Egg-shape fermenters

In the wine world, something dramatically new and innovative—“concrete eggs”—actually is as old as winemaking.

Most wine today is fermented and finished in stainless steel or wooden containers. Stainless advantages include cleanliness, tight control of temperature, emphasis on fruit expression and freshness. The downside: austerity, reduced softening of mouthfeel and tannins.

Oak allows for oxygenation, which softens mouthfeel and tannins and adds flavors such as vanilla, clove, spices, smoke, and coconut. Those flavors also inspire criticism, the most emphatic being the “oak monster” moniker for big, bold, super rich California red wines and chardonnays.

Concrete eggs fall in the middle. There is not as much oxygenation as oak, much more than steel. No added flavors. And not all egg-shaped fermenters are concrete: ceramic, terra cotta, and permeable plastic materials also work.

Egg advocates assert the ovoid shape makes the magic. Claim: the smooth, curved internal surface promotes a natural current inside. As yeast ferments wine, the wine becomes lighter and rises to the top of the fermenter. Cooler wine sinks, resulting in a continuous convection current.

Convection keeps the lees (spent yeast) in suspension, building texture and flavor. In stainless steel and oak barrels, agitation of the lees—battonage—must be done manually. Stirring is performed weekly in barrels, twice a week in stainless steel. In egg fermenters, maybe once a month.

Michel Chapoutier, major winemaking force in the Rhône, pioneered concrete eggs in 2001. There is irony in the modern breakthrough. The earliest winemaking vessels date back 8,000 years. You guessed it, the vessels were ovoid shaped “qvevri.” Qvevri, in fact, have never gone away and are used in eastern Europe, particularly in Georgia (the country, not the state). Another shape, amphora, developed a few thousand years after qvevri also continue to be used.

Concrete eggs, the latest greatest thing in wine fermentation, actually is the oldest things in wine fermentation.

Tasting notes:

• Cellier des Dauphins Reserve Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2019: Perfect summertime rosé, tangy flavors, zippy acidity. $11-15 Link to my review

• Codorníu Cuvée Clasico Brut Cava NV: Very pleasant, easy drinking Spanish bubbly. $14 Link to my review

• Trinchero Napa Valley Mary’s Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2018: Vibrant acidity. Tropical fruit. Fun, easy drinker. $22-24 Link to my review

• The Prisoner Wine Company Saldo Zinfandel 2017: Smooth, delicious, and fills the mouth with joy and pleasure. $27-29 Link to my review

Last round: The invisible man turned down the sommelier job. He said he couldn’t see himself doing it.