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Franciscan Estate, Cuvée Sauvage

Gil Kulers

Gil Kulers

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

2007 Franciscan Estate, Cuvée Sauvage,

Chardonnay, Carneros, Calif.

2007 Franciscan Estate, Cuvée Sauvage,  Chardonnay, Carneros, Calif.

2007 Franciscan Estate, Cuvée Sauvage, Chardonnay, Carneros, Calif.

• Golden Thumb Award

• $40

• 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.)

5 comments Add your comment

David Lattin

December 1st, 2010
8:45 pm

Dear Gil,

Always enjoy your comments without feeling the need to comment. This time I feel compelled to respond.

Not all wild/native/natural/indigenous yeast fermentations are created equal. That said, S. cerevisiae and or S. bayanus are the yeast that usually finish wine fermentations, as they are the only species that can generally tolerate alcohols higher than 13% (we won’t get into the discussion of Brettanomyces). It’s what happens in the juice and in the early stages of fermentation that makes the difference between inoculated and uninoculated fermentations. It’s probably better in the end to use those terms – “inoculated” or “uninoculated” (though I admit it doesn’t sount as romatic as native or sauvage). When discussing fermentations with a winemaker, one needs to ask a series of questions to get the the heart of the matter:

1. Did you add sulfites or liquid SO2 to the must at destemming/crushing? If so, many of the non-Saccharomyces yeast strains were wiped out. These include the apiculate yeasts (e.g. Kloeckera spp., Hanseniaspora spp., etc.) that can produce some interesting (and whacky) flavors and aromas early on but they die out at ~3% alcohol. What’s left? Saccharomyces spp. which tend to exist if relatively low populations on grape skins.

2. Once the must warmed up (or was warmed), did the fermentation still take at least a week to get started? If so, then you likely have the yeast truly indigenous to those grapes starting the fermentation once their population built up. There may be multiple strains that grow to a certain point and die out only to be replaced by the next more alcohol tolerant strain, but they are all likely to be Saccharomyces spp.

3. Did the fermentation start immediately or immediately upon warming? If so, then you likely have a very large population of a single strain of Saccharomyces sp. in your vineyard, in your picking bins, in your receiving equipment, or in your winery. This is very common in even the cleanest of wineries. The dumping or storage of pomace near the winery or in the vineyard nearby acts as a huge reservoir of yeast. Fruit flies are a major vector for spreading yeast and bring them quickly into the winery where they become one, big, beautiful population. Is it native? Yes, but it is nearly as ’selected for’ as a commercial strain. Does it create wines with complexity equal to the multiple strains of Sacch in sulfured must or the multiple yeasts of unsulfured must? Probably not.

From what I’ve learned about what these mulitple strains produce while they ferment, I gather that many of the unique by-products are short lived in the wine, i.e. wines made from different or multiple yeast strains are most different early in their lives (often while still in barrel and before the first SO2 addition). I’m exlcluding acetic acid and residual sugar, which persist in the finished wines. The impact these yeast have on temperature of fermentation, duration of fermentation, VA production, and efficiency (i.e. how much glucose or fructose remains and alcohol produced) is probably what leads many experts and consumers to prefer them. Are they better than wines made using commercial yeast? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I prefer them about half of the time.

Any way. That’s my several cents’ worth.

Keep up the good work,

Dave Lattin
Winemaker, Kuleto Estate


December 2nd, 2010
10:43 am

I remember when Cuvee Sauvage was introduced. I think it was Greg Upton(deceased) who was the winemaker at Franciscan who made it first there. Had a chance to meet him and talk at the winery and other locations.

Could be that I do not remember accurately but I think for every 10 barrels they made 3 were good. I think CS tasted best to me after some bottle aging as well, so it is a keeper.


December 2nd, 2010
12:00 pm

Really interesting stuff, Gil!

As you know, many beers are made with a variety of “wild” or “sour” yeast strains, including Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red Ale, Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin, Straight (Unblended) Lambic, Gueuze, and Fruit Lambic.

Craft and home brewers commonly use pure cultures of Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and Brettanomyces.

For lots of great info, check out the BJCP Style Guidelines, Category 17 — Sour Ale:

Gil Kulers

December 2nd, 2010
5:28 pm

Dear Dave.
Thanks for finishing (in part) my column. This was such a long and winding subject. It got more and more interesting as I got farther into it. One could easily write a book on the many different aspects. You picked up on several areas that I just didn’t have the space to get into. I’m surprised you didn’t bring up pH levels. Lower pH levels keep the bad, spoilage bugs out (most of the time). Also, I read an article about Paul Draper at Ridge. He swears by natural/wild/indigenous yeast…but admits that over the years he’s probably awash in S. cerevisiae and that’s pretty much like using cultured yeasts. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to flesh out this interesting topic.

Gil Kulers

December 2nd, 2010
5:37 pm

NOTE: yeasts are fungi, not animals as I referred to them.
Several readers made this abundantly clear to me.
I could say that I was in the middle of a literary flourish for the animal reference, but if it came across as a fact and not a flourish, then I make no excuses. Sorry.