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.