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How to Choose the Right Wine Yeast

Wine grapes, table grapes, and a glass of red wine. This is goals.

It’s not always obvious, but the yeast choice a person makes to ferment a beverage is extremely vital to the flavor of the final beverage. Some yeasts are “clean”, meaning they do not contribute much (if anything) to the flavor of the wine. Others produce a number of phenolics and esters, the type of which can elevate your fermentation or clash mightily with it. Tom’s put together a guide to help you select the best yeast for your circumstances.

Choosing a yeast

This will be the most important choice the home winemaker will make.

You will be able to pick the grape variety but you cannot control its picking date, sugar level, TA, or pH. Yet, these are the things you need to take into consideration when choosing a yeast. Furthermore, you’ll need to consider if you wish to (or are capable of) a cold or warm fermentation.

Once you have those things set in your plan, consider the grape. What styles of wine does this grape often show up in? Think about the grape  by winemaking region, e.g. Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, Mosel, California, or Italy. With the grapes you have, what most appeals to you? Do you want a fruit-forward wine or not? Once you’ve taken into account all of these things, you’ll be able to decide on a yeast with ease.

Have a great time making wine!

Red Wines

The Cabernet family (and blends)

F.H. Steinbart will be getting Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Petite Verdot, and Carménère. All of these can be used to make wines similar in style to western and southwestern French wines, as well as Californian and Australian wines. These are big, bold, and very vinous wines; they are high in alcohol and not particularly fruity by style. For these wines, the best yeast choices we carry are Wyeast 4267 Summation Red, Wyeast 4946 Bold Red, and Wyeast 4028 Red. All of these will create a dry, rich, hearty red wine. Ferment them warm and for as long as possible. The next level of yeast is the Vintners Harvest brand. These yeasts are dry and of excellent quality. Read their characteristics to make a choice, though I feel R56 is the best choice for this group of grapes. Red Star makes Premier Classique and Premier Rouge. Both yeasts work well, just avoid fermenting either one in the high 70s to 80s. At high temperatures, they tend to produce hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg) aromas that can be hard to get rid of. You will want to do malolactic fermentation (“MLF”) with these grapes to produce a soft-finished and aging-stable wine.

The Fruity Reds

Pinot Noir and Lemberger are the two stars in this group, but it can also include Cabernet Franc.  Want to make Oregon Pinot Noir with a big fruit nose of raspberries and a soft spiciness? Assmannshausen is the premier yeast for that result. It’s good for soft reds and  fruity whites. Use a cold soak to make fruity reds, if you can, to get as much color and juice from your grapes as possible. Use Assmannshausen yeast and at the end of primary fermentation use MLF for the best results. Vintners Harvest R56 and CR51 are also good choices, or you can use Red Star Premier Cuvee. Rhone river area yeasts Lalvin RC212 and D47 can help with color extraction and are helpful when paired with MLF.

Southern European Reds

We will be carrying TempranilloSangioveseGrenache, and Syrah.  Here in the Northwest, where we don’t have as many long and hot days as in Southern Europe, these grapes may not reach their full potential in body and sugar. Therefore, I recommend yeasts and techniques that will extract the most color and tannins as well produce a fruity and easily drinkable wine. Try to do a cold soak if you can, especially for the first three. Then use a yeast from the Pinot Noir suggestions above. Or, if you’d prefer, Wyeast has an Italian Red (4244), which I have not tried but like the sound of. Try it for Sangiovese and Grenache blends. If you can swing their purchase at the same time, add 20% to 30% Syrah to any of the other Southern European reds. This grape will boost the wine’s color and soften the tannins and acidity of the other three. Be aware you may have to adjust the must acidity even with the Syrah addition.

Grenache deserves a little extra attention here. It is the best of our reds for a rosé, if you want to make one yourself from grapes. (Otherwise, we do offer rosé juice.) For a good rosé, one to three days of skin contact is best. With a longer soak, you will get a light red wine rather than a rosé. If you are making a red Grenache, plan on MLF only if you plan to make a big, bold red wine with lots of Syrah blended in. If you’re planning a fruity red Grenache, sulfite your wine well to prevent it.

If you purchase enough Grenache (say 150 pounds) try a one to two-day skin soak with half of your grapes, then press off the wine and put those skins in with the rest of the red wine batch that is also on skins. This doubles up the fruit intensity of the red and gives you a lovely rosé to boot. Red Star Côte des Blancs is an excellent yeast for the resulting rosé.

A glass of white wine on a table with bokahed lights behind it.

White Wine

Excepting Muscat, all of the white grapes F.H.S. is selling will be in juice form. So, I will forgo going into pressing and crushing techniques here. If you plan on getting whole white grapes elsewhere, you can use the Muscat procedure detailed below.

You will probably need to adjust must acidity for the whites. Use chemicals first, then fermentation and cold stabilization (storing the wine below 40 degrees for a month). Never use MLF on white wines. The only exception is Chardonnay and even then only if it’s big, very ripe grapes that’s going to become a big, bold, buttery wine. (Grapes appropriate for that style rarely come from the PNW.)

Yeast choice is essential for a red, but it’s more so for white wine. You will want a yeast that ferments in cooler temperatures (which will take longer) and falls out completely when it’s done. (This is known as “flocculation”.) Finally, given that fruit forward is the name of the game, you’ll want yeast that supports or even enhances those fruit notes, rather than something that competes or suppresses them.

For German whites such as RieslingGrüner Veltliner, and/or Gewürztraminer Wyeast 4783 is excellent. Vintners Harvest AW4 (Germanic White) is also a great choice. If you cannot get ahold of either of those, Vintners Harvest BV7 and SN9 do a lovely job, as does Red Star Côte des Blancs  The absolute best yeast for grapes from Germany or Austria is Rudesheimer, also known as “Sweet White” from Wyeast (4783).

Then there’s the French whites and the RosésChardonnaySauvignon BlancViognier, and Pinot Gris. Most of these wines will be light to medium-bodied when done. There’s an extensive variety of yeasts available for these, but I particularly like Vintners Harvest CY17BV7, and Wyeast 4242.

That said, whites and rosé are good grapes to be adventurous with! For example, many wineries use the same yeast they use on their red wines for their whites, and it works incredibly well. Assmannshausen (normally used for the reds of northern France and Germany) promotes a big fruity nose, so it should be just as good in a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc. As you’re considering yeasts, read label descriptions and if something sounds delicious, go for it! Red Star yeasts do well in experiments and adventures for the most part. The exception being the German whites I mentioned above, as they do not accentuate the fruity notes as well as other yeasts do.

Albariño is the new kid on the block for us. Originating in northern Spain and Portugal, it should be fermented with a yeast that both accentuates fruitiness and helps control acidity. Try any of the German white yeasts I mentioned previously or Lalvin DV10 or 71B  Both of these are sold as reducing malic acid without having to undergo MLF.

Finally, we will have Muscat grapes. Many of the delightful fruity white wines of Europe from Spain to Hungry are made from the many various varieties of Muscat  If you have had a pitcher of cold white wine with your scampi overlooking the Amalfi Coast, it was a Muscat. One of the largest and oldest wine grape families, all Muscat varieties are rich in fruit flavors and aromas, and can produce wines high in alcohol as well. They also make some of the world’s best dessert wines, should you want to try your hand at that.

When you get your Muscat grapes, you will be given a choice to crush and press them at our shop or take them home and do it there. If the grapes are good and clean without much skin breakage or bug bites, I strongly suggest a skin soak. Take the grapes home, crush them as best as you can. Use stems and all. Use your fist, feet, or a length of 2×4. It won’t matter. Soak the grapes on the skins for at least 2 hours and no more than 8 hours. As soon as the grapes are crushed, dose with SO2 and pectic enzyme. Press, stems and all. This will help to get more juice and a little tannin. If you do not own a press, we rent them out and we sell them. Ferment the juice as cool as possible, using any of the “French White” yeasts I mentioned above if you’d like a dry Muscat. If you want residual sweetness, try a German white yeast.