Category Archives: Natural Wine

Let It Be

The glorification of native yeasts. Can you hear it? “We only use natural yeasts. We let the terroir of this place speak by allowing the yeast from the vineyard to transform the wine.” Those who spend time in wine country chatting with winemakers or tasting room staff have heard this line once or tw. . . enty seven times. I would like to buy into the raw, back-to-nature ideal presented by these well-intentioned enthusiasts. Inoculating wine with cultured, laboratory yeast represents our modern desire to control and manipulate that which needs no help. Right? Let the wine speak of its place.

Unfortunately, relatively recent science* has demonstrated that the reality may fall short of the ideal. Cultured yeast strains, present in wineries from yesteryear or boots or guests, take over fermentation after the alcohol level reaches about 3-4%. The native yeast strains get beaten out by the strains refined in labs. Some natural yeast advocates, however, still contend that this initial, short-term fermentation with native yeast adds complexity to the wine not found in cultured fermentations.*

We certainly have more to learn.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

A recent exchange added a significant, suggestive layer to my understanding. I entered a conversation with Jeff Weissler of Pairings Portland and Alex Fullerton, winemaker at Fullerton Wines. Jeff is a self-described natural wine nut, and spends his energy proselytizing for biodynamic and organic wine and vineyard management. At one point, Jeff declared that all truly sustainable winemakers use native yeast fermentations. A bit taken back by this, I continued to listen, but with questions percolating and brow furrowed. Upon leaving, I cornered Alex. “I thought native yeast fermentation was rhetoric?” Alex effectively laid out the argument. Resident yeast fermentation fails miserably when attempted by large-scale wineries with pesticide and herbicide-laced vineyards. Not only is their scale often too large to tend the more fickle fermentation process of resident yeasts*, but the gallons of synthetic pest controls have stripped away the resident yeast’s ability to thrive or even live. The musts* of industrial fermentations require gobs of cultured yeast to withstand the barren, sickly environment created by chemical-laden agriculture.

2015-11-08 12.37.37

Evidence of another “natural” affect of eastern Washington viticulture—vine damage due to frost. This is a biodynamic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

We now have significant insight into the winemaking process, knowledge our predecessors could never imagine. Despite the progress, wine science has miles to go before most viticulturists and oenologists will sleep. At this moment, though, we can use native yeast fermentation as a measuring stick,  a stamp of approval verifying a wineries respect for the land and process.

 

*http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticleSignIn&dataId=119835

*https://winemakermag.com/758-wild-yeast-the-pros-and-cons-of-spontaneous-fermentation

*Resident yeast: A term for yeast that ferments wine without intentional additions of cultured yeasts. Typically native yeasts begin the fermentation followed by strains of cultured yeasts. Perhaps the most apt description of what most call “native” yeast.

*Must: the pressed juice, skins, seeds, and sometimes stems of red wines prior to and during fermentation.

A Sense of Place

A sense of place through honest winemaking and minimal intervention.

Those with a pulse on the wine industry have familiarized themselves with a new additive called Mega Purple, and its brethren Mega “Cherry Shade” and Mega Red. These concentrates are made from the teinturier grape, a lesser known, though massively produced, varietal from the steamy central valley of California. This grape is used to fill portions of bottles under $10 (and often higher priced wine, shhhhh). If your wine provides nothing more specific than “California” as its geographic location, you will be drinking some Teinturier, likely straight juice and concentrate.* 

Mega Purple is not inherently evil, nor is the grape used to make it. For most of us, our simple economic realities will require us to consume some (or even a lot of) Mega Purple. Some evidence suggests that most bottles under $15 use some form of the concentrate. Why? It rounds out the flavor in bottles lacking fruit, adds richer color, smooths bitter tannins from hard press, and, perhaps most important to the industry, provides consistency. Some wineries, especially mega-wineries, want a dependable, repeatable product. All of the benefits and trappings of this industrial model show in the finished wine. Economies of scale—check. A “go-to” bottle under $10—check. Wines using Mega Purple, however, notoriously mask or even eliminate varietal and locational character. The dark-underbelly of this relatively new phenomena* is a loss of place—homogeneity. 

Place matters. Not only in wine. Dr. Woodard, a mentor and professor of mine, spoke eloquently of the grounding nature of our native environment—the oaks in our neighbor’s grove, the Cardinal aggressively hoarding the bird feeder, the tall, fat thunderheads steadily trodding across the prairie. This sense of place is powerful. Energy giving. Life giving.

Swirling and tasting wine in the Columbia Gorge of Oregon

In front of me sits a bottle of 2011 Fourmen Pinot Noir from Vista Hills Vineyard in the storied Dundee Hills of Oregon. I swirl and smell place—bright, candied cherry, hints of earth, and acid. While industrial wine may be an enjoyable reality, or one forced upon us, we all benefit from taking the time to seek out bottles, at least on occasion, that speak of a specific place. With some care, conversation with local wine shop owners, and wise purchasing (case discounts, for example), wines of place can be found at many price points ($12 for my bottle tonight). 

Tonight, I drink to diversity. I drink to place.

Reasonably priced wines of place**:

  • Beaujolais, France 
  • Muscadet, Loire Valley, France
  • Southwest France 
  • Douro, Portugal
  • Toro and Jumilla, Spain
  • Columbia Valley, WA—seek out second label wines from esteemed producers. Example: StoneCap Wines.
  • Occasionally, if patient, even the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley 

*For clarity sake, filters and additives have long been used by wine makers. Mega Purple-styled concentrates are, however, relatively new.
**Get to know a knowledgable steward at your local wine shop to find wines that allow the terroir from these regions to speak—not all wines from these locales are produced with fidelity.