Written for Farrell Distributing by Taylor Cameron
In the world of fine wine we hear the word “terroir” thrown around with great regularity. While there is not an exact translation from French to English, the general meaning of terroir is “wine with sense of place or one that exhibits endemic qualities.” Most wine publications and text books will cite soil type, elevation, aspect, climate and even historical influences as the building blocks of terroir. This statement is completely true but one very important component is often left out of the terroir conversation and that is yeast.
Typically each vineyard site (especially those farmed without chemicals) have a unique native strain of yeast that forms on the skin of the grapes. This layer of yeast is referred to as “bloom” and can be one of the most influential flavor components introduced into the oenological process. Aside from the bloom, many wineries themselves have a naturally occurring strain of ambient yeast that can start fermentation. The fork in the road for winemakers is whether or not to take advantage of these naturally occurring yeast strains. This decision starts in the vineyard. If large amounts of sulfur are used at harvest, the bloom will be killed requiring the addition of commercial yeast for fermentation. Sulfur is used primarily to stop oxidation of the grapes after harvest and before fermentation. However, if grapes are harvested by hand the skins are less likely to be damaged and oxidation becomes less of an issue. Native yeast fermentation can be risky. If a stuck fermentation occurs the batch can be lost. Great care must be taken to avoid stuck fermentation.
After decades of industrialized winemaking being the norm we are seeing a movement toward more natural wines. These wines are generally more unique but the winemaker must be committed to small batch production and the possibility of complications during fermentation. On a very large scale this risk becomes hard to justify. Therefore, it is mainly smaller producers from around the world that are bringing the native yeast movement into the mainstream. Marcel Lapiere (imported by Kermit Lynch) summed it up perfectly before his recent passing, “The method of winemaking – one could say “natural” of the past disappeared between 1960 and 1980, aside from a few of the ancients. I started in 1973 and I practiced the modern method learned in school. Pick early, sulfite, add sugar, it was the golden rule. The first time I met Jules Chauvet , he told me “The two beasts of the Beaujolais, they’re sugar and sulfur!” It was after 1980 that I wanted to make wine like my grandfather, but with the scientific learning of Jules Chauvet. “Natural” wines, they’re wines by vignerons who work like their grand-parents, not in a manner of the past, but in a manner of understanding and intelligence. Natural wine, it’s not a doctrine, it’s an ideal: the ideal, it’s to vinify without additives (yeast, sulfur,etc), respecting the terroir – the place where the grapes come from- and the vintage.”
The Farrell wine portfolio has grown at an exponential rate and many of the new additions are produced using native/natural yeasts. Almost every wine imported by our partners at Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner and Zev Rovine Selections are fermented without the use of commercial yeast. These importers recognize the important role native yeast plays in creating a balanced wine and a wine with sense of place. The only way to truly see the difference is to start tasting and see the difference for yourself. The following wines are produced with minimal intervention, offer an easy entry point to natural winemaking and are downright delicious all under $17.00!
Eric Chevalier Chardonnay-Loire Valley Chevalier is located in the Muscadet region of the western Loire Valley. While most whites made in area are based on the Melon de Bourgogne grape, Eric maintains 3 ha of Chardonnay that ferments naturally in underground glass-lined concrete vats. This is truly a crowd pleaser.
Chateau d’Oupia Minervois- d’Oupia is farming high in the hills of Minervois in the Languedoc. This bottling is a blend of 50% Carignan, 40% Syrah, 10% Grenache. The 50 year old vineyard is farmed organically and fermented in large neutral oak barrels with native yeast. This bottle will challenge your favorite Cotes du Rhone any day.
Cantine Valpane Barbera del Monferrato “Rosso Pietro” -Sustainably farmed single vineyard Barbera from the Piedmont region of Italy. The vineyard is amphitheatre in shape which absorbs more sun that vineyards on flat ground. This site has been under vine since 1700. Native yeast fermentation in stainless steel and concrete tank.