By Sarah Shotwell
When it comes to fermenting and aging wines, barrels have dominated the scene for awhile now. But that wasn’t always the case. These days, some hip, creative winemakers are turning to both new and old materials to up their oenology games.
French Oak Puncheons
The typical 225-liter barrels we see everywhere today are being challenged by larger, 500-liter puncheons and giant upright oak fermenters. Word is that our common, small barrels were designed for ease of use, but they can give off an oak characteristic that is too aggressive and concentrated for more delicate varietals. Winemakers all over the world are trying out larger vessels with varying aging times to find the perfect ratio of oak influence for each wine. Wine fermented and aged in French oak tends to take on toasty caramel and vanilla characteristics.
Stainless Steel Tanks
Fermenting and storing in stainless steel is a way winemakers can preserve crispness, acidity, and the purity of fruit. While oak is somewhat porous, stainless prevents all oxidation without imparting any new flavors. In a sense, what goes in is what comes out: fresh, clean, racy wines with strong fruit presentation. Long popular with whites, stainless steel is also being used for light, modern reds.
Excellent for sustainable temperature control in testy climates, concrete imparts elegant minerality to white wines, which, when grown in a hot weather, can turn too fruit-bomby for the palates of some experienced wine drinkers. Spot these tanks lining the walls of sustainable fermentation rooms in heat-hot regions like Paso Robles, California.
Excellent for red wines and classically suited to bold, Mediterranean varietals, the big, pink clay amphora is a throwback and a nod to the founding folks of high-end winemaking: the Romans. Making a comeback among both the nostalgic traditionalists and cutting-edge envelope-pushers, Amphore can be stored in a cellar, or buried in cool, damp earth for months at a time. The real die-hards go as far as lining these porous pots with beeswax. The effect on the wine is something earthy, mushroomy, and mysterious.
While many winemakers and wine drinkers are and will remain oak barrel loyalists till the bitter end, it’s hard to ignore that we’re living in a time when all bets are off, when the old can become new again, and when creativity and innovation are often rewarded with exciting results. Today’s pioneering winemakers give honor to the past while looking ahead, and whatever our palates demand, that is something we can all raise a glass to.