Monday, June 13, 2011

Niagara Gets Back to Nature With Wild Fermentation

Hillebrand Wines
A report from TasteCamp North, a special Niagara wine event on both sides of the border for wine writers.

Without fermentation, you have no wine – just an expensive tank of murky grape juice. And yeast is the catalyst that transforms the fruit of the vine into the elixir so dear to our hearts.

During our recent trip to visit wineries in Niagara, we discovered that innovative winemakers there are experimenting with the use of wild fermentation techniques in place of commercial yeast cultures.

Hillebrand Wines and Southbrook are two wineries experimenting with the technique. Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald led the TasteCamp group through a tasting of their wild ferment Sauvignon Blanc.

Most wines use commercial yeast and the selection of particular strains can contribute to the finish of wines, enhancing aromas of wood or berries, for example.Wild fermentation means that a winemaker didn’t add commercial yeast, but that the wine started fermenting naturally from wild yeasts in the air and living on grape skins.

It is very much in line with the emphasis on terroir I observed in Niagara. Winemakers there are trying to create wines that taste like Niagara, not Napa or Italy. Wild fermentation zooms in, even more, allowing the wine to taste like the particular vineyard from which it sprang.

With the standard fermentation, a foil package of yeast culture is sprinkled into the crush and within 15 minutes the process has begun. Wild fermentation is much more mysterious and, according to McDonald, much riskier. The winemaker must crush the grapes and wait for them to ferment on their own. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Ideally, you’ll get a more complex wine that layers that express the terroir of the vineyard.

In the tastings we had a Hillebrand, the native ferment Sauvignon Blanc had a more mineral, earthy flavor. Interesting indeed, but side by side with Sauv Blanc fermented the standard (commercial yeast) way, my nod went to the “tame” fermentation. While the wild ferment may have best expressed the terroir, it wasn’t the best expression of the varietal.

It may be thus when you are pushing the envelope. All the variables with wild ferment are not in your control – but when you dial it in, the reward is an incredibly unique artisan wine.

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