In winemaking there are distinctions made between ambient yeasts which are naturally present in wine cellars, vineyards and on the grapes themselves (sometimes known as a grape's "bloom" or "blush") and cultured yeast which are specifically isolated and inoculated for use in winemaking. The most common genus of wild yeasts found in winemaking include Candida, Klöckera/Hanseniaspora, Metschnikowiaceae, Pichia and Zygosaccharomyces. Wild yeasts can produce high-quality, unique-flavored wines; however, they are often unpredictable and may introduce less desirable traits to the wine, and can even contribute to spoilage. Traditional wine makers, particularly in Europe, advocate use of ambient yeast as a characteristic of the region's terroir; nevertheless, many winemakers prefer to control fermentation with predictable cultured yeast. The cultured yeasts most commonly used in winemaking belong to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae (also known as "sugar yeast") species. Within this species are several hundred different strains of yeast that be used during fermentation to affect the heat or vigor of the process and enhance or suppress certain flavor characteristics of the varietal. The use of different strains of yeasts are a major contributor to the diversity of wine, even among the same grape variety.
The addition of cultured yeast normally occurs with the yeast first in a dried or "inactive" state and is reactivated in warm water or diluted grape juice prior to being added to the must. To thrive and be active in fermentation, the yeast needs access to a continuous supply of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus as well as access to various vitamins and minerals. These components are naturally present in the grape must but their amount may be corrected by adding nutrient packets to the wine, in order to foster a more encouraging environment for the yeast. Oxygen is needed as well but in wine making the risk of oxidation and the lack of alcohol production from oxygenated yeast requires the exposure of oxygen to be kept at a minimum.
Upon the introduction of active yeasts to the grape must, phosphates are attached to the sugar and the six-carbon sugar molecules begin to be split into three-carbon pieces and go through a series of rearrangement reactions. During this process the carboxylic carbon atom is released in the form of carbon dioxide with the remaining components becoming acetaldehyde. The absence of oxygen in this anaerobic process allows the acetaldehyde to be eventually converted, by reduction, to ethanol. During the conversion of acetaldehyde a small amount is converted, by oxidation, to acetic acid which, in excess, can contribute to the wine fault known as volatile acidity (vinegar taint). After the yeast has exhausted its life cycle they fall to the bottom of the fermentation tank as sediment known as lees.
The metabolism of amino acids and breakdown of sugars by yeasts has the affect of creating other biochemical compounds that can contribute to the flavor and aroma of wine. These compounds can be considered "volatile" like aldehydes, ethyl acetate, ester, fatty acids, fusel oils, hydrogen sulfide, ketones and mercaptans) or "non-volatile" like glycerol, acetic acid and succinic acid. Yeast also has the effect during fermentation of releasing glycoside hydrolase which can hydrolyse the flavor precursors of aliphatics (a flavor component that reacts with oak), benzene derivities, monoterpenes (responsible for floral aromas from grapes like Muscat and Traminer), norisoprenoids (responsible for some of the spice notes in Chardonnay), and phenols. Some strains of yeasts can generate volatile thiols which contribute to the fruity aromas in many wines such as the gooseberry scent commonly associates with Sauvignon blanc. Brettanomyces yeasts are responsible for the "barnyard aroma" characteristic in some red wines like Burgundy Pinot noir.
During fermentation there are several factors that winemakers take into consideration. The most notable is that of the internal temperature of the must. The biochemical process of fermentation itself creates a lot of residual heat which can take the must out of the ideal temperature range for the wine. Typically white wine is fermented between 64-68 °F (18-20 °C) though a wine maker may choose to use a higher temperature to bring out some of the complexity of the wine. Red wine is typically fermented at higher temperatures up to 85 °F (29 °C). Fermentation at higher temperatures may have adverse effect on the wine in stunning the yeast to inactivity and even "boiling off" some of the flavors of the wines. Some winemakers may ferment their red wines at cooler temperatures more typical of white wines in order to bring out more fruit flavors.
To control the heat generated during fermentation the winemaker has to choose a suitable vessel size or to use cooling devices of various sorts from the ancient Bordeaux traditions of placing the fermentation vat on top of blocks of ice to today's modern use of sophisticated fermentation tanks with built in cooling rings.
A risk factor involved with fermentation is the development of chemical residue and spoilage which can be corrected with the addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2), although excess SO2 can lead to a wine fault. A winemaker who wishes to make a wine with high levels of residual sugar (like a dessert wine) may stop fermentation early either by dropping the temperature of the must to stun the yeast or by adding a high level of alcohol (like brandy) to the must to kill off the yeast and create a fortified wine.