You need fungus to make wine. Pretty straight forward, right?
It has come to my attention that the Lot18 editorial staff doesn’t believe that ten words are sufficient to qualify as an article. Let’s try this again…
Did you know that fungus is an integral part of winemaking? Oh good, my editor has put the knife down. Now we’re getting somewhere. That’s right kiddies, the same kingdom of organisms that make portobello burgers and Phish albums possible is also inextricably linked to making the delicious elixir responsible for your being on this site right now.
Question the first: What?
I appreciate your brevity, dear reader. Allow me to elucidate. One of the most beautiful miracles on this pale blue dot we call home is this: You squish some berries. You leave them. The juice bubbles. A few days later you have wine. You drink it, pair it with braised boar, and argue about micro-oxygenation with your other proto-winemaker buddies. This is how wine started. No, really; endemic to the skins of grapes is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a critter more commonly known as yeast. Now there are somewhere in the range of four and a half gabillion different types of fungus, but few of them are more important than these little friends. They have but one little job in their little lives: Take sugar, make CO2 and ethanol. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are some varieties of fungus that go beyond the simple grape-to-booze conversion to make certain desert wines the best in the world…
Questionae secundus: How could a fungus make a wine taste like anything other than shiitake and basement?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Out there somewhere, there is an evil little sucker called Botrytis cinerea. Carrying the Wes Craven-like title of necrotrophic fungus, Botrytis has but one goal: to attack delicious fruit and steal their water. There are those who suggest this is for tiny fungal water parks, but that is silly. It is clear that they nefariously use the water to cool their miniature fungal nuclear power plants. This is unimportant. What is important is the effect it has on the grapes; one of condensing the sugar and creating the perfect ingredient for the production of sweet wine. Once our friend yeast has had its fill of the sugar necessary to produce alcohol for wine, it dies. Dies, or is forcibly killed by heartless winemakers. But because it started off with a hyper-sugary solution in the first place, there is still sweet goodness left over, leaving us with a nutty, honey-like flavor profile you’d find in iconic desert wines like Sauternes or Trockenbeerenauslese. Thanks, fungus. “You’re welcome, humans.” But before we get caught up in our fungus love affair, there is a dark(ish) side.
Final question: Is this post over yet?
Don’t act like you’re not enjoying yourself. My final example of fungus in wine is a queer fellow by the name of Brettanomyces. Brett, as he’s known by his poker buddies, exists naturally as a sort of nether-yeast. When the conditions are right he’ll set up shop just like any other yeast, but just like an unwanted roommate, he starts to stink up the place with a bunch of chemical compounds that can make a perfectly passable Burgundy smell like wet dog, Band-Aid and shame. The vast majority of winemakers won’t even step foot in a place that Brett has been known to frequent, but in hyper-small quantities, it can contribute to an unforgettable flavor profile. Better yet, there are many beer brewers who are utterly smitten with the stuff, producing monstrously funky brew the likes of which are becoming popular amongst adventurous imbibers.
So there you have it. You need fungus to make wine.
Told ya so!
(illustration by Julia Heffernan)