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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Can you use any kind of yeast to make wine?
Yeast fascinates me. These single-celled fungi are essential to wine, converting sugar to alcohol during the process of fermentation. Some winemakers prefer to use native yeasts (also called wild, or indigenous yeasts), which occur naturally in the vineyard or winery, in an effort to get a unique expression that some consider more true to the wine's terroir, or sense of place. But most wine is inoculated with yeast cultures, which can act a little more predictably.
The king of wine yeasts is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and that is in fact the same species of yeast that causes dough to rise. But one thing that yeast does well is mutate, and there are thousands of strains of cerevisiae. All these strains act differently, so a strain that might be effective or suitable for causing dough to rise might not be as suitable to turning grape sugars into alcohol. Another kind of yeast that sometimes shows up in wine is brettanomyces, more commonly referred to as "brett." It's generally considered a flaw, but some people kind of like a hint of it …. So the short answer to your question is no, only some strains of yeast can be used to make wine.
But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of viable yeast strains to choose from. Some yeast strains ferment slower or faster, or work best in certain temperature ranges. If you’re a winemaker that prefers slow, cool fermentations, you have to pick a yeast that works with your program. Other yeasts have known sensory impacts, bringing out floral or spice notes in a wine. Another thing to consider is how prone a yeast strain is to flocculation, the process by which particles suspended in a liquid clump together and either float or fall out of suspension. Yeasts that more readily flocculate will yield a relatively clear wine when drawn off the lees, or dead yeast cells and other sediment left behind after fermentation; if a yeast strain isn't prone to flocculation, the wine may remain cloudy or hazy. Some yeast strains aren’t very tolerant to the addition of sulfur dioxide, or have trouble surviving in a wine’s pH level, or may be prone to producing volatile acidity.
If you tried to inoculate your homemade wine with bread yeast, you’d soon realize that yeast strains have varying tolerances for alcohol, too. Bread yeast will typically stop working at about 10 percent alcohol, lower than most wines. And a tired yeast struggling to ferment can start to create some off-putting flavors and aromas.
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