Brother Adams’ Lalvin D-21: what is terroir yeast?

Flag showing a maltese cross and half a shield of vertical lines

The inestimable Brother Adam, standard-setting meadmaker, preferred Montpellier Lalvin d-21 yeast, and was unhappy when it became unavailable in smaller-than-commercial lots for a while.  I’ve never used D-21, and wondered what it had that any of my regulars don’t.  (I use Brother Adam’s fallback, Montpellier/K1V-1116, quite a lot, and Lalvin D-47, a white wine/blush wine yeast.)  Here’s what Lallemand had to say about their D-21:Vineyard ending in big lake and mountains

Lalvin ICV-D21 was isolated in 1999 from Pic Saint Loup Languedoc “terroir” during a special regional program run by the Institut Coopératif du Vin (ICV)’s Natural Micro-Flora Observatory and Conservatory. Lalvin ICV-D21 was selected for fermenting red wines with stable color, intense fore-mouth, mid-palate tannin structure, and fresh aftertaste. Unlike most wine yeasts, Lalvin ICV-D21 contributes both higher acidity perception and positive polyphenol reactive polysaccharides. Strong interactions of the polysaccharides with the floral and fruity volatile compounds (?-ionone, ethyl hexanoate) contribute to a more stable aromatic profile in the mouth. These attributes avoid the development of cooked jam and burning-alcohol sensations in highly mature and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. During fermentation, Lalvin ICV-D21 produces very few sulfides and it is also noted for its good fermentation performance even under high temperature and low nutrient conditions. It allows for the expression of fruit from the grapes while reducing the potential for herbaceous characters in Cabernet sauvignon. When blended with wines fermented with Lalvin ICV-D254 and Lalvin ICV-D80, Lalvin ICV-D21 brings fresher, sustained intense fruit and lively sensations beginning in the fore-mouth and carrying through to the aftertaste. Lalvin ICV-D21 is also used in very ripe white grapes, barrel-fermented to develop fresh fruit aromas, volume and acidity which compliments wines fermented with Enoferm ICV-D47 in blends. Rosé wines fermented with Lalvin ICV-D21 have enhanced red fruit, fore-mouth volume and balance, making it the perfect blending complement to Rosé wines fermented with Lalvin ICV-GRE.

Scott Laboratories, who specialize in research for the beverage industry, gives us this on D-21:

  • Isolated from one of the best Languedoc terroirs during a special regional program run by the Institut Coopératif du Vin’s (ICV) Natural Micro-Flora Obser­vatory and Conservatory in France.
  • Noted for its good fermentation performance even under high temperature and low nutrient conditions. Produces very few sulfide compounds during fermentation.
  • Selected for fermenting red wines with stable color, in­tense fore-mouth volume, mid-palate tannin structure and fresh aftertaste.
  • Lalvin ICV D21® can also be used with very ripe white grapes that are barrel fermented to develop fresh fruit aromas, volume and acidity. In highly clarified juices, maintain fermentation temperatures greater than 15°C(59°F) and supplement with proper nutrition.

I can see why Brother Adam liked it so much.

Ruined stone castle, lake, grassy field, part of a tree
Montpellier in Languedoc-Rousillon

But what, oh what is a terroir yeast?  I can kind of guess but let’s check up on it.

Stephen Tanzer’s Winophilia blog had about the best description of “terroir”:  “A French concept incorporating everything that contributes to the distinctive character of a particular vineyard site: its soil and subsoil; its drainage, slope, and elevation; and its microclimate, which in turn includes temperature and precipitation, exposure to the sun, wind and fog, and the like.  I’d argue that even the particular strains of wild yeasts that come in on the grape skins and live in the cellars can have a strong effect on the wines themselves.  The concept of terroir is essential to understanding a variety like pinot noir, for example, because their grape is hypersensitive to its environment reflecting the slightest soil and climate in its aromas, tastes, textures, structure and aging curve.

Well.  That means if I want to understand Lalvin D-21, distinguished by its characterization of its region, I’d better go look at the place it comes from.  Actually, logically that doesn’t flow – D-21 should pick up whatever terroir the grapes come from, but it’s more fun to look at this distinctive and kinda funky region that happens to produce about a third of all French wine, the most of any region in France.  It plays right into my hands, as a former province of Rome…

Montpellier is in Languedoc-Roussillon in modern France.  The region stretches from the Pyrenees in the west to the Rhone River and the region of Provence; vineyards run along the coastal plains or in the mountain valleys of the Pyrenees. The modern name, Languedoc-Roussillon, is two combined historical areas.  Once upon a time it was part of Gallia Narbonensis, a Roman colony, but that was long after buy ambien overnight shipping Greeks planted the first grape vines here in the sixth century BC.  Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs ruled here in their turn.

This region has been the center of a good deal of turmoil.  In the mid-twelfth century the Albigenses, a religious sect, was so strong in the area that the Pope denounced them and an army from northern France marched in, nearly destroying the region and the flourishing, elegant culture of the south of France (think Eleanor of Acquitaine, troubadours, the Courts of Love).  In the sixteenth century, Protestantism gained a strong following; in the eighteenth, the French monarchy tried to stamp it out.  The Protestants resisted, burning Catholic churches and killing or driving out priests.  The Pope issued a papal bull, and more than 450 towns were razed and their inhabitants killed.  Don’t talk religion in Languedoc0Roussillon.

Map of France showing Languedoc-Roussillon on southeast coast
Languedoc-Roussillon in France

In the Middle Ages Languedoc especially was  known for its very fine wines; during the Industrial Revolution the focus shifted to mass production of le gros rouge, wine made from prolific grapes that gave high yields but made thin wines.   They were generally blended with fuller-bodied Algerian wine (Algeria was a French colony from 1830).  The phylloxera epidemic of the nineteenth century destroyed a lot of the wine production.  Vintners attempted to replant with American grapes that were resistant to phylloxera, but they often didn’t do well in the hillsides’  limestone soil.  During the World Wars this region supplied the French Army with its wine, which gives you an idea how much they were producing; when Algeria won its independence in 1962, and the supply of Algerian wine to blend with the thin local stuff dried up.  In the 1970’s or so French consumers moved away from cheap, readily available wine, resulting in some pretty serious oversupply.  The European Union created subsidies to reduce the amount of wine produced in the region.  Some vineyards have responded by focusing on quality again, replanting with finer grapes, and Languedoc is now producing some very fine wines, though they do not (yet) have the prestige of wines from other regions of France.

Now here’s an interesting bit, I think: Languedoc-Rousillon wasn’t even part of France until the fifteenth century.  It belonged to the county of Toulouse, who had ties to Aragon and Catalonia.  The region leaned to Spain rather than France. Languedoc spoke Occitan, and Roussillon spoke Catalan – the two languages are very close.  Occitan is where the region gets it’s name: Langue (language, or literally tongue) d’Oc (from the ancient word for yes, in Occitan).  They’ve been under pressure from the French, of course, but lately there’s been more support for the old languages.

I remember back in the ’80s a fellow telling me that he his first language had been Oc, but he didn’t tell people, because it had become a nationalist statement he didn’t want to make.  He spoke French at school.

If you fancy a journey there, here’s a page that’s good place to begin learning about the area.

a matlese cross surrounded by dots
The device of Languedoc

So what were the qualities of the terroir that made it worth isolating this yeast?  What would you taste in a wine from Languedoc?  Farmers grow lots of grapes, rice, maize, olives, apples. artichokes, tomatoes, flowers, and the lavender for which the region has been famous for thousands of years (there is said to be a thriving market garden culture).  The soil runs from rocky to sandy to thick clay.  There are many microclimates, of course, but overall this is the most arid region of France.  The town with the hottest in-shade temperature record in the country is here.  These days there are sheep and goats in the hills for cheese production.  Fisherman bring shellfish, especially mussels and oysters.  It is mostly dry and hot, so the weeds will be the tough, scrubby kind, which are often pungent. From this you get a yeast that ferments at relatively high temperatures, and can withstand a pretty poor supply of nutrients.  It brings out the fruit character and balances sweetness with tannins pretty well.  All in all, now that it is available in homebrewer-sized packets again, I think I will have to prioritize getting my hands on some, and trying it with a basic recipe I know well, to see what it does.  I’ve been wanting to try a red wine pyment….


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1 Comment

  1. You seem to have your locations slightly mixed up. It would appear that Lalvin D21 is the “Maury” yeast that was alluded to in Brother Adams earlier writings. When it became unavailable (unsure of why that was, but the D21 “Maury” yeast is generally only available in commercial quantities), he then moved to using the “Montpellier” strain. It’s most likely that it was the locally (UK) packed version of that, that he used upto his death in the mid 90’s. So that would have most likely been the “Montpellier” strain available as Gervin Varietal “E”, which is now unavailable from Gervin (part of the Muntons group now), but it is available as Lalvin K1-V1116.

    Some of the publicity/marketing/advertising material from Lallemand points out that the D21 is a Maury yeast, and Maury is, in turn, an AOC region entirely surrounded by the Rousillon AOC region in the Languedoc.

    It’s fair to point out, that both D21 and K1-V1116 do have similar characteristics, but at the same time, D21 seems to be a little more specialist, and because it was isolated after the death of Bro Adam, there’s not real way of knowing whether it’s exactly the same strain as what was alluded to in his earlier writings, though it’s about as close as we’re likely to get.

    And yes, it does make a good mead, particularly a “traditional” type one…..

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