In the last “episode” of Millesima Tips, we explored the maturation process of wine, distinguishing it from bottle-ageing and detailing the two most common techniques: barrel and stainless steel maturation. But while these two types of containers are used to age the grand majority of wines around the world, they represent just two phases of the long evolution of wine storing vessels throughout time. In the second part of Millesima Tips #4 we will take a closer look at the alternatives, along with what came both before the barrel and after the steel tank.
Before Oak: The Clay Amphora
While the production of fine wine is often associated with maturation in oak barrels, these containers were not originally used for this purpose. The ancient Egyptians, followed by the ancient Greek and then the Roman Empire, used standardised clay amphorae to transport and store wine. These containers varied in size but had in common a long, narrow neck (to reduce exposure to oxygen) and a tapered bottom (for collecting sediment). It wasn’t until the Roman Empire expanded and the armies marched further and further into Europe that the amphora was replaced with a more practical vessel, the oak barrel. The Romans adapted this technology from the Gauls, who used oak barrels for the transportation of beer. The barrels were stronger than clay while weighing significantly less and they could be rolled on the side, which amphorae could not. Oak trees were also abundant in Europe and thus relatively cheap to produce. The characteristic effects of oak on the flavour of the wine were a secondary consideration, a “happy accident” that eventually led to the long-standing tradition of barrel-ageing wine.
It wasn’t until the end of the 21st century that the use of amphorae in winemaking was rediscovered in Georgia. Here, the earthenware vessels are known as kvevri and are either buried below ground or stored in wine cellars. These wines tend to be naturally stable with robust tannins. Since wine made in amphorae does not require treatment with chemical preservatives and since the clay vessel amplifies the natural flavours in the juice (rather than shaping them with the natural properties of the oak), amphorae are becoming especially popular among proponents of biodynamic winemaking. Maturation in amphorae is currently becoming a trend in parts of Italy, France and the USA.
After Steel: The Concrete Egg
Concrete tanks have long been used for the fermentation and maturation of wines. Though this practice fell out of fashion a few decades ago, some parts of France – including Burgundy and Bordeaux – continued it. With the help of Nomblot, a French company that has been producing concrete vats since the 1920’s, Michel Chapoutier designed the first concrete egg from Loire sand, gravel, unchlorinated spring water and cement. Eventually, news of this peculiarly shaped vessel spread and now concrete has replaced steel as the “trendy” wine container. The shape of these vessels is believed to encourage the continuous flow of wine as it ages, resulting in a more homogeneous product. This circulation also lends depth, volume and texture to the wine, rounding out its mouthfeel. The wine is also insulated and protected by the thick walls of concrete, which protect it from the unstable exterior climate. And because the surface of concrete hold pockets of oxygen, the wine inside is allowed to breathe, just as it does in oak barrels. Rather than acquiring the characteristic aromas, flavours and mouthfeel from the oak, the wine is left to express the purity of its fruit but with more aromatic complexity and a richer mouthfeel than wine matured in stainless steel.
Finally, these eggs fit nicely into the biodynamic winemaking movement. In fact, the original creator of the concrete egg was an avid supporter of biodynamic agriculture. Chapoutier believed that the egg shaped container concentrates celestial energy that keeps the wine inside moving. Be it mystical energy or complex thermodynamics, winemakers agree that concrete tanks hold unique benefits, resulting in fruit-forward, well-rounded wines.
Alternative Materials for Maturation of Wine
The elaboration of wine is a continually evolving art form. The finished bottle of wine is the product of a chain of processes, among which some are natural and others man-made. Maturation is the process of “finishing” the wine after it ferments and before it is bottled. This can take place in a wide array of containers, whose shape, size, style and material has changed countless times throughout history. Ancient techniques, like amphora-ageing, have been brought back. Others, like concrete tank ageing, have evolved in ways to become trendy again. Besides clay, oak, stainless steel and concrete, wine can also be matured in tanks made of laminated polyester, enamelled steel, fiberglass and even plastic.
While oak barrels are still most widely associated with fine wines, it is important to remember that the latter were also once a new invention. It is difficult to improve upon nature, yet the human side of the winemaking process is always changing, always adopting new technology with the aim to perfect the finished taste.