Knowing Your Yeast: a follow-up.

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Did you read the blog post I wrote last year called “The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast“? In short, I said that I didn’t know of any studies identifying and analysing naturally occuring ambient yeasts in winemaking.

I’m happy to say that I stand corrected!

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The Benanti Winery, on Mount Etna in Sicily, embarked upon an ambitious five-year study with Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino in Palermo in 2005. The full methodology and results are going to be published later this year. This is just a sneak-peak.

Before I launch into the detail, I should be explain what a palmento is. Essentially, it is the building containing an open-air stone tub into which the crushed grape juice runs for the alcoholic fermentation. It is very similar to Cantillon’s “chapel” and the fermentation pits in authentic mezcal production. Ventilation is vitally important in the palmento because not only is there indigenous yeast on the grape skins but there are also many ambient yeasts in the air.

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For this study, the researchers took 4 palmenti where commercial yeasts have never been used. They then identified over 400 different strains of yeasts that were naturally present in these places. Of these, there were 13 strains that were considered interesting for alcoholic fermentation.

The conclusion is that Benanti have taken 4 of these strains and patented them for their own exclusive use. It’s a selected indigenous yeast, if you like.

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That, admittedly, is rather a contradiction in terms. I’m sure there will be some people who would argue why even bother selecting a naturally-found ambient yeast.

It should be understood that nowadays, the palmento cannot be used for making Etna DOC wines…. and that’s a whole other kettle of fish… Winemaking now takes place at controlled temperatures in stainless steel rather than in those traditional palmenti. The Benanti winery has also grown to a size and gained such a reputation that consistency is very important for them.

It seems to me that this study is effectively their manifestation of a desire to create a link between tradition and modernity. Of wanting to dock their caps to history albeit in a contemporary context and to find a way to use nature in conventional winemaking.

The full report will be published later this year.

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