Kumeu River’s natural yeasts: now available at a store near you

One of the ongoing bones of contention within the wine world has been the use of natural or cultured yeasts in winemaking. Yeasts are an indispensable part of the winemaking process, since they are responsible for fermentation, which converts the sugars in the grapes into alcohol, and thus grape juice into wine.

As is well-explained in this article, many winemakers will use cultured yeasts to inoculate the tanks where the grape juice, with or without the skin and pips, have been placed for fermentation: adding cultured yeasts ensures a reliable, predictable fermentation, and even predictable flavor patterns, through selection of specific yeast strains that encourage fruity or spicy notes. It’s a clear advantage when you’re looking for precise results, especially when you’re making millions of bottles of, say, Yellow Tail.

Traditionally, though, wine has been made through spontaneous fermentation, meaning that the process starts through multiplication of the yeasts that are found naturally on grape skins, in the vineyard environment and, over time, in the winery itself, as fermentation cycles leave behind yeast spores that are only too happy to go to work year after year, just as they do daily in bakeries. The specific and complex set of yeasts found in each given winery contribute to giving the wine its personality and distinctiveness. Like the specific minerals found in the soil, which combine with enzymes to provide particular aromatic components and give a sense of terroir, the yeasts are part of a wine’s sense of place. Something which completely goes out the window if you start using a spoonful of ICV-D80 or Lalvin T306.

But the frontier between cultured yeasts and natural yeasts is less clear than you’d think. For instance, researchers from the University of Auckland are making a specific kind of natural yeast available for commercial use, to help make New Zealand sauvignon blanc more “typical”. Thanks to this research:

Saint Clair, Delegat’s, Pernod-Ricard New Zealand, Nobilo, Kim Crawford’s and Forrest Estate wineries will be using a newly discovered, naturally occurring New Zealand yeast to ferment grapes from this year’s harvest.

Where does this yeast strain come from, pray tell? From the very successful Kumeu River Wines‘ vineyard. So essentially, this lovely family winery has just handed a distinctive component of what makes its wines special to Pernod-Ricard and Kim Crawford, so that these big players could make wines from more generic places more like Kumeu River wines… To me, that feels as if you had just handed your grandmother’s award-winning secret recipe for cherry pie to ACME bakeries Inc. Here’s another quote from the article on this:

“Kumeu River has a philosophy in winemaking which uses the yeast that occurs naturally on the vines to ferment the grapes,” says Dr Matthew Goddard of the School of Biological Sciences. “By working with this very successful vineyard, we have managed to isolate a yeast which adds to New Zealand Sauvignon’s distinctive characteristics. This trial will let us see if the yeast will also work in a commercial setting.”

Oh great. Soon enough, winemakers in Chile, Virginia or the Niagara Valley will have more tools at hand to join in the great Kiwi/Grapefruit overdose. I’m not sure congratulations are in order.

Tasting Note: Château Chasse-Spleen 2005 white

I’ve had a lot of fun drinking well-cellared vintages of Chateau Chasse-Spleen’s relatively little known white, over the years. I remember a 1997, opened two or three years ago, and a 2000, opened last year, that had rich aromas, a nice golden color, with all the fun needed to chase away the “spleen” (the Beaudelaire version of the blues). Great value, since it comes with a very reasonable price tag (that holds true for the red third growth as well, in these times of overinflated Growths).

And ageing may well be key to seeing what this Claire Villars property can produce on the paler front. The 2005 I drank yesterday and today (more…)

Tasting note: Casa Marin Laurel Vineyard 2005

Just finished a really lovely bottle of Casa Marin sauvignon blanc, from Chile’s San Antonio valley. Delicious. Stood its ground wonderfully with a stir-fry of beef with bok-choy, red peppers, mushrooms with peanut sauce – which is not such an easy task for a white wine. Then again, this sauvignon had an acidity to sweetness ratio that was pretty close to many New World rieslings – and riesling is a solid match with Asian food.

There was a very ripe character to the wine, yet with a sharp, refreshing acidity. The nose had a touch of fennel, but way more citrus fruit (on the edge of grapefruit, but not quite there) and a hint of honey, with a nice mineral character rounding things off in the mouth feel. Very nice length, and (more…)

Published in: on October 20, 2007 at 8:09 pm  Comments (1)  

Kiwi (or is that grapefruit?) overdose

I really can’t stand it anymore. The grapefruit-fennel-green-pepper creature they call sauvignon blanc, in places down under. Really. I’ve had it. It’s like I’ve just had too much chocolate cake or sugar pie. The simple idea of eating more is repulsive.

I had some Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, the other day, and now I’ve just been drinking some Klein Constantia 2006 sauvignon blanc from South Africa, and you know what? I feel like I’ve just switched from Canada Dry ginger ale to Schweppes ginger ale. The wines are dopplegangers. Same feeling, same fruit-surrounded acidity, same set of aromas, same taste overall. It’s flavorful, for sure. You can get why it’s attractive to so many people. But this impression of getting the same wine under two different labels has just done it for me.

I can’t help feeling that getting twin wines from two different countries – and one from a vineyard that is responsible for the incredibly distinctive and superbly elegant Vin de Constance – means that there is more chemistry at work here than geology and biology. Kiwi sauvignon blanc is doing well? By all means, let’s do the same! Add a little B254F yeast here, control temperatures this way, and voila, the recipe is reproduced. Forget individual character, this is globalized wine at its best (and worst).

I really should explore this more, but I will do so reluctantly.

Not all the New World falls under the spell of kiwi-grapefruit sauvignon, thankfully. I remember To Kalon vineyard fumé blanc (different name, same grape) from Robert Mondavi as a superb, refined experience, with a a whole different character and set of flavours. And Chilean sauvignon blanc, though playing in the same fruit leagues, has its own angle on the whole game.

If anybody out there knows a New Zealand or South African sauvignon blanc that goes off the beaten path, that has some mineral character, a different citrus fruit, or something different or other, please let me know. I’ll gladly amend myself.

In the meantime, I’ve just poured myself another glass of the Klein Constantia. The bloody thing just drinks itself.