Why Aging Wine in Neutral Vessels is on the Rise in Argentina and Chile

A new generation of winemakers in Argentina and Chile are phasing out new oak and using concrete tanks, plastic bins and other neutral vessels to produce wine that's pure in flavor.
Photo by Matt Wilson

Nobody wants to be called a cement head. Unless you are Sebastián Zuccardi, Marcelo Retamal or another member of the burgeoning community of Argentinean and Chilean winemakers that is eschewing new oak in pursuit of cleaner, fresher, more site-specific wines. To anyone in this group, being labeled a cement head would be a compliment.

Among the new winemaking and vinicultural trends I observed during a recent trip to Argentina, the most radical and impactful is how many wineries in this country—as well as in neighboring Chile—are shifting away from stainless steel tanks and new 225-liter oak barrels, known as barricas, to macerate, ferment and age both red and white wines. Instead, they are prioritizing concrete tanks of all shapes and sizes.

“A wine held in concrete will be pure in flavor. It will taste only like wine, with no makeup.”—Marcelo Retamal

A prime example is Familia Zuccardi’s two-year-old winery in the Altamira section of Mendoza’s Uco Valley. This state-of-the-art facility, which is called Bodega Piedra Infinita (Infinite Stone) and cost an estimated eight figures to build and equip, does not house a single barrica. Not a one.

“I haven’t bought a new barrica in four years,” said Zuccardi when I met with him in March. “Any oak barrel that we have is 500 liters up to 2,500 liters. This bodega is all about cement, in all shapes and sizes. We have eggs, amphorae and conical cement tanks. Everything is rounded; nothing is square, just like in nature.”

Hold The Oak

A selection of Argentinean and Chilean wines fermented and aged entirely or in some combination of concrete, amphorae, stone lagares and plastic bins.

Argentina:

Matías Riccitelli The Party Malbec (Uco Valley)

Trapiche Finca El Milagro Malbec (Altamira)

Zuccardi Concreto Malbec (Paraje Altamira)

Chile:

Concha y Toro Marqués de Casa Concha Cinsault Rosé (Itata Valley)

Santa Rita Floresta Carmenère (Maipo Valley)

Viñedos de Alcohuaz Grus (Elqui Valley)

According to Zuccardi, one of Argentina’s most progressive new-generation winemakers, there are three sure ways to ruin a wine. One is relying on overripe fruit; two is overextracting during the maceration process; and third is overoaking. This is especially true for Malbec, which is Argentina’s and Zuccardi’s lifeblood.

“Cement doesn’t impart any aromas or flavors to a wine, whereas an oak barrel, especially a new barrica, always imparts those things,” said Zuccardi. “With cement, the wines see less micro-oxygenation and are generally more closed and tight, which is the style I want for our Malbecs.” Zuccardi’s Concreto and three Polígonos Malbecs are all made entirely in cement.

How Producers are Returning to Winemaking's Roots

West of the Andes, Retamal, the longtime head winemaker at De Martino and the lead partner in an Elqui Valley project called Viñedos de Alcohuaz, is another proponent of using cement, as well as clay amphorae and heavily used oak, for fermenting and holding wine.

“The difference between a wine aged in new oak versus one stored in concrete is enormous,” he said. “The aromas and flavors of a wine stored in a barrica will show the impact of oak and toast. A wine held in concrete will be pure in flavor. It will taste only like wine, with no makeup.”

Here’s to taking in some natural beauty.

Published on June 8, 2018
Topics: WInemaking
About the Author
Michael Schachner
Spanish and South American Editor

Reviews wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Michael Schachner is a New York-based journalist specializing in wine, food and travel. His articles appear regularly in Wine Enthusiast, where he is a longstanding contributing editor responsible for South America and Spain. Schachner reviews more than 2,000 wines annually for WE and regularly travels to Chile, Argentina and Spain to keep abreast of the constantly changing global wine map. Email: mschachner@wineenthusiast.net.




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