Winemakers fermented wine in oak barrels for centuries, then came stainless steel—especially for fruit-focused whites in the 20th century. Then came concrete. Concrete?
Welcome to the 21st century. In some ways, concrete offers the best of oak and stainless. Wine making technology using concrete vessels began to emerge in the 1950s, but its advantages date back to amphora in times before Christ. Two millennia later it blossoms again.
Oak barrels are a mixed blessing—significant impact on flavor, often a good thing, but not always. When a barrel is new, oak imparts flavors, sometimes excessively, engendering “oak monster” wines. When oak barrels are old, bacteria and other unwanted elements cause problems unless the vessels are meticulously cleaned. Oak also allows contact with oxygen, often a good thing, but also problematic.
Stainless steel is cleaner, more controlled, and allows no contact with oxygen. But winemakers balk when stainless produces sterile, sharp, linear wine that never breathed air and are too austere.
Cometh concrete. Unlike stainless, concrete tanks are not uniform and contain thousands of tiny pockets that trap air and allow wine limited contact with oxygen. Unlike oak, concrete tanks do not impart additional flavors, allowing the fruit to take center stage. Wines finished in concrete tanks often are bright, fruit-forward, with excellent texture and minerality, but also somewhat softened by the limited contact with oxygen. Best of both worlds.
Concrete tanks vary from large vats to smaller egg-shaped containers. More and more winemakers turn to this seemingly astonishing material. Well, not so astonishing. Long before oak and stainless steel, Greek and Roman winemakers made wine in ceramic amphorae. It worked well 2,000-plus years ago, and—by gosh—it is the “next big thing” today. Welcome to the wonderful whirl of the wine world.
• M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé (Pays d’Oc) 2016: Delightful rosé with vivid fruit and acidity; fermented in concrete tanks. $12-13 Full review of the wine
• Agro de Bazán Granbazán Albariño Etiqueta Ambar 2015: Premium example of food-friendly albariño, creamy texture, fermented in concrete tanks. $19-25 Full review of the wine
• Domaine Maxime Graillot Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Lises 2011: Bacon on nose and palate, assertive tannins, hefty big-boy wine fermented primarily in concrete tanks. $26-31 Full review of the wine
Last round: I stumbled into bed and she exclaimed: “You drank too much wine.” I asked her how she knew. She said: “Because you live next door.”