Wine grapes in Sicily.
The flavor of sourdough bread, you may have heard, depends on where it is made. Sourdough bakers rely on wild yeasts that have taken up residence in their dough to get it to rise, rather than mixing in commercially available yeasts, and the free-range yeasts, along with plenty of local bacteria, give it a particular tang.
Winemakers have also traditionally relied on wild yeast for fermentation, and a recent survey of Sicilian wine yeasts scraped out of the bottom of old-fashioned fermentation tubs identified 209 wild strains. The researchers, who were interested in seeing whether wild yeasts can produce wine that’s just as good as that produced by commercial strains, arranged a taste test, and they report that some of the Sicilian mavericks were rated more highly than their commercial cousins, especially when it came to flavors central to Sicilian wine.
It’s not surprising that there are so many yeasts in Sicilian wines—there are lots of yeasts in wines everywhere—but the study is part of a larger trend of researchers pointing out that microbial biodiversity is important and worth preserving. In the natural world, there are microbes with almost any super power you can think of—eating plastic and eating oil, just to start with. If we can find the right strains, they might give us leads on finding new drugs someday, for instance, as well as making tastier wine.
Image courtesy of Neil Weightman / flickr