In praise of diversity (or engineering it): Jura, New Zealand and yeast strains

Savagnin, chardonnay, pinot noir and vin de paille from Domaine de la Borde, in Jura - only a few of the estate's offerings

I haven’t been blogging as much as I usually do, this past couple of months, partly because I found it hard to run through wine regions at a fast pace, absorb all the information and write something coherent about it at the same time, partly because the day job has been very busy, partly because I had intermittent Internet connection on vacation, and also because I’ve been writing some long pieces for PalatePress. Like the results of the Lagrézette challenge, back in May, and just last week, a feature about of the wines of Jura.

I loved the sort of unfettered energy that seems to characterize the wines of Jura, when I tasted them in June, when a delegation of some 23 vignerons stopped in New York and Quebec. Almost every wine from almost every producer was strikingly different from the previous one. With only 2000 hectares under vine, the Jura produces more diversity than just about any other wine region I’ve seen. Diversity, one could say, is what it’s all about. Had enough traditional trousseau? Go for a fruity poulsard made from carbonic maceration. Or a smoky pinot noir. Or a blend of all of the above, in a variety of styles. Or maybe a pétillant naturel from poulsard? I’m barely scratching the surface, here. Really.

I don’t want to say there’s no diversity elsewhere – I did write, a couple of years ago, that there is great diversity in California wines, if you take the time to look for it. But that’s the thing: you have to look for it, in California, behind the rows and rows of juicy cabs and chards, whereas in a place like Jura, it just jumps at you. Even in a region that does only pinot noir and chardonnay, or blends of cabs and merlot, diversity should be a central part of the game.

Or at least, you shouldn’t have to pay people to create it.

Engineering diversity

Which is apparently what is going on New Zealand, where 12 million New Zealand dollars is being put into a program to fund research into sauvignon blanc, the grape that opened world markets to the country’s wine producers. Here’s what the program is about, according to a news report:

The programme is led by Plant & Food Research, with research continuing at Lincoln and Auckland universities and the Marlborough Wine Research Centre.

Plant & Food Research senior scientist Mike Trought said the research gave the industry information to help make consistently good sauvignon blanc.

It also examined ways to use geography, growing conditions and winemaking techniques to broaden the range of flavours in the wine.

So, they need a program to get different flavours in their sauvignon blanc? That’s already strange to me.

But wait, it gets better:

The researchers could determine how to create a certain taste that could be used to engineer wine for a particular market, especially developing markets such as China and Japan, he said.

Managing the vines with new harvesting technology and controlling variation from year-to-year could allow winemakers to create different-tasting wines, or to maintain the standard New Zealand sauvignon blanc profile.

Ideally, a “juice index” would enable winemakers to objectively measure the flavour and aroma potential in the raw product.

We’re not exactly talking about vineyard expression, are we? These guys are looking to “engineer” wines for particular markets, “controlling variation” and creating a “juice index” to measure things objectively.

I don’t know exactly what business these guys are in. You have to engineer diversity? Maybe the Southern hemisphere really is upside down, after all.

Yeast, like Mother Nature intended

They’re not the only ones looking to engineer diversity, mind you. Another recent article I read in Wines and Vines (subscription required) provides perspectives on the strange twists that the modern wine industry sometimes takes.

The column by Tim Patterson, Wines and Vines’ “Inquiring Winemaker”, was about the development of more complex commercialized yeast strains, featuring cross-breeding of yeasts, and the mixing up of different strains in the same package (some classic saccharomyces cerevisiae, some different kinds of saccharomyces, etc.). Why are they doing this? To produce more diverse, more exciting wines, apparently.

Chr. Hansen is currently the most prominent purveyor of yeast strain blends, mixingSaccharomyces and non-Saccharomyces yeasts. Hansen got into the blend business in 2005. Duncan Hamm acknowledges that the standardization of numerous commercial cerevisiaestrains was a great leap forward for the industry, “but wild fermentations can be spectacular, though uncontrolled. Instead of doing crossing, we do blended cultures, so we’re reproducing what happens in a wild fermentation.”

Again, “we’re reproducing what happens in a wild fermentation”. So after introducing cultured yeasts and their supposedly more reliable fermentation process, yeast companies are realizing that single-strain fermentations are… boring. So what are they doing? Trying to do what nature does – with a pretense that they’re, once again, doing it even better:

The goal clearly is to have your cake and eat it, too: Get the fun parts of “wild” fermentation, but sleep well at night knowing that the fermentation will, eventually, be in good hands. Because the different strains in the blends have different performance characteristics and needs—how they react to temperature, ethanol, nutrient levels, pH and so on—the results can vary from fermentation to fermentation, vintage to vintage.

Thanks to our new yeast blends, you’ll get specific character, complexity and even vintage variation. Wow. Thank God these scientists are there to figure that one out. It’s a wonder that not a single vigneron figured that one out in all these millenia of winemaking. Oh, wait…

Engineering diversity in the vineyards or in the yeast strains, after decades of clonal selection and cultured yeasts, streamlined for predictability and efficiency, seems to proceed from the same basic, bizarre principle: you just can’t trust Mother Nature. I mean, every nature-loving guy just wants to come home at the same time, every day, with dinner in the oven and the table set. Yet sometimes, that unpredictable wench might be at the park with the kids, or she might even want to go for a night of the town.

Spontaneity? Unpredictability? What’s a winemaker to do…

Move to the Jura, maybe?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 19, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Nice read.

    Jura’s a region that I think many know very-little-to-nothing about (even in the wine set) outside of Savagnin and Vin Jaune (which we still know little about…it’s yellow, I guess). Nice to see more of what’s going on there.

    As far as all this other malarky, I must say that it behooves the bottom-line to know the outcome (thus allowing proper positioning of the product), but it dampens the romance of the winemaking process. I don’t really dig the thought of manufactured and manipulated agricultural product…but the capitalist in me has a hard time blaming them for what they’re doing. Predictability is easier to mass-market.

    À votre santé! Joe @suburbanwino

    • Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      I understand what you’re saying about predictability, but there are some issues about that.

      First of all, in the case of NZ sauvignon blanc, predictability is, I believe, becoming more of a liability than an advantage. If you taste the same thing all the time, you might just get bored… The underlying thought in the “savvy” program seems to be about diversifying the taste to get market share – in other words, to make SB less predictable, in a certain sense.

      As for the yeasts, the article points that this is aimed at boutique wineries looking to make their wines distinctive. These are precisely the wineries that have the means, scale, etc. to pay attention to detail, work with the variations that nature throws at them, etc. To me, it seems like quite the runaround for them to buy what must surely be more expensive yeasts to get something that they could get, probably even better, from healthy, well-managed vineyards.

      Also, it is far from clear to me that natural fermentations are really that much less reliable than inoculated fermentations. I hear stories regularly from winemakers who say they inoculated, yet still have trouble getting things going. Or finishing. So it’s not, at the very least, a question of 100% reliability vs total unpredictability, as some people in the wine world seem to want us to believe.

      • Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        I think we’re on the same page. Perhaps “consistency” is a better word than “predictability”.

        I’m all for wineries looking at technology to make better, more distinctive wines, but it does take away from the artisan nature of a craft wine. Yeast is a bugger (I homebrew beer), but I’m sure inoculated is at least a bit more manageable than wild yeast (not necessarily in getting started/finishing, but in the flavors/off-flavors present in the final product). Even if more expensive, I’d have to think it’s cheaper than the extra labor hours to better tend the vineyard and monitor fermentation. Dunno…

        What would the biodynamic and natural wine folks think??

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