The first time most folks hear that someone is using concrete containers for making wine, they cringe. Bleh! Who wants their wine to convey a chalky cement taste? Doesn’t white oak impart the characteristics a winemaker wants and/or needs with their grapes to bring out the best in a vintage? Actually, no, not all wines and not all vintners want an oak flavor or aroma in the wine.
That’s where concrete comes in. Concrete wine barrels – which have a little mix of clay in them – have been around for a couple centuries, at one time aiding the wine industry as a vessel of choice. It should be noted the first wine containers were Amphoras, which were essentially made of ceramic (and clay) – not wood. Europe is where concrete first started, mainly in France.
With concrete, the keyword you will find over and over is mouthfeel. Steel doesn’t impart much of anything other than a harshness along with not allowing the wine to breath – complexities in the wine can get lost. Concrete breathes like oak, however, unlike oak, concrete allows for a truer taste or mouthfeel. Also, the terms ‘fresh’ and ‘clean’ are used when describing the affect concrete has on wine. Concrete storage vessels were used in the past but eventually were replaced by steel. It is apparent a reversal is in the works.
The latest evolution of the concrete vat is the egg shape. The shape was found to allow the wine to move around and not get stuck in edges like a wooden or steel cask. Without going into specifics, an egg has a slight temperature degree difference between the top and bottom and this creates a natural circulation.
White wine appears to benefit more from the science of an egg-shaped concrete container. The thicker walls of the concrete method give an easier and cooler fermentation process. Again, this offers a better mouthfeel.
Moving is an issue
The reason concrete hasn’t taken off, other than the fact the world of winemaking is slow to change, is due to the cost of these big and heavy concrete vessels. Also, the shear weight and odd contours for moving make these vats a challenge to handle. Special forklifts are needed to move the heavy containers around. In addition to the difficulties with concrete is cleaning. When something is found to work in cleaning the insides, it can also degrade the surface. By the way, at the end of aging, a lot of winemakers will transfer the wine from the concrete barrels into oak for a brief time.
Another problem with these concrete eggs is costs. Relatively speaking, although the investment is not much more than an oak barrel, shipping a concrete vessel isn’t cheap. The main manufacturer (Nomblot) is from Burgundy, France, which has made the freight situation expensive. New makers of these vessels are starting to pop up including in the United States and that should reduce shipping costs.
It will be interesting to see if this trends continues and more winemakers shelve oak or steel for concrete. Like our motto says, “What’s old is new again”, could apply to the concrete wine barrel. Concrete – Who knew?
Additional sources: Wine Spectator
Daryle W. Hier