The more I know about wine, the more I realize how astoundingly complex it is — and how much more I need to know.
I’ve made an informal 50-year study of dozens of wine topics. I know the basics of organoleptics, chemistry, vines, soils, varietal distinction, fermentation science, and perhaps most important of all, winery sanitation.
I do not play well with microbiology – or biodynamics, divining rods, Ouija boards, crystals, tea leaves or pyramids.
Assessing what I’ve learned, I now know how little about wine I really understand. It’s really complicated.
But when consumers are paying $25 or $40 (or $75 or $100) for a bottle, they deserve to know more about their potential purchase than a back label that says, “We’re proud of our hard work in bringing you this fabulous elixir.” Thanks for nothing.
Recently, I wrote an article suggesting that wineries routinely reveal technical details of their wines on back labels or at least on websites, to empower consumers in making buying decisions. I believe wineries should tell us not only the alcohol content, but also the acidity, pH, and (in white wines and rosés) the residual sugar.
But there’s lots more to know that would be helpful to buyers. You need not know which yeast strain was used to ferment the grape juice, but many details would be helpful to some consumers.
Wineries tell me that using technical details makes the product look like a chemical soup – not the romantic image of an idyllic countryside they want to project. To quote Steve Martin, “Well, excuuuse me!”
Speaking of yeasts, they can be vitally important.
Some advocates of “natural” wine argue that the only yeasts to use for fermentation are those native to the vineyards from which the grapes came – natural yeasts that come from the family Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
These so-called “wild yeasts” are, in some people’s view, the “in” thing to make natural wine, which they say gives consumers more of a chance to experience the terroir, the place the grapes grew.
The brilliant British-based wine scientist Jamie Goode addressed this in an article not long ago in which he said:
“For some, the thought of using ‘industrial’ yeast cultures to ferment wine is the ultimate in faking it. They claim that adding these yeasts, [which are] deliberately bred to impart desired flavors to the wine, is a betrayal of the concept of terroir — the concept that wines should taste of the place the grapes are grown.
“Others claim that the risks involved in [using] ‘natural’ yeasts . . . can lead to faulty or weird wines. They scorn the idea that native yeasts are part of terroir, arguing that most wild ferments are carried out by commercial strains resident in the winery — after, that is, the wild spoilage yeasts present on the grapes have had a few days to cause havoc in the ferments.”
Such debates can lead to quarrels. Although fists rarely fly, advocates of natural wine take this stuff seriously!
Thus far, their message is a whisper in a windstorm. About 95% of all wine is made with prepared yeasts, which are reliable, easier to predict, and rarely create problems.
A trade magazine I read regularly, Wine Business Monthly, often publishes scientific articles in which most consumers have little interest. Two months ago, it had an article by a scientist I met in 2006 at the Australian Wine Technical Conference in Adelaide. Dr. Sakkie Pretorius was then managing director of the authoritative Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).
The subject of his Wine Business Monthly article was wine yeasts and dealt with the use of combinations of different yeast strains. The article, supported by 15 scientific-paper references, had lots of abstruse material. Microbiologists might be best suited to understand it.
Perhaps not coincidentally, adjacent to that article, the magazine also had a full-page ad from the excellent supplier of wine materials, Scott Labs. In the ad, Scott mentioned experimental non-Saccharomyces yeasts, including one called Metschnikowia fructicola, which Scott said helps bring out special aromatics in many grapes, notably Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer.
In Pretorius’ article, he alluded to how the use of certain yeasts might produce aromatic components that could diminish or eliminate regional characteristics.
Most who have read this far probably don’t care. But it reminded me of a 2012 Riesling I tasted upon release from a New York state winery that was startlingly aromatic. The winery said it had fermented it with a yeast (RHST) I had never heard of.
I liked the Riesling so much I bought a bottle for our cellar, intending to age it until 2022, when it was 10.
During a chat last week with Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run (one of New York’s greatest winemakers), I asked about yeast strains and their impact on aroma.
Peter explained details of yeast trials he has done. I asked if he had ever used RHST. “Yeah, it’s nice for aromatics,” he said, “but the wines don’t age well.”
I located that 2012 New York Riesling and chilled it. It was terrible, dull and tired, even though it was only 7½ years old. On release, all indications were that it would be fine.
I surmised that the wine’s deterioration was related to the yeast. Great Rieslings should last a few years.
If you like aged Rieslings (many people do), knowledge of the primary yeast might be good to know. Sure, this may be more than most people want to know when buying a summer quaffer. Yeast strains are topics for geeks like me.
For context, almost every older German Riesling I have ever had was superb. High natural acidity is a key reason. Some German Rieslings last decades! German knowhow with Riesling is unmatched – though an exception may be in Australia, where the AWRI has done extensive research into the grape.
Aussie dry Rieslings typically live for 20 years or more!
Other details of a wine’s crafting also can help consumers make buying decisions. But often the details take time to elucidate.
I tasted a 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet from Ladera three weeks ago that I thought exemplary. I learned that winemaker Jade Barrett did color and flavor extraction using a seven-day cold-soak before fermentation.
Flavor extraction before fermentation is a savvy tactic because the liquid at that stage has no alcohol. If all of the flavor and color extraction of a Cabernet is done after fermentation, the liquid then has substantial alcohol, which acts as a solvent in wringing more tannin out of the skins and seeds. (And, for geeks, harsher seed tannins are alcohol-soluble…)
One aspect of this Cabernet was how generous it is without aggressive tannins, yet it still has the structure to age for several years, and is excellent now with food.
So, yes, many details of a wine’s production can help consumers refine their purchasing decisions – and almost none of it fits on a wine bottle back label.
Wine of the Week: 2019 Curator White Blend, South Africa ($11): I tried this simple white wine without knowing anything about it. My first thought was, “What is this?” It was odd, but not in a negative way. As it sat in the glass, however, it began to open up. The back label says it is 60% Chenin Blanc, 20% each Viognier and Chardonnay. The grapes came from Swartland in western South Africa, and the long, drawn-out fermentation of Chardonnay produced “wacky aromas of dried peaches, apricots, and ripe citrus,” according to the importer and creator of the wine, Bartholomew Broadbent. Other aromas are a subtle spice note from the Viognier and Chenin Blanc’s melons. The soft entry is balanced by good acidity and low alcohol (12.5%). It’s a charming hot-climate appetizer companion. It was made by the fine producer A.A. Badenhorst.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.