The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Wasps, Hornets and Terroir, Oh My!

Posted on | August 20, 2012 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Your terroir in action.

“Terroir,” I suspect, is a really nice word for all the stuff in your glass of wine that you don’t want to think about. Take wasp spit, for one—or whatever the buggy equivalent wasps have to spit. Recent pieces reporting on scientific findings about the importance to wasps, or to be specific European Hornets and Paper Wasps, to the creation of your favorite Italian wines have been recently published on NPR, The New York Times and The Wine Spectator.

A group of researchers, including Duccio Cavalieri, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florence in Italy and a descendent of a long line of Tuscan winemakers, has detected Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker’s yeast, in the guts of wasps and hornets common to Tuscany. Winemakers have long privileged S. cerevisiae as the yeast most often necessary to making wine, and while some winemakers add yeasts to their wines to begin or influence fermentation, those who rely on natural yeasts are generally relying on S. cerevisiae. The question has been where it comes from.

The findings published on the website of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 30 argues that this vital yeast comes from insects. The team of scientists suggests that as the wasps bite the ripe grape, they transmit the yeast in their guts, and this natural yeast not only is responsible for fermentation but also serves to transmit “terroir,” the essence of place into the wine.

Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. The day that NPR wrote about the findings, Alder Yarrow of the blog Vinography tweeted, “Uh, NPR, you probably should have talked to a winemaker first before suggesting wasps help w/fermentation.” Alder followed up this tweet in a conversation with me, explaining, “I’m fairly sure that most fruit wasps bite is sorted out and doesn’t make it to finished wine,” suggesting that bitten fruit didn’t make it off the winemaker’s sorting table and into the wine.

Last week, Alder’s opinion was seconded by Christy Canterbury, with whom I shared too many glasses of wine. “I’m not seeing it,” she said, or something to that effect (I mentioned the many glasses of wine).

But here’s my thinking, and it ranges a bit wider than considering the possibility of wasp spit in my wine, however infinitesimal an amount that might be. Having spent about six weeks in Montalcino right after harvest time, having breathed that air and watched the chestnuts roll on their spiny backs, having crunched through autumn woods and smelled the umami air rich with wood smoke, and having drunk many, many glasses of Brunello made there, right there, this place where pomegranates rotted and wild fennel blew to seed, I get it. Winemakers don’t wash their grapes.  Terroir is everywhere, it’s everything, and it’s often the stuff we don’t want to contemplate.

“Everything is linked,” Cavalieri says in the NPR article, and he is not wrong. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once averred, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” Weather, atoms, the earth’s rocks, the evolution of the stars: “There are the ferments,” he said, “the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it!” Of course, it may also be bug yeast, and whether that yeast comes microscopically tromping in on the tiny feet of hornets or transferred by their wee jaws, there appears to be a valid claim that the wild yeast comes, at least in part, from bugs.

“Terroir” is a nice word. Comforting, really, in its elegance. In our hyper-sanitized world, it kindly obscures the bug bits, the various and sundry excrements, the dirt, the dust, the goo, the ick, the yuck and the squick that accumulates on a grape’s skin as it makes its way from bud to bottle. It’s a pretty word for a complex process that’s deeply imbued with gross stuff. I’ll still raise a glass to those unsung hornets and wasps, their biting jaws and their inquisitive feet. Without you, I’m drinking grape juice, and, really, who wants that.



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