Beyond the Barrel: Unique Ways to Ferment Wine

From amphorae to eggs and even glass, winemakers are experimenting with techniques and materials, some ancient, to push the boundaries of fermentation.
Wine in glass carboys / Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini. flickr

It’s quite common to see a person stick his or her nose in a glass, take a sip of wine and pronounce that it smells or tastes “oaky.” But have you ever heard of a wine tasting “concrete-y?” Or “amphora-y”? Concrete, clay and glass vessels have their own unique impact on a wine’s flavor.

Fermentation is a process that varies due to different factors. Which vessel they employ is only one of them. Climate, yeasts, and grape variety all can impact how fermentation happens. But the vessel is something a winemaker can control, and in some cases, it’s a chance to experiment.

It’s that experimentation which makes it all the more intriguing to stick your nose in a glass and wonder how the wine that you’re about to enjoy came to be.

We sought out winemakers around the world that ferment and age wine in vessels other than small barrels and stainless steel tanks to find out how these vessels impact a fermenting wine.

Clay Amphorae 

Clay amphora pots are most notably used to ferment wine in the Republic of Georgia, but they’ve been enjoying a resurgence worldwide.

In Oregon, ceramicist and winemaker at Beckham Estate Vineyard, Andrew Beckham has sparked a mini-renaissance of this millennia-old winemaking technique. He makes amphorae at his studio on a mountaintop in the Chehalem AVA of the Willamette Valley.

Oregon’s Artful Winemaker

Recently, Beckham gave an amphorae to his friend, Barnaby Tuttle, of the urban winery Teutonic Wines in nearby Portland.

Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wines, posing with his amphorae / Photo by author
Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wines, posing with his amphorae / Photo by author

Tuttle decided to put co-planted Gamay and Pinot Noir into the amphora after he started fermentation in a tank. To Tuttle’s surprise, the amphora wine turned out tannic and bold, and his customers were pairing it with steak.

He tried making the exact same wine in an old barrel. Comparing the two, he says that “the textural, flavor and aromatic difference is immense.” The wine aged in the unlined amphora is “chewier, richer, more complex with greater length” than the barrel-fermented and -aged wine.

Amphorae can even be found in the Right Bank of Bordeaux. For Guillaume La Garde, who has taken over winemaking at his family estate, Chateau Roland La Garde it’s an exciting experiment. The estate has embraced biodynamic practices since 2008, and La Garde feels that using amphorae is a natural extension.

Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot age in clay amphorae from Narbonne, France.

“The wines open better and faster than they do when in barrels,” says La Garde. “People can’t place the wine easily in Bordeaux when they taste it, but my father and I feel that you have to experiment.”

Concrete fermentation tanks by Italian manufacturer Nico Velo, in use at Okanagan Crush Pad / Photo by Lionel Trudel Photography
Concrete fermentation tanks by Italian manufacturer Nico Velo, in use at Okanagan Crush Pad / Photo by Lionel Trudel Photography

Concrete Eggs and Tanks

 In the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, a custom-crush facility, has specialized in wine made in concrete eggs and even trademarked the term, “Raised in concrete.”

Since 2011, the winery made nearly all the wines for its two labels, Haywire and Narrative, in six eggs made by Sonoma Cast Stone, one of the biggest concrete-tank producers in the U.S.

Concrete fermentation eggs at Okanagan Crush Pad
Concrete fermentation eggs at Okanagan Crush Pad / Photo by Lionel Trudel Photography

Winemaker Matt Dumayne cites temperature control as one of concrete’s assets. As opposed to stainless steel, concrete cools down in a way that he claims to be “slow and gentle,” due to the thickness of its walls.

The oval shape “creates a kind of vortex, and it prevents the lees from sticking to the bottom of the tank, and the suspended solids get much more contact with the wine,” says Dumayne. He says that it results in wine that’s “much more textural.”

Concrete tanks have long been used in many parts of the world, which predate the stainless steel tanks of the 1970s.

Joe Campanale, a New York City sommelier, recently began to make wine in Italy under the label Annona. He chose concrete tanks to ferment his light red Cerasuolo, as well as his Montepulciano.

“I like concrete because it’s neutral, but also slightly porous, so it allows for some oxygen exchange,” says Campanale. He feels concrete fermentation “can highlight the minerality in the wine, especially in a red wine.”

Secondary fermentation in a glass carboy / Getty
Secondary fermentation in a glass carboy / Getty

Glass Carboys

If you have a small amount of grapes, or if you’re looking to experiment with a tiny batch of juice, a five-gallon glass carboy is ideal for fermentation.

When Oregon winemaker Andy Young started out with his first vintage back in his home state of Texas in 2010, he used a carboy.

“I was taking an oenology class at a community college while working at an ad agency during the day,” he says. “A vineyard 12 hours from Dallas was offering to let people pick the fruit and keep it for free.”

Without thinking about logistics like what he would use for fermentation, Young dove in headfirst.

“[I] drove out there, picked maybe 300 pounds of fruit, rented a basket press nearby and made some wine [using glass carboys],” he says. Young cites fellow Oregon winemaker Sterling Whitted, who is also at the start of his career, and uses carboys to make experimental wines for his label Holden.

They do, however, have one major disadvantage.

“Carboys are notorious for being fragile,” says Young. “I put mine into milk jug baskets and carry them around that way. I’ve heard horror stories of people carrying them around and they break, and they cut people.”

Published on March 20, 2017
Topics: WInemaking


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