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Yeast in winemaking: the unsung heroes of aroma

As a 16-year-old, I remember working in the cold, damp warehouse of a recycled clothing store. Frequently I would find myself muttering frustratedly under my breath that I was certain the store’s customers would never give me any credit for my work and that the more glamorous store assistants would be the recipients of their gratitude. I think that if our beloved yeast could speak they would vent similar frustrations. So often we wax poetic about the beauty of soil, terroir, vineyard management and climate but less often do we give yeast their fair share of our appreciation. This article will explore in a little more detail the role of yeast in winemaking.

Yeast is a microscopic fungus consisting of single oval cells that reproduce by budding and are capable of converting sugar into both alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast is not only responsible for the boozy wine enjoyment we all know and love, it also spits out the carbon dioxide which causes your favourite bread to rise.

There are a wide range of yeasts which have been identified as being involved in wine fermentation. However, the primary yeast associated, either as a result of inoculation (the introduction of non-indigenous yeast population to the must) or as an indigenous population in the winery, is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Saccharomyces is a workhorse of a yeast which is able to survive relatively high levels of alcohol. Whether a winemaker chooses to inoculate or not it is almost unheard of that Saccharomyces initiates the fermentation, this tends to be the role of Kloeckera apiculata. These yeasts are found in the vineyard on the grapes and get to work as soon as the grape is exposed to any level of crushing. Kloeckera tends to become overwhelmed at relatively low levels of alcohol, at which point Saccharomyces takes over and completes the fermentation.

We all know that yeast is responsible for producing alcohol right? We also know that yeast is responsible for the secondary fermentation which gives us our beloved Champagne. So what’s so special about yeast that I would want to dedicate an entire blog post to it? Ever drunk grape juice? Not quite as enjoyable, complex or thought-provoking as wine, right? Guess who you have to thank for that …

Almost all of the aromas that we associate with wine are byproducts of fermentation. Grapes (particularly their skins) contain many of the precursors required to produce an array of aromas. These precursors; however, are often bound to sugars in an aromatically inactive form. These bound precursors are freed and introduced to the must by yeast during fermentation in excess of their equilibrium concentrations thus leading to their related aromas being prominent in the resulting wine. Over time, once freed, these compounds interact (through acid hydrolysis) with the acid medium of wine and either change, disappear or form completely new aromatic compounds. You could view yeast as being the liberator of all things aromatically delicious!

At this point it is worth briefly skipping over some of the primary aromatic compounds which yeast react with and/or create during fermentation as these particular compounds form the building blocks of a wines aromatic profile.

Esters, unlike other primary aroma compounds in wine, are not found in grapes and are created during fermentation as a result (put very simply) of the reaction between alcohols (created by yeast) and components of the grapes. Esters are a diverse group of aroma compounds found in wine and are primarily responsible for that fresh fruity kick possessed by many young wines. Banana, pineapple, citrus and floral aromas are just some of the associated aromatic profiles relating to the presence of esters. These esters are somewhat quickly hydrolysed and over time relinquish, hence the lack of fresh fruity aromas in many older wines.

Pyrazines, Terpenes, Thiols and Norisoprenoids – The precursors to this stinky bunch are all found in the grape itself and are freed by yeast during fermentation. They are responsible for the herbaceous notes in Sauvignon Blanc, the Blackcurrant in Bordeaux, the Eucalyptus in Shiraz and much, much more (including petrol in Riesling which I have covered in a recent blog) Even once yeast are dead they can still contribute to the overall flavour profile of a wine (as seen in Champagne, a process known as autolysis) This addition of flavour comes as a result of enzymes breaking down the cell wall of the yeast and releasing mannoproteins, and polysaccharides, in to the wine. This process of autolysis is often related to a more dense, rich and creamy mouthfeel and in particular a nutty almond note (this could be related to benzaldehyde, most aldehydes disappear with ageing, benzaldehyde does not and this could be due to it’s relationship with the polysaccharides released by the dead lees)

Please don’t be fooled by this short, sharp introduction to wine flavour, there is much more to the topic of aromatics in wine. The topic is much more complex than I have thus far portrayed and I will cover the aforementioned compounds in more detail in future posts, for now the basics is all I want to cover: let’s call it yeast 101.

I’ve already mentioned inoculation in passing and this term can certainly make things sound a little mad scientist, but inoculation can in fact be a crucial aspect of winemaking. Whilst many winemakers do opt to utilise indigenous yeasts, and with the growth of the natural wine movement I have no doubt that this will become a buzzword for the funky and fashionable. But there is also a perfectly good case for inoculating. Scientists have been able to breed certain strains of yeast that winemakers can use to control various aspects of winemaking including sulphur production, glycerol for mouthfeel, pronunciation of various aroma compounds and length of fermentation just to name a few.

Whilst many winemakers may argue that their indigenous yeasts represent their terroir, their typicity and their style there remains a valid argument to be made for inoculating. Not only can inoculating introduce a degree of control to the process but it may also offer winemakers a selection of tools which could assist them in combatting wine faults (such as excessive sulphur in wine from a single plot) and also assist in potentially revealing their wines ‘full’ expression (a touchy subject I know)

As wine science becomes more comprehensive, faculties like UC Davies are beginning to look at the factors which play a role in the efficacy of yeast during fermentation. Some of the factors which are known to play a role in yeast efficacy include the pre-fermentation preparation of the yeast, introduction of enzymes post and intra-fermentation, pH level, temperature, nutrient availability, nutrient inoculation and availability of precursors (non-exhaustive list) As more work is done to understand these factors it is likely that winemakers will be able to more comprehensively control fermentation and not only ensure quality and avoid fault but also manipulate the expression of their wine which may present particular benefits to regions which fall victim to climate change.

I hope this post has provided a somewhat insightful overview of what yeast are, the role they play in winemaking and what affects their efficacy during fermentation. If you have any interesting facts to share about yeast I would love to hear them in the comments below.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. @sousliege

    Hi – thanks very much for this piece (which I only found out about now). This is exactly what I thought to myself many times: aren’t the yeast more responsible for terroir than terroir itself?

    Many grower champagnes have that characteristic smell that can at the same time be very appealing or a turn off in the sense that it overpowers other flavours some times. I tended to speculate that this – to name one parameter of many – could be because of (indigenous or cultivated) yeast used. (But actually which parameter I ever name – for example wood/barrels, it will never be the same for all those growers I’m thinking of now.) The growers tend to have more indigenous yeast than the houses I guess, so I was asking myself if this was rather a form of common “fault” (since the winemakers are dispersed over a huge territory) which sometimes is perceived as a positive touch. Those with cultivated yeast would have less of that effect.

    The other thing I’ve been wondering about for years is, does the climate – especially the bacteria – of the cellar have an impact on the wine in the sense that it could be mistaken for terroir? (If at all, this then would probably have less of an effect if reductive winemaking in steel-tanks was used.) For example, I think that a lot of different champagnes from Marguet (both the ones from own plots and bought grapes!) have a characteristic smell. Is it because of the wood, is it the yeast, is it the cellar’s climate/bacteria?
    Other example: up until 2006 I could identify Gruaud Larose blind by smell quite well but somewhere between 2007 and 2009 (haven’t had that many yet) suddenly that (to me) singular characteristic was gone. Did they change something in the cellar/winemaking and if so what? Would you know by any chance?
    At the moment (2020/2021) Langoa Barton are rebuilding their cellars, and I am actually freaking out. Léoville (which is made at Langoa) is one of my favourite wines, and I’m bloody scared that they could lose their magic by changing their cellars climate during renovation. Can you (scientifically) calm me down before I can taste on my own?

    Cheers – and again thanks for your article.

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