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Microbial Terroir:

The Unseen Element

Studied empirically for centuries, contemporary winemakers and wine consumers know terroir as the environmental factors that influence the flavour of the grapes and therefore the flavour of the wine.

Until recently, terroir was considered to be: terrain, soil, climate and human interaction. However, in the last few years, research has brought to the fore, an unseen fifth element – microbes.

In 2013, Professor Mills, et al, published a study in the American Society for Microbiology that highlighted the connection between certain types of mould and bacteria and the region-specific flavour of a given varietal. Their work ascertained certain microbes can be found across multiple regions as well as isolated in small geographic pockets within a single region. For winemakers and wine lovers, this could help explain the subtle variations found between neighbouring vineyards or even within the same vineyard.

While the science is not conclusive, academics and winemakers remain excited by the potential. With 1,500 species of yeast catalogued, the varied cocktail of microbes prevalent in any one location provides a seemingly infinite influence on a grape’s flavour profile.

To better understand the concept of microbial terroir we’ll take a step out of the wine industry and consider the food industry with Korean-American chef David Chang, founder of the hugely successful brand, Momofuku.

In his endeavours as a chef, David Chang looked to reinvent Katsuobushi. Katsuobushi is a dried, fermented and smoked tuna, which is shaved and used to create a multitude of Japanese staples (Miso, Soba noodle, Tsuke jiru, etc). During the process to create Katsuobushi, a yeast (Aspergillus glaucus) is deliberately inoculated into the fish to reduce moisture. It is believed this yeast also imparts a crucial yet undefined flavour into the fish.  The Japanese know this as Kokumi.

David Chang’s biggest argument is, without yeast and other microbes our food would lack that “special something which lives in every cuisine and every bottle of wine.”

“There’s a time and a place, there’s a season, there’s a time when you pick the fruit, there’s a time when it’s ripe… All of it has to do with so many variables that it’s almost infinite and that is the world of microbiology… We don’t realise these things are omnipresent, that you can’t see without the help of a powerful microscope; it’s what constitutes so much of our cuisine… food would taste very bland without it.” – David Chang

One of the most important commercial deductions Professor Mills, et al, made was that microbial terroir will be a driving force on regional preservation and classification. Microbial Terroir will continue to be the subject of conversation in the wine world for some time. As knowledge of this science develops, so too will the desire to use microbes to influence the flavour of our food and wine.