Or isn’t it?
In biology autolysis refers to the destruction of a cell through the action of its own enzymes. The term “autolyse” was coined by French baking professor Raymond Calvel. The term derives from the Greek words αυτό (“self”) and λύσις (“splitting”).
For making sparkling wine, autolysis involves killing the yeast and encouraging the breakdown of the cells by enzymes. It is used to give different flavours.
Steve Goodwin is a sparkling winemaker at Seppelt, Australia. He was once interviewed on the cause of the bready, yeasty character found in champagne and other sparkling wine: “most of that is just bottle-developed pinot noir character (rather) than autolysis,” said Steve. His comment contradicts the traditionally accepted view that contact between the wines and autolyzed yeast lees – i.e. broken down yeast cells – is responsible. Curiously, a former Seppelt sparkling maker, Warren Randall, claimed that the bready character came mainly from pinot meunier.
In 2008 I asked French champagne maker Benoît Gouez (of Dom Perignon) about this. He had no doubt that autolysis causes the yeastiness in champagne, adding that autolysis is expressed quite differently by different grape varieties. “However, the more fruit in a particular wine the less yeast will be evident,” he explained.
Well-known amateur sparkling winemaker, MF (those five years spent as sous-remueur – translation: riddler – at Bolli were not wasted) reckons that the bready character does in fact come from yeast autolysis — rather than aged pinot noir or pinot meunier. His reasoning? Rising bread dough and bread just out of the oven have this smell. Where does it come from? Er, the breakdown of yeast cells after the bread has risen.
Pertinent questions: Has MF ever encountered this yeasty smell in bottles of still pinot noir or pinot meunier of any age? No, never.
Has MF ever encountered this yeast lees character in bottles of bubbly that do not contain either of the pinots, i.e. blanc de blancs made solely from chardonnay? Yes, your Judgeship, often.
If so-called yeast autolysis character comes mainly from pinot noir why do sparkling wine makers waste their time and money leaving fizz in contact with yeast sediment for years, when they could just as easily add more pinot noir to the brew? Beats me, your be-wigged Excellency.
The court will rise…
To help you make up your judgment, here are related articles – at other sites:
- Bubbly tasting notes;
- Matching Champagne and Food;
- Champagne with food;
- Cabbage in Champagne;
- Fredric Koeppel about Champagne.