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It's risky to make vino with wild yeast, but SA winemakers reckon it’s worth it

Fermentation is the foundation of winemaking. While commercially produced yeasts are stable and predictable, wild yeasts are quite the opposite

08 June 2019 - 00:00 By RICHARD HOLMES
A new trend sees winemakers favouring wild yeasts over more stable over commercially produced cultures.
A new trend sees winemakers favouring wild yeasts over more stable over commercially produced cultures.
Image: 123RF/allfood

Winemakers love to wax lyrical about wines expressing the vineyard’s terroir, that curious combination of soil, aspect and climate that give each grape, and the resulting wine, its own unique character.

And adventurous winemakers are increasingly adding a microscopic dimension to that notion, relying on wild yeasts over commercially produced cultures.

Fermentation is the foundation of winemaking, as yeasts turn sugars into alcohol. While commercial yeasts are stable and predictable, and wild yeasts quite the opposite, many winemakers feel it’s worth the risk.

“I believe commercial yeasts deliver one-dimensional wines,” says Johnathan Grieve, proprietor of biodynamic wine estate Avondale. “These natural yeasts are cultured in our vineyards, so it ties into our goal of bringing the uniqueness of Avondale to the fore.”

Avondale Anima is a premium barrel-fermented chenin.
Avondale Anima is a premium barrel-fermented chenin.
Image: Supplied

A fine example of that is the Avondale Anima (R260), a chenin blanc from organic vineyards on the Paarl estate. Anima comes from the Latin for “soul”, and this premium barrel-fermented chenin certainly shows off the essence of this Paarl property.

Johnathan and Avondale’s winemaker Corne Marais rely solely on wild yeasts carried on the skins of the grapes to spark the fermentation process. While this means fermentation can take up to nine months, Johnathan believes the dozens of strains of wild yeasts contribute to the character and complexity of each wine.

As winemaker for the Survivor range from Overhex Wines, Ben Snyman would agree, “Mind, body and soul – this is how wine is really made, without the use of commercial yeasts, so that we can experience the true taste of terroir.”

This year saw the maiden release of the Survivor Wild Yeast Syrah (R185), a wine whose full body and dark colour belies its accessible fruit and soft tannins. It’s a great match for roast lamb on the coals, says Ben. Also look out for the Survivor Wild Yeast Chardonnay, to be released later this year.

Another wild wine to watch for comes from the Paardeberg, where winemaker Matthew Copeland is a fan of letting nature take its course. His Vondeling Monsonia (R215) is a classic Rhône-style blend of shiraz, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan, wild-fermented in open tanks. With 16 months in the barrel, it’s a bold yet elegant blend that’s wild but wonderful.

Image: Supplied

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times Neighbourhood: Property and Lifestyle guide. Visit Yourneighbourhood.co.za