Indigenous Yeast – A Walk on the Wild Side – Part 1

Indigenous, spontaneous, natural, aboriginal, feral, native, endemic, ambient, wild—no matter what you want to call them, the art of making wine without adding commercial yeasts is gaining favor in the United States. Of course, spontaneous fermentation is nothing new to the cellars of the Old World, where wine has been made with natural yeasts for thousands of years. Today, many of the world’s finest wines are still produced with native yeasts. These winemakers see indigenous yeasts as integral to the authenticity of their wines, finding that natural fermentation imparts a distinct regional character. As the first winemaker on Long Island to produce wines exclusively with native yeasts, I not only agree with my friends overseas, but I believe they have actually identified the fundamental secret to terroir.

I was born with indigenous yeast. Actually, we all were. It’s on our bodies, in our homes, and in the air we breathe. But while yeasts are ubiquitous, they are also mostly inconspicuous in our daily lives. As a native Long Islander, I never thought I would use these same yeasts to produce local wine—and that these yeasts would be my very own, found nowhere else in the world.

Yeast microbes are among the earliest organisms domesticated by humans. We’ve had yeast around us for thousands of years, and as we developed techniques to make bread, beer, and wine, we unknowingly selected the strains that worked best. It wasn’t until 1857, when Louis Pasteur finally proved that alcoholic fermentation was conducted by living yeasts and not by a chemical transformation, that cultured yeasts began to develop. Since then, the business of isolating and producing yeast commercially has grown dramatically, with wine producers among the biggest customers.

But commercial winemaking by inoculation can be sort of like painting by number. Yes, the pictures can look nice when you’re all done—but did you truly create anything? The seemingly endless supply of congruent yet prosaic wines led many winemakers like me to take a hard look at what they were doing and ask, “Am I really getting the most out of my fruit and letting it reflect the place where it was grown?” The use of indigenous yeasts is a way for producers to cut through the cacophony of the modern wine marketplace and the international style that has gentrified the wine world. It takes you back home where you belong.

So what is it about indigenous fermentation that makes it so special? For me, it is foremost and essential in the quest to define terroir, because it is just that: a product of its own environment. In essence- it is terroir that begets terroir…

to be continued...

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3 responses to “Indigenous Yeast – A Walk on the Wild Side – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Destination Science: Winemaking: a Combination of Science, Nature, Art, and Footwork | DISCOVER - News of the day

  2. Pingback: Farm To Fork Across America: Of Bread And Wine | | Ujjwala ShresthaUjjwala Shrestha

  3. Pingback: Destination Science: Winemaking: a Combination of Science, Nature, Art, and Footwork | DISCOVER Magazine « Science Technology Informer

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