yeast wine.
Yeasts are funny little animals and there are many types. Some will ferment your wine at low temperatures, some prefer high. Some work best at low alcohol and others really don’t start turning juice into wine until your must hits double digit alcohol levels. It’s a complicated and dangerous world for winemakers when they rely on Mother Nature to get their job done.
Along with a multitude of nasties that can creep into your wild yeast wine and the ever-present possibility that fermentation stalls (stuck fermentation is bad, OK. Winemakers don’t like it.), natural yeast fermentation can take a long time. Six months is not unheard of. Less dangerous wines inoculated with S. cerevisiae typically take less than two weeks.
So why play Secret Agent Man with your wine? Well, on a personal level, I’ve watched my wife try several hundred chardonnays in our time together. Not once has she blinked an eye. Wild yeast fermentation wines— especially white wines—taste and smell different. In the hands of skilled, confident, risk-taking winemakers, these differences can make even the most uninterested wine drinker go “Wow!”
What makes these wines different is that, in part, there are whiffs of everything that could spell disaster if they were more abundant. Franciscan is not the only winery to risk throwing away thousands of gallons of expensive, spoiled wines to satisfy its inner daredevil. Miner, Kistler, Ridge and Georgia’s own Persimmon Creek, with its recently released 2009 Natural Fermentation Seyval Blanc, also play Russian Roulette with their batches of wine.
Wild yeasts are not the end-all ingredient to a “Wow!” wine. You still need good grapes and scrupulous winemaking, but each of the dozens of different yeasts adds a little something-something to the wine, which makes it that much more unique and complex. This is cool for wine geeks and novices alike. The wild yeasts floating in the air around the winery are distinctive to that winery, making the wine truly unique to the place where it was made…and that’s something anyone can taste.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at email@example.com.
2007 Franciscan Estate, Cuvée Sauvage,
Chardonnay, Carneros, Calif.
• Golden Thumb Award
• Ethereal aromas of honey comb, gardenias, brushed leather, cream soda and a nutty, brown spice quality. Offers lots of tart lime, lemon and green apple flavors, while thoroughly balancing them with pears, nutmeg, vanilla and crème brulée.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)