The relationship between man and yeast goes back at least five thousand years. Long before science and understanding demystified the seemingly magical process of fermentation, man was getting drunk while feasting on fermented beverages and leavened bread. In the late 1860’s, after the invention of the telescope and the groundbreaking work of the French microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, the role of yeast in fermentation was established, and the road for commercial production of yeast, paved. During this time of human advancement, something of the wholesome goodness of naturally fermented food and drink was lost in translation. But, today, more than a century later, winemakers, brewers and bakers are harking back to halcyon days. The words ‘wild yeast’ or ‘naturally fermented’ appear on labels, more now than ever before. ‘Minimal intervention’ is another term worth looking out for.
What do we stand to gain from returning to the basics of this age-old phenomenon called, fermentation?
In wine making as well as bread baking, the process of fermentation takes longer with wild or natural yeast than with cultured yeast. In baking, this longer fermentation imparts more flavour. Because of prolonged contact with lees (dead yeast cells), white wines produced with native yeasts are creamier and oilier in texture.
Individual grapevines and different vineyards have a unique micro-flora fingerprint. Microbial makeup can also differ from one vintage to the next. This makes for exciting vintage variation.
Good vineyard practices are essential when working with native yeasts.
I grew up in Paarl, during the late seventies and eighties. I was very fortunate to spend June holidays on my grandfather’s farm, in Namibia, then Suid-Wes. Here, I experienced things like hunting, slaughtering of the animal and further processing of the meat. Fresh milk, still warm, frothy and creamy. And I’ll never forget my Gran’s home baked bread. And yet, none of these experiences broke my delusional city slicker mentality around food and drink that was so deeply seated in my subconscious. Salt was the white stuff in the little pot with one hole, and pepper, the fine grey powder in the pot with multiple holes. Coffee was the brown granular substance from a tin, mixed with boiling water, milk and sugar. Milk was the white liquid in glass bottles found on the stoep, after empty milk bottles with plastic coupons were left there the night before. (Who remembers that one?) Bread was either white or brown and sliced, using that machine in the front of the shop, the one with the handle like a slot machine.
Later on in life, after working more closely with food and drink in the restaurant industry, I realized that the separation of man from the production process of food and drink had ushered in an era where he will except a sub-standard product, without question.
But, with the return of the local artisan baker, coffee roaster, brewer and winemaker, during the last 30 years, this information of the important nuances around production, are once again within our grasp. Now we have the resources to help us distinguish between a good and bad quality product, by building a relationship with, and learning from the local baker, brewer and roaster. We can regain the satisfaction of creating our own sourdough loaf from scratch or experience the feeling of oneness with nature after weeks of nurturing your sourdough starter and witnessing the life that starts bubbling from within that simple mixture of flour and water. We can regain the virtue of patience.
Everywhere I look people are once again rekindling that long lost connection with nature, food and the origins of sustenance. This return is evident when you look at a generation of young people who prefer quality over quantity, relationship over convenience and an understanding of the process of making fine drinks and wholesome food. A generation who is growing up with numerous types of salt on the shelf, freshly roasted, single origin coffee made by professionals on every corner, artisan bread of every shape and size, craft beer, whisky and brandy and, of course, wines made in partnership with nature.
At the heart of all these disciplines, you will find a slow, natural fermentation, and of course, a human, willing to wait.
Have you been experiencing the same return to wholeness? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.
Follow the links below to start exploring naturally fermented wines.