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Yeast: Part of Wine's Terroir or Its Mortal Enemy?

I'd like to point you readers to an interesting post by Clark Smith, at his GrapeCrafter blog, about Natural Winemaking (yes, capitalized) and the role of yeasts in the winemaking process.

Clark spent some time recently at a wine industry event where panelists and the audience discussed the definition of what Natural Winemaking actually is. It comes as no surprise to me that the group couldn't achieve consensus around a concept that remains, as far as I am concerned, a broken metaphor (vinegar is natural, wine requires technological intervention).

One particular sticking point arose out of a discussion surrounding the use of commercial yeasts. Many proponents of Natural Winemaking, including those that practice Biodynamic winemaking eschew commercial yeasts in favor of the yeasts that are found on and around the grapes, citing their role in the concept of terroir. Some do not.

Smith, in particular, seems to favor commercial yeasts for all the reasons that winemakers usually do: they prevent stuck fermentations, they allow the winemaker more choices in how, where, and at what temperature the fermentation process takes place, and finally they avoid the sometimes nasty odors and flavors that can be byproducts of some natural yeasts.

Smith goes on to make quite an interesting argument, however. He alleges that those concerned with the expression of terroir are actually better served by commercial yeasts than by so called "wild yeast" or "native yeast" fermentations. By virtue of eliminating or reducing the aromas and flavors that are merely byproducts of the yeast itself, Smith argues, the terroir is more likely to shine through. The implication being that native yeasts actually obscure terroir more than they create it.

I'm entirely ambivalent about commercial yeasts in winemaking. I've had phenomenal wines made both ways. Frankly, most of the time I (and I would venture, most wine lovers) don't know what kind of yeasts were used in the wine I'm drinking. I recognize that 50 years ago, there were no commercial yeasts on the market, but I also accept that there were an awful lot of wines full of Brettanomyces and other uglies that made for unpleasant drinking.

What do you think? Yeast as terroir or yeast as tool?

Read Clark's post.

Comments (23)

Arthur wrote:
05.05.08 at 11:14 PM


Bruno D'Alfonso contends that there are no such things as "native" or "wild" yeasts - only *feral* ones. That might be tricky to prove…

Commercial yeasts are not only selected for their ability to withstand more adverse chemical conditions but also for their ability to enhance some aromatic components of wine (these even differ for specific grape varieties).

In this way, commercial yeast use is the antithesis of terroir-driven (or focused) winemaking and is more "tool" - if we define terroir as the interaction of climate, soil and grape variety.

But then if ALL winemakers in a specific region/appellation (defined by terroir) use the *same* yeast strain on *all* wines from the *same* variety then the argument changes - as does the definition of terroir does to include specific human interventions (vin jaune, “Méthode de Glacière” or recioto anyone?)

Tom Wark wrote:
05.06.08 at 8:47 AM

Clark's argument only works if you argue that native yeasts are not one element in the definition of Terroir. Clark seems to think not: "Is the indiginous yeast part of terroir? Depends on what you think the "T" word represents. For many winemakers, terroir expression equals presentation of the unique grape flavors which the climate and soil of a place produce."

It's an arbitrary determination, but it helps make his argument.

05.06.08 at 8:55 AM

I tend to agree with Alder in that I tend to be ambivalent about cultured yeasts. Certainly a given cultured yeast can favor an aromatic profile, texture or flavor but in reality its overall contribution to a wine is quite small. Like clones, they are tools but in my opinion, they fail to 'trump' 'place' in a wine. Cultured yeasts have been villified by wine writier types and in my opinion it is simply hype.
That said I am a proponent of 'spontaneous' yeast ferments. Each cultured yeast began its life a a 'wild' yeast that was later selected for and propagated. So in reality they are all 'wild'. Clark goes to lengths to condemn 'native' or 'wild' yeast fermentation and seems to suggest they are some sure fire way to develop microbial issues. In my cellar that does not play out. The only fermentations that have stuck and the only wines that have developed microbial issues have all been fermented with cultured yeasts.
Any fermentation that is mishandled and any wine that is neglected during elevage runs the risk of sticking or developing spoilage organisms. Those who work woth 'spontaneous' fermentations knowing the risks involved work very hard to monitor thier wines. Yes there are a few ( or more ) winemakers that use 'wild' fermentations and fail to keep thier wines clean. They are the villans, not the yeast.
The wine community seems to percieve 'Terrior' as this delicate and fleeting thing that is easily destroyed. I am not of that opinion, 'Terrior' exists in a continuum, that is a wine will show varing degrees of 'sense of place'. Cultured yeasts are a small intrusion on 'sense of place' when compared to other things like opti-Red, agressive extraction ( especially with enzymes ) and use of agressively charactered oak ( chips or barrels ).
The main point to be taken away from Clark's comments are his assertions that there needs to be more open communication about how wines are made. Those that use technology often obfuscate thier methods because they don't want to be percieved as not respecting place ( most of the top scoring wines are using these methods, don't fool yourself otherwise ). Those that assert a more natural approach are often lying to themselves that thier wines display 'terrior' or are 'more interesting' when in reality the wines are losing much of thier identity to microbial contamination. If we, winemakers, offer an open dialogue we might be able to inform the wine drinking public that there are two side of this issue and allow them to make thier own decisons about what style they favor.

Rich wrote:
05.06.08 at 9:10 AM

Taken to its logical extreme, the "natural" concept could lead to the conclusion that only a single grape varietal should go into the bottle or that the glass for the bottle (and even the cork) be produced locally from local materials. The opposite extreme can lead to highly manipulated wines. I don't think that either extreme, or anything in between, is "wrong" or "inappropriate". The resulting wine can be delicious in any scenario. My bottom line is that there is room for both extremes, because variety is the spice of life. Uniformity or conformity in wine production would be very unfortunate. The main thing is that the consumer is informed about the ingredients and process so that the differences can be understood and appreciated.

John wrote:
05.06.08 at 9:33 AM

Do you think Brett is a function of whether or not they dosed with commercial yeasts?

Arthur wrote:
05.06.08 at 9:53 AM


I disagree with you about downplaying clones. Some can be stunningly distinct: take 667 or 115 in Pinot - the first is distinctly peppery and the latter very gamy and meaty.

I would like to hear your response to John's question whether inoculation will prevent Brettanomyces bloom (after all, if it's already in the wood...).

Finally, I have to ask at what point do techniques of elevage define or replace terroir?

For example, at the recent World of Pinot noir there was a tendency of some wines from a particular region in CA to show a higher incidence of oxidative flaws that suggested oxidative wine making. Yet those could be considered part of the regional character of the wine (i.e. terroir). Are ullaged barrels part of that region's terroir? Is not topping off one's barrels terroir?

Alder wrote:
05.06.08 at 10:08 AM

And so Arthur proves definitively that defining Terroir is a question of religious dogma rather than fact! :-)

All joking aside, there is no clear answer to the question of whether, say, notes of brett that are common in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are distinctive elements of terroir, or merely flaws that if erased over time, will reveal the true character of the region's wines.

We know what Jim Laube would say, as someone whose palate is extremely sensitive to Brett. But Parker and many other say just the opposite.

One person's flaw is another's quirky character?

Arthur wrote:
05.06.08 at 6:37 PM


I think this topic raises the need to make the distinction between what is terroir and what is regional style which may have developed for whatever reasons (as a result of either tradition or necessity) but with a change of vinification would be lost.

Some examples:

Paso Robles: The fruit-forward character is more a terroir issue rather than a regional style. Try as you might, you’ll never create a ringer for a Chenin in Paso – even in the western part of the AVA. Conversely, even the most daring and heroic interventions in the Loire will not yield a wine resembling something from Paso Robles.

Sherry: The flor, which imparts a distinctive character to these wines, must be actively maintained by wine makers. And how would these wines taste if not for the solera system? A similar example is vin jaune of the Jura. Certainly, these wines would be different if not for the methods integral to their production. So, here it’s regional style (i.e. intervention) over terroir.

Champagne: It’s certainly colder at the 49th parallel. Would still table wine (vins de la rivière, vins de la montagne) be prevalent in the region if nobody had heard of sparkling wines AND if no vineyards existed in Burgundy? An interplay of terroir and intervention (regional style) is certainly the case here.

A similar case can be made about New Zealand Sauvignon blanc – particularly from the southern regions of NZ.

Napa: Certainly, the style of these wines has evolved over the last few decades. Global climate change cannot be the major cause for the disappearance of Andre Tschelicheff’s Rutherford dust. I think the cause lies with a general aversion to any trace of pyrazine in Cabernet. Hence, I’d argue for regional style and not terroir being dominant in today’s wines from that region. I’m sure the same argument can be applied to today’s Bordeaux.

I think it’s important to think clearly about what is done to and what goes into a wine. Some regions produce the best wines, with the most distinct and appealing character when there is minimal intervention. At some point, the manipulations and interventions responsible for another region’s style result in a more complex or interesting or even distinct and pleasingly unique product than you’d get from a non-interventionist approach.

05.06.08 at 6:51 PM


In terms of Brett development I doubt that it really matters if the wines were fermented with cultured or 'wild' yeast. I know many winemaker will instinctively take me to task for saying so. This is what we know about Brett, it is a poor starter of fermentations so I doubt seriously if it is increasing to a great extent at the begining on ANY fermentation. I suspect most Brett out breaks can be attributed to: 1). In sufficient use of potassium metabisulphite at the destemmer, 2). Going to barrel with residual sugar, 3). High pH wines, likely due to failure to acidulate or insufficient acidulation ( due to larger than expected shifts of pH through malolactic fermentation ), 3).Improper cellar tempetures ( too warm ). So as you can see the development of Brett has little to do with, in my opinion, what yeast was used to initiate fermentation.

I work with 7 different clones on three different roostocks, each planted in two to three positions in the vineyard ( different aspects and elevations, the soils are more or less the same ). Without fail, position in the vineyard has more effect on wine style than clonal selection. I will not challenge your pallet here but will say that in a marginal climate like oregon, you will have a much more difficult time identifying a clones flavor profile than I think you might have in CA. I am not saying clones do not deliver different flavor profiles, I am simply saying that the differences are small when compared to the difference between; an east facing slope and a west facing slope, marine sediment soils and volcanic soils, 200 feet elevation and 700 elevation. My point is that site and thus place is a DOMINATE feature.
Your points about elevage and terrior bring to light the difficulty of using the word 'terrior', which is why I don't use it and instead prefer 'sense of place'. I certainly think that some regions will give wines more prone to oxidation than others. However I suspect that it is less about the specifics of a region and more about the stylistic descions of the winemakers predominating that region. Extended hang time, high pH, etc will increase the probability of developing oxidative characters. These are winemaking descions and have little to do with 'place'. Oxidation is a strange thing in terms of 'terrior'. Many european producers encourage oxidation as it first destroy's varietal character, further revealing the characters of a wine attributable to site. However I think that, in my own mind, that if I smell a wine and can say it is oxidized then it is something that is to some extent interfering with 'sense of place'. I know producers whose wines have very strong 'fungal' characters that emerge early in the life of the wine. I don't attribute this to 'terrior' because there cellars a covered with mold and each wine, regardless of its source, smells the same. This I would define as 'style', not 'place'. In the same way, if a winemaker allows his barrels to become ullaged then again, the resulting wines are likely to show more 'style' than 'place'.
Let me be clear; I am by no means trying to be the 'terrior' police. Let winemakers be clear about there techniques and openly discuss them with consumers. The consumers that care enough about the wines will decide for themselves what is considered 'place' vs. 'style'. I think this was the entire point behind Clark's initial post, and most of what he advocates for the most part.

Arthur wrote:
05.06.08 at 7:17 PM


No contest on the issue of more exaggerated clonal expression in California.

Got any 2005s left?

05.06.08 at 9:14 PM


No the '05's have all vanished. Got plenty of '06's.
I think you make good points about 'terrior' vs regional style. My point is that, for instance, just because Napa cabs no longer show the rutherford dust doesn't mean these wines no longer express place. There it an underlying assumption that there is only one way a wine should taste from a given site or region. My experiences in Germany show that a given piece of ground can have several expressions of place, each with a different ripeness level. Are only the kabinetts capable of expressing place? Or is is the TBA's that get it right?
In your champagne analogy I would respond, that if they made still wine it would still be thin and acidic, the 'place' dictates that. However producers have found a style that makes the most of what the 'place' gives.
Again with the NZ sav blanc, marlborough gives very grassy flavors, the kiwis have capitalized on that and developed a regional style that was dictated by 'place'. I think you can see this all over the world.
Ever taste a willamette valley cab? Hopefully you say NO. This is because the 'place' is incapable of producing a regional style that is drinkable. Regional style perhaps is the result of winemakers ( and winegrowers ) making the best of a the limitations of a 'place'.

Arthur wrote:
05.06.08 at 9:19 PM


The Champagne and NZ examples, I think, give good examples where elevage is dictated by terroir and the regional style is dependent on (and inextricable form) elevage.

So the question I have, as a follow up, is: "Is there a regional style where elevage plays a minimal role?"

05.07.08 at 7:50 PM


I get your point about elevage and Champagne. The NZ argument I would ask you to elaborate on. NZ sav blanc I would say it an great example of a wine where elevage plays a minimal role. Many NZ producers can, in just 6 weeks, go from the vine to the loading dock for export. The marlborough style of sav blanc is very reductive and doesn't put much value on time spent in barrel or tank, they just serve as opportunities for oxidation.

Other potential candidates would be some Hunter Valley Semillon, some South African Chenin Blancs, some new world rieslings. These wines are very primary, very reductive winemaking. The emphasis is freshness. With time in bottle these wines can become very complex, but early in thier lives they are meant to be very primary in thier development, elevage of any extent only serves to threaten primary characters.
Beaujolais Nouvea would be another such example and with it some of the other carbonic macerated wines especially some of the 'whole cluster' pinot noirs comming out of Oregon. These wines again are quite primary and in very short times go from vine to bottle.

By far there are more examples of regional styles that have elevage play a very important role.

Arthur wrote:
05.07.08 at 8:01 PM


In haste I used 'elevage' for both, but for the NZ Sb,I should have used a word that better encompasses growing and harvesting decisions along with elevage/vinification.

05.08.08 at 4:48 AM

If Michelangelo were to come back in these times and see power tools, I dont think he would reject them. All the buildings and churches and sculpture that have been crafted and carved without the use of electricity are an amazing feat. But who is doing that in these times? Or who wants to? I once heard Buckminster Fuller say,"Anything that nature lets you do is natural."

05.08.08 at 8:34 AM


I see your larger point now. No I do not believe that there is a regional style that is not greatly influenced by human descion making. We ( winemakers ) sometimes say the wine will make itself, the truth is I am not about to leave this to chance alone. Even the most minimalist winemaking regions and producers still exert considerable control over thier vineyards. Wine largely, and good and great wine specifically is the result of a high degree of manipulation somewhere in the production chain. Great wine is no accident but a deliberate attempt to manipulate natural process to favor the odds of producing something great.

Chris Robinson wrote:
05.12.08 at 8:14 PM

Those who have wandered around NZ during vintage will know that cat's piss and gooseberry character is truly from a sense of place, it is uneven berry set in sauvignon blanc. And unbelievably the world now buys it as defining sauvignon blanc. At least the terroir part is right, too cold to ripen bunches evenly. Just love this con job from New Zealand - the masters of fruit and wine export marketing!

GregP wrote:
05.19.08 at 3:00 PM

Agree with Jerry on brett, yeast and such have absolutely no bearing on its development. And to elaborate even more, you can have, say, 10 barrels of fruit X (same vineyard, block and clone), yet only one particular barrel may develop brett. Just a simple example to show that it is not yeast, processing and anything in between, in most cases I’ve experienced it, it has been a barrel (newer ones having more chances to develop brett).

As for brett being a “style” of wine, have to vehemently disagree and state that the only thing brett ever shows is, well, BRETT. If I set up a blind tasting of single varietal wines in black stems so that you can’t see wine’s color, just how many out there, Parker himself included (since he is the biggest proponent of brett as terroir) will be able to tell which varietal is in the glass? How about just a region to make it simpler? I posed this question recently to an industry veteran and after posing for a few seconds to analyze my point he simply stated, “There is no way”. Brett is a serious winemaking flaw, no matter claims some people may make otherwise. Do this simple tasting test yourself, its not difficult to set up.

I’m a strong proponent of native ferments, but also agree that properly picked “cultured” yeasts are great for what they can do for you, and the more you know the fruit you work with the better cultured yeasts can be used a winemaking tool.

Arthur wrote:
05.19.08 at 3:11 PM


By proclaiming brett as part of terroir, a critic validates poor quality wine and convinces the consumer that this is an acceptable and even desirable trait.

That is NOT being a consumer advocate.

Alder wrote:
05.19.08 at 3:34 PM

Just to play devil's advocate here folks, there are a few examples out there where characteristics that would be considered flaws in some wines are considered part of the particular style of a region (I won't use Terroir, as that's too subjective a word.)

For example: Oxydized qualities in Sherry and Madiera; oxidized qualities in the Friuli amphorae wines of Radikon, Jermann, Gravner, etc; light spritz in Muscadet; quinine in Barolo Chinato; Retsina in Greece.

All examples of wines that have a TRADITION of certain qualities, some of which involve the action of "foreign agents" on the wine.

But since winemaking is fundamentally an activity that takes place through the introduction of outside agents to fermenting grapes, who can say definitively which such agents are "right" and which are "wrong"?

Global tastes may be evolving away from Brett, just as in Germany they evolved away from fermentation of Riesling in wood a few decades ago. Proponents of new "tastes" usually always describe this process as "improving the winemaking" but there are obviously a lot of people (go talk with Nicolas Joly, for instance) who see these new qualities of wines as flaws.

GregP wrote:
05.19.08 at 10:33 PM


And to extrapolate even further. The big guy, in our online arguments, also stated that filtered wines have no soul and do not express a sense of place (terroir). When I pointed out that pretty much all white wines are filtered (for a number of reasons), including his 100 point “darlings” from Sauterne, he simply did a vanishing act feigning “indignity” of having to argue with me. So much for his supposed wine expertise, it was simply startling to see a big void in his wine prowess and expertise.

Too bad so many people are associating brett with terroir these days, all thanks to this self appointed expert and his mid 80s reviews of Burgundy and Rhone. Thankfully, the new guard in France has adopted cleanliness in cellars and conditions are improving. Still, too many cellars there are too infected by now and no amount of scrubbing will help.

But I hate brett with passion and although I do not mind a mildly affected bottle here and there, I just treat brett as what it really is: a MAJOR flaw in wine and winemaking. Anyone arguing otherwise either has an agenda or simply has no palate (since all bretty wines taste the same no matter where they come from). We do not go out and buy spoiled fruits and vegetables, not sure why it became fashionable to buy spoiled wines.

A nice list of varying styles, although I should add that no style you listed has “brett” as component J

Also, you missed another, very important, trait with German Riesling: reduction in young wines, which dissipates with age.

Alder wrote:
05.19.08 at 10:40 PM


Yeah, I left Brett out, but meant to imply that some people might consider Brett in CNdP a style in the same vein as the above.

Thanks for the addition of "reductive" to the German Riesling note, definitely fits with the others.

Geoffrey Smith wrote:
05.30.08 at 3:01 PM

Just a couple of comments.

First, even if a must is inoculated with a cultured yeast, that yeast is not the only yeast that creates the wine. The natural yeasts will be fermenting along side the cultured yeast (and sometimes various 'wild' ones taking part at different stages of the overall fermentation.

Secondly, it should be noted that brettanomyces, according to one of the greatest enologists of all time Emile Peynaud, should be considered a "useful" yeast, one that can add complexity if not excessive. Now insofar as it's impact on terroir, well, that's a subject for true philosophers!!

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