Are wild yeast fermented wines better ?

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BernardSmith

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My sense is that if you are really interested and focused on the terroir of the wine then you MIGHT want to avoid lab cultured yeast and try to harvest local yeasts (wild or indigenous yeast). If you are adverse to risk then you might want to stick with varietals of yeast that have been cultured in labs. Better? I don't know. Different? Almost certainly. Risky? For the wine maker with no large volume to with which to blend a less than wonderful batch made from indigenous yeasts, I would think so.
 

Tim3

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Wild yeast fermentations tend to produce a more complex wine because there are several strains fermenting simultaneously. The final strain is inevitably a single strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can tolerate a high alcohol and low nutrient environment, but there might be several “handoffs” that occur from the beginning to the end. In the beginning there could be dozens of wild strains, and as the must becomes more toxic certain strains die off and others take over. It’s risky because some of these strains can produce off flavors or create characteristics you weren’t intending. Also, without great YAN testing equipment it’s difficult to know when and how much nutrient to add. White wines are almost always made with commercial yeast, with several yeasts being used in different fermentation vessels and then blended to the winemakers judgment. Same goes for many reds in order to achieve the complexity of a natural fermentation without the risk. So while it’s risky it also theoretically makes the wine unique.
 
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Answering the question exactly as written, the answer is "no". "Wild" yeast are not better than commercial yeasts. They may be just as good, but there is no guarantee.

Commercial yeasts are selected strains of indigenous yeast, that have been chosen for their specific properties in converting grapes (and other fruit) into wine. They provide a certain profile in the result. Indigenous yeast may produce just as good a result, but may not, as there are thousands of yeast strains and winemaker is hoping that a good strain is growing in that area and becomes the dominant strain in the batch.

@BernardSmith nailed it squarely as a risk. If I purchased grapes from a vineyard that has a known dominant yeast that produces consistently good results (wine from vineyard in consistently good), I'd accept the risk of using indigenous yeast.

Without that track record? As @Tim3 mentioned, multiple strains of yeast may compete, and some may affect the wine negatively. Or they may not. This is a complete unknown and the result won't be known until it's too late to alter it. The choice to use commercial or indigenous yeast is up to the winemaker's risk tolerance.
 
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I was at a winery a few years back, with the wine club I am a member of. We were getting a tour from the head winemaker and I asked him did he ever use the yeast that comes in on the grapes. His answer was not only NO, but HECKKKK NO (although he used a slightly more forceful word). He went on to explain that for the very minor cost of yeast, why would he take a chance on the yeast coming in producing a good wine. Cultured yeast has known properties and produces a repeatable known product. The people buying his wine want a good result every time. My memory isn't good enough to recall how many cases they produce per year, but I believe they are number 8 or 9 in size in the state I live in.
 

jswordy

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Wild yeast is not better, IMO. Craig's on point. A chosen strain is more likely to have a repeatable and consistent profile, which is exactly why wineries use them – and why exacting home winemakers should too. Consistency matters in commercial straight varietals, though commonly blended wines (Bordeaux) can alter the blend to accommodate variations on wild yeast performance.
 

Boatboy24

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I think we first need to define "better". Without that, we could go on for years discussing this. Does better mean predicable/reliable fermentation? Does it mean a true expression of the growing region? We could go on and on.
 

Bkat

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Better? That's subjective. More interesting? I think a strong case can be made that, in the right hands, wines made with indigenous yeast win in that category.
 
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Better? That's subjective. More interesting? I think a strong case can be made that, in the right hands, wines made with indigenous yeast win in that category.
That's true, but it circles around to risk tolerance. It doesn't matter what a person's experience level is if they get a less than optimal yeast.

I think we first need to define "better". Without that, we could go on for years discussing this. Does better mean predicable/reliable fermentation? Does it mean a true expression of the growing region? We could go on and on.
"Better" is too subjective to develop a good definition. Ask a question of 10 winemakers, get at least 11 answers ....

One thing we can do is ignore "best" and examine benefits and drawbacks. While I'm sure there are more that haven't been mentioned, we've got a good start.

An important -- IMO critical -- benefit of cultured yeast is the reliability and predictability to produce an expected outcome. Commercial yeast tend to dominate and push out contenders, both other yeast strains and microorganisms.


@0jamesclarke, what was your point in this post? Are you tossing up the idea of commercial vs indigenous yeast? If so, has this helped you make a decision?
 

Bkat

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That's true, but it circles around to risk tolerance. It doesn't matter what a person's experience level is if they get a less than optimal yeast.
Winegrowers, especially in France, Italy, Austria, Georgia, etc. who have banked on low intervention techniques (like using native yeasts) for many years (sometimes many centuries, actually), aren't exactly playing Russian Roulette every time they make wine. And I think it's important to note that the well-established growers using these techniques are able to release good drinkable wine every year. Maybe they live/work in locales with "better" yeasts in their environment developed over centuries than a lot of us in America? I won't hazard a guess on that.

For any grower/maker, vagaries such as weather, climate, bugs, etc. all get bundled into the fold of risk tolerance and years will vary. That's how it should be.

Part of the seismic shift to the broad use of chemicals in winemaking was because large commercial operations, catering to even larger corporate retail sellers, didn't want variables. They wanted consistency, even if it often means monotony. I guess this could become a whole other conversation, but some of that is attributed to the American consumer who wants the bottle of XXX that they buy at their chain grocer to taste exactly the same every single time. Even if it is kinda boring in my book.

I think that, as small scale makers, we should embrace the elements that make good wine a living, breathing thing. Good winemaking shouldn't just be science. It should also be art with a little unpredictability in the mix. And that second part is exceedingly rare.
 

ChuckD

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This is a very interesting conversation that dovetails with another ongoing conversation on using “chemicals” in winemaking! I’m relatively new at this hobby but as I see it commercial yeast, additives & chemicals (not the same thing) are necessary for commercial wineries to produce a uniform product. History shows us that none of them are necessary for making wine from grapes, but some may be necessary if making wine from other fruits. Many are helpful in consistently producing a “drinkable” wine no matter the base fruit.

For the home winemaker I don’t think that using some or all them takes the”art” out of wine making. One thing I have learned here is that there are just too many variables that I cannot control, soils, weather, harvest, storage. Not to mention all the conditions we attempt to control and processes we can add or subtract during fermentation and aging. As I see it even if I were to try, I cannot control the myriad variables nearly well enough to make the same wine every time. And I probably won’t even try.
 
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If I were a large enough grower of my own grapes, totally in control of all variables, I might be willing to use natural yeast. Given that I seldom know exactly who grew the grapes I use. Except for the ones I am able to source very locally, I am not willing to hope that I get a decent outcome from indigenous yeasts. Even the ones grown locally, I have no idea what might have been in the environment for those. For the sake of $10.00 (maybe even as much as $30.00 - assuming 10 carboys) the entire years wine I might make is lost.
 
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Winegrowers, especially in France, Italy, Austria, Georgia, etc. who have banked on low intervention techniques (like using native yeasts) for many years (sometimes many centuries, actually), aren't exactly playing Russian Roulette every time they make wine.
This is certainly true! But they's had decades, maybe even centuries, to get things in place. I formed the hypothesis that the best chateau in France achieved their position by soil, climate, and getting lucky enough to have a great yeast for their grapes.

As a purchaser of commercial grapes, I do not have that. As Craig pointed out, we are not in control of the variables. We are taking whatever we can get.

I think that, as small scale makers, we should embrace the elements that make good wine a living, breathing thing.
This is within your risk tolerance. Mine? I put too much effort in to drink marginal wine.

Some of the guys that taught me were minimalists -- crush the grapes and stand back. They got their grapes by train from CA, so there was no telling what the actual sources were. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was crap, and most of the time it was good enough to get drunk with. The two outliers were guys that used commercial yeast, and applied a bit of science to the art -- they made consistently good to great wine, whereas the others did not.

Keep in mind that as a small amateur producer, I can't make the same wine 2 years in a row. Each year's grapes are different, and I don't have thousands of barrels to blend to produce anything consistent. I get variety every year, whether I want it or not. Comparing us small producers, regardless of where we are in the world, to wineries that are decades or centuries old, or to large commercial produces, doesn't work.
 
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For the home winemaker I don’t think that using some or all them takes the ”art” out of wine making. One thing I have learned here is that there are just too many variables that I cannot control, soils, weather, harvest, storage. Not to mention all the conditions we attempt to control and processes we can add or subtract during fermentation and aging. As I see it even if I were to try, I cannot control the myriad variables nearly well enough to make the same wine every time. And I probably won’t even try.
You hit the nail squarely on the head. Regardless of how much science we apply, the uncontrollable variables make winemaking an art.

A commercial winemaker told me something like, "We don't make wine, wine makes itself. We just guide it as much as we can."

In that light I use commercial yeast, K-meta, acid (when needed), oak products + tannin, etc. I do some testing, but tend to trust my senses to tell me what to do (which takes experience to learn).
 

Bkat

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My point isn't that everyone should jump on the same train and rely solely on indigenous yeasts. That would be wrong. I am also not saying that all wines made with wild yeast ferments are good and therefore those that are not are bad. That's oversimplification. But I think it's important to keep an open mind and not label using wild yeast as a failure waiting to happen either. Because it clearly isn't.

The vast majority on this forum are very small scale winemakers and I think it's good to experiment, to go out of your comfort zone. Native yeasts are one of many ways to do that. So let's remember, even if there are two sides to the debate, neither is necessarily wrong.

I think winemaker81 hit on something that I'd read before. Many of the planting regions in places with long traditions have been in vines for generations. I have read multiple winegrowers contend their vineyards are imbued with the "correct" yeasts fostered over centuries. Whether it's true or just a romantic notion, it's a compelling thought.

And yes, if you don't grow your own vines, relying on wild yeast is riskier since you don't know the whole backstory of the grapes you're using.
 
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Many of the planting regions in places with long traditions have been in vines for generations. I have read multiple winegrowers contend their vineyards are imbued with the "correct" yeasts fostered over centuries. Whether it's true or just a romantic notion, it's a compelling thought.
I read an article last year that spoke of yeast being embedded in the wood of old wineries, so that pasteurized juice taken into the winery will start fermenting with the indigenous yeast. This concept makes perfect sense.

It also makes me jealous, for some bizarre reason. :)

Great thread. The more I learn about winemaking the more interesting it becomes.
Never stop learning!
 

Bkat

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I read an article last year that spoke of yeast being embedded in the wood of old wineries, so that pasteurized juice taken into the winery will start fermenting with the indigenous yeast. This concept makes perfect sense.

It also makes me jealous, for some bizarre reason. :)


Never stop learning!
Don't worry. In 200 years, after enough yeasts have embedded themselves into the studs and drywall, our garages and back rooms will produce nectar simply by bringing juice near their presence!

Actually, the chais and work rooms of some very gifted European winemakers would make the FDA apoplectic due to what our government would call "unsanitary." But it seems to make some darn good wine. Go figure!
 
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This thread illustrates what I love about this forum. It took a fair number of posts, but we exposed interesting information about winemaking heritage, and differences in risk tolerance.

It also illustrates how hard text is as a means of communication, as it took a lot of posts to produce what is probably a 5 minute conversation. Or maybe it's 5 hours, depending on how many bottles of wine we opened. ;)
 

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