22 March 2010

The yeast of our worries

[l’armangia bottles]If the message at Paolo Marcarino is a little muddled, despite wines that make fairly clear statements, l’Armangia flips that equation. The words and purpose are clear, but the wines…not so much.

We’re spared a cellar tour – unless one is at, say, Gravner or there’s something really unusual worth explicating, they’re almost always overly familiar ground for those in or writing about wine – for which we’re thankful, but then spend a good deal more time on the winery’s threshold, discussing theory and practice, than I think our schedule-conscious hosts would prefer.

The thing is, there’s almost always a subject on which even the most reserved winemaker can be energized into a fully polemical diatribe. Sometimes, one knows what that subject is going to be ahead of time, and can choose to engage or avoid it as the situation warrants. And sometimes, it’s a surprise. So when we prod on the subject of sulfur, having just left a winery where the non-use thereof is a point of difference, and are met with a fairly bland response (“my father can’t tolerate added sulfites,” and in fact “we both get sick” from excessive levels, so they work with as little as possible; however, they don’t “believe” in senza solfiti wines, “because they’re a natural byproduct of fermentation”), it’s the argument that any low- but not no-sulfur producer uses, and we figure we’re in for a fairly easy rhetorical ride.

Not so.

There’s some talk of the Canelli subzone in which we’re currently situated, in which the best sites are planted to moscato, and despite some regrafting to barbera the best red grapes are still sourced from other zones. No chemicals are used in the vineyard or cellar, so as not to “affect aromas.” And a “handful of tools to deal with acidity” are mentioned, though the identity of those tools is a little surprising as iterated: alcohol, tannin, and complexity/richness. It would seem that the goal here is not to actually manage the acidity, but rather to find ways to counterbalance it. I admit that I respond positively to that notion, though whether or not it will be reflected in the wines remains to be seen.

And then, someone mentions yeast.

“In my opinion, the thought that natural or ambient yeasts make better wine is just stupid.”

Oh boy, here we go. The ambient/inoculated yeast argument is a well-worn one that I won’t re-adjudicate here. Suffice it to say that there are sensible and justifiable arguments on all sides, and that putting aside industrial wine production as a separate category with different needs, the actual division among more artisanal practitioners really boils down to a debate between those who believe yeasts are either part of or at least sympathetic to terroir, versus those who prefer a measure of control over uncertainty, and must include many intermediate points on that continuum. Choosing a side in this argument is very easy for someone sitting at a computer, and a little more difficult if the existence of food on one’s table is a direct outcome of that choice, but it’s worth saying for the record that while I enjoy many wines made with either kind of yeast, I’m always interested in wineries that have at least explored the ambient option, even if they then go on to reject it.

I issue this lengthy definitional and personal disclaimer because I will now proceed to lament a discussion that starts with such a bald-faced straw man. While there are certainly a few who argue that ambient yeasts make “better” wines, the far more common argument is that they remove a deliberate intervention from the winemaking process. This is a value-neutral assertion from a qualitative standpoint, and instead a manifestation of a philosophy or approach to winemaking. Or, if one prefers, a reordering of the words involved: not “to use ambient yeast is to make a better wine,” but “it is better to use ambient yeast to make a wine,” where “better” is here a synonym for “more correct given a particular philosophy” rather than a synonym for “superior quality.” It’s also not to say that winemakers who use ambient yeast don’t think they make better wine as a result of their choices, but that the gestation of the choice is not a clear “ambient yeast = better wine” equation.

Of course, calling something “stupid” within a dozen words of broaching a topic means we’re not in for a nuanced debate along “on one hand, but on the other hand” lines. So we brace, and gird, and put scribbling pens to notebooks, and are thus treated to the following:

“If I use a type of yeast that’s not invasive, and doesn’t add flavors, that’s fine. […] The important thing is to use yeast that’s clean and non-violent.”

So far, so good. Certainly an improvement on “stupid.” But then:

“If I wanted to make New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I would use yeasts that are very violent and aggressive [and] a temperature-controlled fermentation.”

Well, now, that’s interesting. Because while it’s true that industrial New Zealand sauvignon blanc (and that label applies to a number of wines that people don’t necessarily think of, nor that are marketed as, industrial…including the most famous one) is a “recipe” of yeasts and sometimes other biochemical nudging, the trend among the most interesting producers of the grape – even in Marlborough – is experimentation with, or outright adoption of, ambient yeasts. And in fact has been for some time now. That the resulting wines are more interesting than their industrial peers may or may not have all that much to do with the yeasts themselves, as they’re never the sole differentiating factor, but that they help contribute to a decidedly non-industrial character of greater individuality is fairly unquestionable.

Also, it must be said that this is an argument that would be enhanced by a spectacular sauvignon blanc from l’Armangia. See below for more on how that turns out.

One might think that this argument, plainly stated, against ambient yeasts might end here, as a point of differentiation and a defense of personal practice. Alas, no. This is the Piedmont, and as I’m learning, it is sometimes not enough to say what one does or does not do. One must also thoroughly repudiate anyone with a different opinion.

“For us to switch over to ambient yeasts would be ruinous. [I know of] wineries that have ruined their market because they switched to ambient yeasts.”

Somehow, I suspect that the presentation of a list of wineries whose market presence has been enhanced by a switch to ambient yeasts would not be met with equanimity. It’s not really important, anyway. If he says he knows of these wineries, then short of accusing him of lying one must believe him. It’s certainly well within the realm of possibility to lose control of a fermentation and thus lose a vintage due to an ill-considered acceptance of the wrong native critters. But it seems like an awfully large burden of guilt to place on poor ambient yeasts, which are used effectively and in a commercially successful way all over the world. I rather suspect that the problem at these unfortunate wineries was a little broader and more fundamental than the simple switch from inoculated to ambient yeasts.

Having denunciated with passion, there now appears to be a mental pause, which is followed by a sort of backtracking. I write “sort of” because the speechifying now takes a very curious and somewhat inexplicable left turn.

[steel tanks]“It would be right to use yeasts from Piedmont, but we can’t. […] I would rather use a yeast from Canelli, but I don’t have the money.”

Now, it’s true that I’ve never heard an economic argument made for why one cannot employ a locally-sourced yeast. I have heard an economic argument against the uncertainty of ambient yeasts in toto, but that’s clearly not what’s on our host’s mind here. I can only surmise – no other reason of which I can conceive makes sense – that the aforementioned philosophical linkage between terroir and ambient yeast has suddenly occurred, and what we are now hearing is a response to that internal reminder.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. One is that if one is going to add packaged yeast, it seems largely unimportant from a philosophical standpoint whether the lab that isolated or created that yeast is down the street or halfway ‘round the globe. It’s still a packaged yeast, for all the importance (or lack thereof) that someone places in such things. Those drinkers who harbor a philosophical preference for ambient yeasts, a small but extant and vocal niche within winedom, are unlikely to be swayed to the desirability of inoculated yeast because it comes from within a thirty-mile radius of the winery. And to anyone else, the argument doesn’t matter a bit.

Another is the assertion that a Canelli- or Piedmont-derived yeast would be beyond this winery’s means. I admit complete ignorance on how this might be so. Is the price differential for yeast inoculants really so large that the economics of it matter to such a degree? If so, why? Simple economies of scale? Or are certain yeasts the Armani of the Saccharomyces set, while others hang out on the clearance shelves at Walmart?

(After some post-facto conversations, however, I’ve another theory: perhaps what’s meant, though to my knowledge this goes unsaid, is that any winery wishing for a local strain of yeast isolated and then reproduced in commercial quantities might have to pay for this research and development themselves.)

Having deployed a full palette of arguments against ambient yeast, the subject now appears exhausted (and our schedulers seem to be mentally projecting an impatient tapping of their watches), and so we move inside for a tasting. We begin with the ubiquitous white interloper of the region, for which a defense is peremptorily offered: “you can call me a follower of fashion, but chardonnay is one of the oldest white grapes here.”

l’Armangia 2008 Piemonte Chardonnay “Pratorotondo” (Piedmont) – 70% stainless steel and 30% wood, sulfured only once at bottling. Shy, lending a brief glimpse of melon and lemon (the latter heavy on the rind) under the shade of an acacia tree. Kinda…eh.

l’Armangia 2007 Monferrato Sauvignon “EnnEEnnE” (Piedmont) – Yes, yes, everyone has the same question: what does that mean? Roughly, “bastard child,” here a reference to the unusual (for the region) grape variety. Floral aromas, woodsy and a little bit woody as well, though it’s less of a prominent aromatic factor than it is a participant in the muting and restraining of other aromas. Fairly sticky and dense, with some heat evident. The texture is lavish, and without that alcoholic imbalance this could have been a more interesting wine than it ultimately turns out to be.

Cheap snark alert: as an argument against whatever New Zealand is doing, this is perhaps not enormously effective.

We enter into the barbera portion of the tasting with a little primer on recent vintages, at least as seen from this winery’s vantage point. 2006 was not particularly hot, but dry, and some August rain freshened the grapes. 2007 is considered the best of the three it anchors, with an accelerated beginning (there were leaves on trees as early as February), a hot August, and a cooler September. And 2008? A rainy, cold winter, but no midsummer rain, and so the grapes tend towards high sugar and good color but little richness. Our host states it plainly: “2008 is not going to be a great vintage.”

l’Armangia 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Chocolate and lactic milkiness with only a rough stab at integration. Kinda flat, otherwise. Not very good.

l’Armangia 2006 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Buttered fruit, dark raspberry jam, and spiky acidity. Alcohol prongs forth as well. The texture is somewhat unfortunate – Nutella and peanut butter – which just adds to the problems.

At this point, apparently feeling that not enough contentious assertions have been provided during our discourse on yeast, our host offers the following as an aside. And what an aside!

“The new [trend] is to say that [a] wine is not aged in wood…but fine tannins are added.” This is a contention that will be rather violently refuted the following afternoon, but it’s worth noting in advance of that tale that it’s not just foreign journalists that are sniffing around this question. Lacking evidence either way, I can only report the controversy as it played out within our hearing.

l’Armangia 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Titon” (Piedmont) – Syrupy fruit and alcohol. Were there such an English dessert as “sticky cherry toffee pudding,” this would be the perfect partner. Jam abounds, with infusion-like leaf bitterness on the finish. Very, very dense.

l’Armangia 2004 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Vignali” (Piedmont) – Huge. Massive fruit layered with chocolate and mint. While this is balanced in its own hulkish way, I challenge someone to slip it into a blind tasting of Napa cabernet/merlot blends and then pick it from the lineup. Maybe the acidity would tell the tale, but I doubt it.

This last wine is interesting, because it comes alongside a musing that “now that there are more people drinking wine more regularly, they’re moving from cabernet to pinot” and “don’t want such heavy, overpowering wines.” I think that for some drinkers that’s true, and is reflected in certain segments of the market, but there’s nothing in this portfolio to suggest organoleptic kinship with pinot noir, nor a rejection of heaviness or power.

…with this one exception: we’re told that the yeast used for inoculations here is RC212. Let me quote Lallemand’s description of this yeast:

Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 was selected from fermentations in Burgundy by the BIVB to extract and protect the polyphenols of Pinot noir. Due to the limited adsorption of polyphenols on Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 yeast cell walls, there is limited color loss and structure is protected during aging. It requires high nutrient additions to avoid the potential development of sulfides and demonstrates best results when rehydrated with the right nutrient and protectant. Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 consistently produces Pinot noir with good structure, ripe cherry, bright fruit and spicy characteristics. Wines made with Lalvin Bourgorouge RC212 can be blended with wines made with RA17 to achieve more complexity and finesse.

Trying for pinot noir but achieving something very different? Cheap snark alert number two: maybe ambient yeasts are the answer after all.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

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