When it comes to the fermentation process, wine has been treated the same way for years. Varietals are fermented and aged in barrels (usually made from French or American oak) or in stainless steel tanks, depending on the type of wine. However, there is a new fermenting medium that is slowly, but consistently, growing amongst winemakers—using concrete to ferment and age wine. The practice began quietly taking hold in the market several years ago and is now becoming more prevalent as winemakers are looking to attract new sippers, while delivering newness to its current clientele.
Why Age Wine in Concrete?
“We like to use concrete to create density and complexity that is distinctive from our barrel-aged wines. Wines aged in concrete typically display a freshness and purity without competition from oak flavors and aromas,” says Brent McKoy, assistant winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery, located in Healdsburg, California.
Rachel Stinson Vrooman, winemaker at Stinson Vineyards, located in Crozet, Virginia, notes that the winery turned to concrete after looking for a way to add a new dimension to its sauvignon blanc without introducing oak.
“We ferment and age about half the wine in Nomblot egg-shaped concrete tanks. The rest undergoes a cooler temperature fermentation in stainless steel,” she says. “Unlike stainless steel, concrete is porous and allows for a controlled introduction of oxygen throughout the fermentation and aging processes. This helps with stability and ageability in the finished wine.”
While the process of aging in concrete may look different in every winery, McKoy explains that the process Gary Farrell uses is similar to the way the winery makes its traditional chardonnay.
During the process, the fruit is whole cluster pressed using a modified Champagne press program that is customized to the specific nature of the fruit on harvest day. After pressing, the juice and a hand-selected portion of solids are transferred directly to its concrete, egg-shaped fermenter. The juice will then complete both primary and secondary fermentation and remain on yeast lees for approximately seven to nine months, depending upon the maturation of the wine. The egg shape of these concrete aging products, he says, enables a more direct wine-to-lees ratio.
“There is also a notable element of minerality in these wines, with a delicate and effortlessly polished structure,” adds McKoy.
Are There Cons to Aging Wine in Concrete?
However, aging wine in concrete is not without challenges. The medium, notes McKoy, is less porous than wood and the level of oxygen the wine may receive is less than when it is aged in barrels. This, he says, may mean some extra legwork from winemakers before a vintage is good to go.
“This can, in some cases, cause the wine to become reductive, which is easily detectable during sensory evaluation. In that case, we simply rack the wine and clean off the lees to freshen it up prior to preparations for bottling,” he says.
Vrooman adds that the temperature can also be an issue when aging wine in concrete. She explains that the concrete eggs don’t have temperature controls, so the ferments are active and fast, and can be a bit stressful on the yeast. This can cause the wine to lose some aromatics, which is why Stinson ages only half in concrete and adds the sauvignon blanc aged in stainless steel to balance it out.
But, while aging in concrete may be challenging, Vrooman says that there is a trade-off when it comes to the finished product.
“The wine fermented in concrete has a very rich, textured mouthfeel. We do a lot of bâtonnage on these tanks—the oval shape helps keep lees in suspension. What we lose in aromatics we gain in body and texture. The stainless steel ferment may be prettier, but it’s also very straightforward. The concrete creates this great tension, which really becomes the backbone of the wine,” she says.
“The quality we most appreciate from these wines is the preservation of vineyard site specificity. The egg does an amazing job of highlighting the finer points of the vineyard while providing support for the natural structure of the wine,” adds McKoy.
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