On Wild Yeast

I suppose I’m part of a generation that loves to use wild yeast ferments, and provided it makes some kind of sense in the moment, I’ll probably let it be. But it’s not so clear cut; there’s no right or wrong.

I implied this was a generational thing, and I think that’s true. There’s a big difference stylistically between your average winemaker in his or her 30’s (or less if we count me) compared to the guys in their 50’s. The old school guys kept their wines healthy and took minimal risks, whilst dealing with relatively high cropping vines. More use of chemicals, and much more heavy handed in the winery. If a wine was cloudy back then, it was a fault. Now, it’s a choice in philosophy.

Now, it’s a case of tearing down and reinventing the work of fathers and teachers. Extremely widespread use of wild yeasts which are harder to control and more likely to result in losing wine, lower crop yields, less immediately marketable wines (big buttery Chardonnays stand out in tastings and win awards, high alcohol Shiraz with a lot of oak do the same), less filtering and fining (risking cloudy wines, or worse, unstable wine that may go bad in the bottle and result in recalling and tipping out a vintage). Basically; we’re all about quality over common sense. Anything that can make the wine the tiniest bit better, self preservation be damned. Curiously, most of what we’re doing is borrowed from older European winemaking traditions.

Now, my apologies if I’ve taken a bit of a detour from this explanation of wild yeast, but it’s important to know the climate in which these decisions are being made.

It’s also important to note that the bastard children making wines these days are not right; we’re experimenting, innovating and making mistakes at the same time. I’ve destroyed more wine than I want to admit, and if I were working for someone and had sales figures to meet, I wouldn’t have a job.

The answer is usually in the middle ground between the two. Wild yeast isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either.

Half of the advantage of wild yeast is the slow start to the ferment. In wine everything should move slowly; it’s a recipe for disaster but for the celestial as well. The other half of it is that it shows the truth of a vineyard, and really, that’s most of the best you’ve got to offer as a winemaker.

With that being said, there are very real downsides. If you’ve had high rainfall before picking, you’ve got much less wild yeast present on the skins and your ferment is really going to struggle. You’re also stretching out the timeframe in which the juice/wine is most vulnerable. You’re begging any pre-existing problem to flare up. And there is always a pre-existing problem, or ten. Good wine isn’t clean; it toes a line of health bordering on disaster. The skill is in keeping it from tipping too far. Inoculation lets you do that.

There are also more than enough cultivated strains of yeast to allow you to pick and choose what you want them to do for the wine. Some of the best wine in Australia is made with inoculated ferments. The ability to have a dozen different types of yeast dominating a dozen different ferments, and blend the best of them together later on; that’s how you get a wine with unfathomable depth.

The key to it all is remembering that there’s no right or wrong, and that you can't go into a vintage with a preconceived idea of what you’re going to do. It’s an individual thing, and each batch will tell you what it needs. It’s just a matter of listening.

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