Yeasts are predominant in the ancient and complex process of winemaking. In spontaneous fermentations, there is a progressive growth pattern of indigenous yeasts, with the final stages invariably being dominated by the alcohol-tolerant strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This species is universally known as the ‘wine yeast’ and is widely preferred for initiating wine fermentations. The primary role of wine yeast is to catalyze the rapid, complete and efficient conversion of grape sugars to ethanol, carbon dioxide and other minor, but important, metabolites without the development of off-flavours. However, due to the demanding nature of modern winemaking practices and sophisticated wine markets, there is an ever-growing quest for specialized wine yeast strains possessing a wide range of optimized, improved or novel oenological properties. This review highlights the wealth of untapped indigenous yeasts with oenological potential, the complexity of wine yeasts' genetic features and the genetic techniques often used in strain development. The current status of genetically improved wine yeasts and potential targets for further strain development are outlined. In light of the limited knowledge of industrial wine yeasts' complex genomes and the daunting challenges to comply with strict statutory regulations and consumer demands regarding the future use of genetically modified strains, this review cautions against unrealistic expectations over the short term. However, the staggering potential advantages of improved wine yeasts to both the winemaker and consumer in the third millennium are pointed out. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.