I was trained early on in my career to use protocols in the wine cellar that promoted “success” during primary fermentation with success defined as finishing fermentation com- pletely to dryness without a hiccup. This meant good sanitation, perhaps adding nutrients (vitamins and/or nitrogen) and almost always adding commercial strains of yeast, selected primarily for efficiency in fermenting sugar to alcohol. This is how the vast majority of wine is produced all over the world and as the wine industry has expanded so have the variety of “designer” yeast products.
The flip side, with a smaller following but one that is nevertheless influential, involves let- ting grapes spontaneously undergo fermentation with the help of the natural bacteria and yeasts that reside on the grapes when they come into the winery. This method is viewed as less reliable as the “native” yeasts can be weaker fermentors and may not always finish the job or can release undesirable odors/flavors. The reason winemakers pursue this risk- ier style of winemaking is they feel there’s more integrity to the product, that the natural fermentation produces subtleties lost when using commercial yeasts and it can produce a truer expression of site.
As with all things there are truths in both sides. One of the jobs as a winemaker is to choose a path which both ensures the success of fermentations and reduces the potential of any problems, while also endeavoring to achieve a unique product that expresses the character of the wine as much as possible. That is a thin line to walk and one that is individual to every single winemaker. I have followed my own path during 24 years of making wine that has taken me all over this realm, as I constantly try to push the envelope to achieve some- thing greater or different. We have used mostly commercial yeasts to produce our wine but will often wait a few days to inoculate in order to let fermentation spontaneously start by the yeast present on the grapes. Every year we also experiment a bit, with commercial yeasts we haven’t used before and new methods all together. With the 2018 harvest we experimented with pied de cuvee from Hilltop Ranch Pinot Noir, which involves growing a culture of yeasts and bacteria from low-sugar/high acid fruit and then using that culture to add to large lots of grapes. We fermented a few lots of Pinot Noir successfully so far and I am very intrigued and excited with how the wines have turned out thus far!
– Winemaker Annette Hoff