A number of weeks ago I visited with the assistant winemaker at the New Jersey winery I used to be affiliated with. It was a bitter cold night and we did what we have so often done in the past, talk with glasses in hand as he tapped the cold contents of the silent tanks on the winery floor, checking in to see how his liquid charges were evolving.

On one tank, I noticed the use of a yeast strain named “Alchemy 1” which I had never heard of. How could the Alchemist of this blog not be drawn to a yeast strain with this name.


Alchemy yeast used in a Vidal Blanc

Each tank and barrel in a winery is labeled, often crudely, with a basic shorthand. This code varies somewhat from winery to winery, but will be instantly familiar to those who live and work in the world of vineyards and vintners. Grape variety, vineyard source, harvest date, yeast type and inoculation date, racking date, are among the data recorded on each tank. Yeast types often bear such decidedly unromantic names as RA17 or DV10. The noble grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon – and their flavor characteristics, are familiar and part of the language of wine, from tasting room to wine bar to dining table. Yet the equally important yeasts, which work their own magic on the fruit and also have distinct flavor characteristics, are largely ignored and unheralded.

Yeast – those magical living organisms which ingest sugar and excrete alcohol (plus CO2 and heat) — is regularly, and mistakenly, viewed as solely a catalyst in the making of food and drink, rather than as a variable component which affects and enhances the ultimate flavor-characteristics of what it interacts with. Some yeast strains bring bright fruit to the fore, and are considered best for white wines, some complement the more complex tannic attributes of red wine varietals. Alchemy 1 is relatively new and is actually itself a blend of yeast strains which “enhances esters (fruity, floral) in white wines,” according to Anchor, its manufacturer. “It is recommended for vinifying white grape varieties such as Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Verdelho, Riesling and Pinot gris,” according to Anchor, a South African yeast manufacturer which was acquired by yeast giant Lallemond in 2006.

Wild yeasts exist everywhere, in uncountable and uncontrollable profusion. In ancient times, beer and wine fermented naturally from these ambient yeasts. Back when all farming was organic, these wild yeasts proliferated, but widespread use of fungicides and pesticides in vineyards has cut them down. Many wineries and some well-known beers such as Belgian lambics, still count on wild yeast to ferment, but they are the exception now. In truth, wild yeast’s rough uncontrollable nature, imparting funky, often off-putting flavors, made it an unwelcome guest in most breweries and wineries. Winemakers sought consistency and drinkability, and turned to commercial yeast strains, produced by corporations like Laffort and Lallemand. At harvest, winemakers will often separate crushed grapes of a single variety into separate vats, inoculating each with a different commercial yeast strain. When blended back together later, the resulting wine will benefit from the added complexity of the different yeasts used, an attempt by winemakers to regain some of the diversity of flavor lost without wild yeasts. As a blend of yeasts, Alchemy is obviously another attempt to commercially recreate that diversity.

Sometimes, nature has its way, and crushed grapes will begin fermentation from wild yeasts and defy the winemaker’s attempts to control them. While not for everyone, the rustic results are always interesting.

Wine bottle labels often include information on grape variety, region, year, alcohol content etc. If they included yeast strain(s) used in fermentation, it might be a step in understanding the full role this little organism plays in the taste of what you just poured into your glass. Then again the world of wine (and recently, beer) is already daunting enough, without something else to consider. That said, the Alchemist looks forward to trying wines in the future which are vinified using Alchemy yeast.