Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Indigenous- versus inoculated-yeast fermentation: The pros and the cons

There is an ongoing battle between natural-wine proponents and pragmatists as to the types of yeast strains that provide the "best" results in the alcoholic fermentation of wine grapes, a battle, according to Isak Pretorius (The Power of Yeast, TONG #12) that is far from new.  According to Pretorius, once Louis Pasteur was able to show that some wild yeasts could spoil wine, the debate began as to whether pasteurization or the addition of sulphur dioxide should be utilized to kill off the spoilage agents or whether inoculated ferments should should be used in lieu of indigenous ferments.  This post looks at both sides of this continuing argument.

As described in a previous post, wine is the result of applying yeasts to grape berries/must/juice in an anerobic environment in order to convert the resident sugars into alcohol.  The yeast that receives most of the credit -- and does most of the work -- is a species called Saccharomyces cerevisiae (SC) which is "specialized in metabolizing media with high sugar content and small quantities of nitrogenous compounds" (Suárez-Lepe and A. Marota, New trends in yeast selection for winemaking, Trends in Food Science and Technology 23 (2012), 39-50.).  According to Fugelsang (Overview of yeast selection and malolactic fermentation on aroma, flavor and phenols), the yeasts (i) extract compounds from the solids in the must/juice in order to form the "characteristic metabolites of fermentation (alcohols, esters, fatty acids, carbonyls, etc.) and (ii) cleave cysteine-containing precursors such that volatile thiols (aroma component of several varieties) can be released.  SC is the yeast species which completes the alcoholic fermentation process in both inoculated and spontaneous ferments.

Grapes in a vineyard are hosts to what Gourrand (Using non-Saccharomyces yeasts during alcoholic fermentations: taking advantage of yeast biodiversity) calls native microflora -- molds, lactic bacteria, acetic bacteria, Saccharomyces spp, and non-Saccharomyces yeasts (Pichia, Metchnikowia, Kloeckera, Kluyveromyces, Candida, Zygosaccharomyces, Torulaspora, Cryptoccus, Brettanomyces, and Hanseniaspora) -- and it is the yeast element of this microflora that the feral-yeast winemaking adherents seek to exploit.  Wild yeasts accumulate on the grapes from flowering through harvest with the presence of SC being pegged at 1 in 1000 grapes (Robert Mortimer, Vineyard Theory of Wild Yeast, UC Berkeley).  At harvest, SC is the least prevalent of the grape-resident yeast strains.

In the case of indigenous (indigenous, wild, feral, and spontaneous used interchangeably throughout this post) yeast fermentation, the process is kick-started and dominated initially by the "weakly fermentative" -- but numerically dominant -- non-Saccharomyces Kloeckera.  This initiation can take up to a week to begin due to the relatively small amount of wild yeasts present at startup (relative to the amount of yeast used to begin the process in the case of inoculated ferments).  For the first few days of fermentation, the weakly fermentative non-SC population dominates but is then replaced by more adaptive non-SC strains.  As the alcohol level continues to rise, the more alcohol-tolerant SC increases in number at a rapid rate such that at the end of the fermentation it is the only species left standing.

Natural wine adherents assert that the progression from non-SC to SC fermentation in the vessel is an integral part of non-interventionist winemaking and adds complexity to the finished wine (Mortimer; Pretorius).  Critics of the approach see it as akin to Russian roulette because of the inherent risks (Ross; Pretorius): (i) the irregularity of natural fermentation and the associated risk of a stuck fermentation; (ii) in the event of rains around harvest time, the wild yeasts could be washed off the grapes; (iii) spoilage yeasts are often present in grape-derived yeasts; (iv) spontaneous ferments take longer to begin and longer to complete; and (v) while the positive characteristics of natural yeasts are not detectable after 6 or so months of aging, the negative characteristics tend to persist much longer.

For inoculated ferments, a large dose of SC is added to the juice/must in order to initiate fermentation.  The yeast strains utilized have traditionally been selected on the basis of the ability to start the fermentation quickly, the toleration of increasing alcohol levels, low acetic acid production, and resistance to sulfur dioxide (Ross; Suárez-Lepe and A. Marota).

As both Ross and Pretorius point out, the needs of large- and small-production wineries may lead to different emphasis in yeast-strain selection.  For the large producer, effective, efficient production and maintenance of quality is key and a strain that meets that need will be selected.  The smaller producer, on the other hand, is more likely to take advantage of varying yeast strains and temperature regimes as a means of enhancing the wine's aromatic and flavor characteristics.

To gain the benefits associated with both spontaneous and inoculated ferments, some winemakers are employing cocktails of strains hoping to get the "complexity of flavors ... without running the risk of contamination of spoilage yeasts" that comes along with the spontaneity.

According to Fugelsang, the first commercial yeast strain was introduced in 1965 by Red Star Yeast and, since that time, over 100 cultures have been commercially produced.  And winemakers continue to take advantage of these commercial strains in order to improve the capabilities of their wines. According to Suárez-Lepe and A. Marota and Pretorius, winemakers are continually on the lookout for yeast strains that can improve the technological and sensorial properties of their wines.

The advantages that are perceived by "inoculants" are clear: (i) quick, effective, efficient fermentations: (ii) flexibility; (iii) lower risk production process; (iv) the ability to tailor the fermentation; and (v) the ability to take advantage of future advancements in commercially produced strains.  The disadvantage of the use of inoculation is, as perceived by the "naturalists," even more power placed into the hands of the winemaker to manipulate the dickens out of the wine; and the customer loses as a result.

In a future post I will treat the topic of trends in yeast selection.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Wonderfully presented facts, thank you. We are pre harvest in our new cellar and debating exactly this...

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment and glad that the article will play a part in your decisioning.

  2. Quick comment on perceived disadvantages of natural fermentation: I think problems i) and ii) are rare to non-existent, and would cite e.g. Eric Baugher at Ridge - "I've never had a stuck fermentation." I've heard the same from winemakers in Bordeaux (d'Angludet), Burgundy (Trappet), and I bet you heard the same in Barolo. And iv) I would argue is only an issue for industrial ("process") wine i.e. the stuff that's not worth drinking. So I think the interesting debate is really about iii) and v)... Are there any really great wines made with industrial yeasts?

    1. Interesting observations. I am especially intrigued about the query re great wines and industrial yeasts and will investigate that further.