By: Max Wolod
“Wait…Did you say concrete?!” “Yes! Concrete!”
As many wine aficionados know, concrete and wine have gone hand in hand since time immemorial. Well, maybe not quite that long but ancient enough that it is an age-old vessel of wine fermentation!
When many think about how wine was made in ancient times, we like to believe that the Greeks were stomping around gleefully in their flowing togas. However, this was not always so.
Concrete as a fermentation and aging vessel for wines goes waaaaay back…
- Ancient Greece (amphorae/ceramic vessels)
- Historical French wine-making in Bordeaux and the Rhone; also Spain, etc.
The tradition continued in Europe but was shunned in the US during the “new wave” of American winemaking starting a few decades ago.
Benefits of Concrete
Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all
– Wineries spend a RIDICULOUS amount of money on cooperage…
- It’s a bit difficult to get specific costs associated with cooperage (for obvious reasons), but for standard 60g barrels…
– New American Oak – around $400/barrel
– Good/fancy/famous French Oak – $700-$1000
- A big winery might spend $2M on cooperage per year!
– Concrete is not as porous as barrels, so regardless of shape, evaporation loss is quite small compared with barrels.
– The American concrete industry standard “NuBarrel” is 240G capacity; it’s approximately $2K more than the aggregate cost of 4 standard oak barrels ($6500), BUT…
- Oak lasts 4-6 years – disregarding use after neutrality – concrete can last 40-60 years! à DURABILITY BABY!!!
“Sweet spot” between stainless and oak…
Concrete is porous on a microscopic scale, allowing for SLOW micro-oxygenation.
Wine fermented in concrete has the round mouthfeel of wine fermented in oak, but it has much greater purity of fruit flavor, even a greater intensity of fruit color, a la stainless.
Noticeable differences in texture and perceived volume
”Reds come out more accessible, earlier, than wines from stainless fermentations.”
“Whites get the richness of barrel fermentation, which doesn’t happen in steel, without any oak character, while retaining the aromatic complexity that might be preserved in steel.”
“It don’t get too hot, it don’t get too cold!”
- Thermal Inertia
– The sheer mass of concrete containers, with walls 4 inches or more thick (full of tiny, insulating air bubbles), moderates temperature changes and prevents sudden heat spikes (natural insulator).
– If a winemaker needs a heating or cooling plate as an insert, that can be arranged.
– The thermal properties of concrete create unique fermentation kinetics, naturally encouraging a kind of cold soak at the slow start of the fermentation cycle and holding temperatures constant for extended maceration afterward.
The Liechtenstein of Wine Vessels…
- Concrete is entirely neutral, imparting no flavors of its own, thereby mimicking the advantage of steel over wood: the upsides of both methods without the downside of either (sweet spot y’all!).
– “Concrete lets the terroir that shaped the grapes shine through, not shrouded in oak, not masked by reduction.”
- That said…what if we want some oak up in thurrr?
– Concrete GOT you…
- Internal array of oak staves
- Removable sleeve of oak chips
- Blending with traditional oak-aged juice
How ‘bout some hippy-dippy stuff?
- Michel Chapoutier (took over Maison M. Chapoutier in ‘77), top Hermitage producer for generations and SUPER advocate for bio-D, claimed the shape of the egg concentrated celestial energy.
- He was hanging with a guy from Nomblot (big French stone/concrete manufacturer) at a funeral; “Yo, one of those nice little monuments would make a great fermentor.”
- For a while, the sizes were apparently described as three-body, six-body and so on.
- In an egg-shaped concrete fermentation tank, the juice motion is a swirl, circling from top to bottom, naturally stirring the sediment to provide complexity – it’s celestial baby…and it looks sooooo dope!
- With no corners, the wine is free to circulate naturally during fermentation, and you can actually watch the wine move during this process of constant stirring.
- The shape also forces more of the cap to remain submerged, gleaning the utmost in fruit flavor and color for your wine and reducing your need for punchdown.
Detriments of Concrete Does it suck? Why does it suck?
It’s heavy as hell (relative to stainless/wood)…
Ease of movement on-site/modularity (need a big-ass forklift)
Upfront cost (bigger outlay than for oak or stainless)
Concrete tanks need to be “cured” before by rinsing surfaces with a strong solution of tartaric acid to neutralize the surface.
Care must also be taken in cleaning concrete; it can handle scrubbing and cleaning agents better than barrel wood, but not hot water or steam, which will lead to cracks.
“Fakin’ the funk” (can staves/inserts really replicate true oak-aging?)
And there you have it Ladies and Gents. Concrete: the coolest way to make vino. Cheers!