Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine


The Wanderlust of Wine Yeast

Anthony Nappa - Winemaker, Shinn Estate Nineyards

Laying on the compost pile, my back to the ground with eyes closed, I feel the warmth of the microbes working below me. It is as warm as a heating blanket, gentle and steady. The mound is only half built and hasn’t begun to release the intense heat of a fully working pile, but within a few weeks it will will heat up to 140 degrees and steam vents will erupt from the top making it look like a small volcano in the morning frost. After climbing down from the compost, I walk into the vineyard and lay in the clover. The ground is cold now, the microbes are going into hibernation for the winter and the great moment of mineralization is about to commence. The fiery yang of the compost lying to the south balances the secretive yin of the winter soil.

The feverish heat of the growing season is well past but now the fire of ripeness is working its magic in the winery. When Anthony our winemaker receives fruit from the vineyard he allows the indigenous yeast on the berries to carry out the work of fermentation instead of inoculating with laboratory yeast. Here is where the vineyard soils and our composting play an important role in the fermenting of our wines. The yeasts we need for natural fermentations live in our soils. Potentially, 150 to 200 different strains of yeast migrate from the soils into our cover crop and find their way onto our clusters during the ripening season. Cultivating the population of yeast for our wines is a matter of keeping the soil enriched with dynamic life, allowing the diverse yeast strains to flourish. Eventually, the yeast populates the cover crop which also plays home to hundreds of beneficial insect species. As the insects migrate from the cover crop into the grapevine canopy searching for their daily meal of troublesome insects, they inoculate our clusters with the yeast. By harvest the bloom of yeast is so abundant the white grapes have an opalescent gleam and the red berries look as if they were dusted with lavender baby powder. With over 150 different yeast strains working on the evolving wines, each will add its own unique personality to the fermentation.

Anthony is a patient man. Somehow he can mediate between fermentations that begin immediately and furiously upon picking and those that begin 3 or 4 days later. Some fermentations can last 7 days, and some 7 months. Right now we have a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon that is fermenting at 38 degrees on its 60th day of ferment. This style of making wine means nothing is predetermined in the winey yet there is no chaos. Anthony stays contemplative and mind melds with the wine. Everyday, David joins him in tasting the wine and I see them in the winery discussing the evolution of the ferments. I like to go into the winery in the morning and taste and smell alone, enjoying a moment of privacy.

A sense of quietude reins as the ferments end and the new wines macerate for weeks becoming knitted and more complex. By discarding the use of additives like enzymes, laboratory yeasts and synthetic yeast food, our wines naturally become themselves and the mysterious beauty that comingles the vineyard, the winery, the wines, and the people who create them is ours.