Concrete has been used for many in years in winemaking, for fermentation, blending and aging. I remember when I first became interested in wine in South Africa, standing in a winery where punch downs were being carried out. Planks were used to span the concrete tanks, called “kuipe.” The cellar hands stood on the planks to do the tough work of punching down to break up and submerge the cap for the production of red wine. Physically taxing but that was how it was done and the results were good. With time, the concrete tanks were replaced by roto fermenters and stainless steel fermenters with cooling possibilities. Gradually, the concrete tanks fell into disuse. Since they were often a part of the winery structure, they were difficult to remove, needing to be jack-hammered or painstakingly demolished with sledgehammers. Many were converted to bottle storage and other uses.
One benefit of using well designed concrete tanks, those with the correct dimensions, was some control over fermentation temperatures at a time when cooling was not readily available.
There were problems associated with the use of concrete, amongst them being:
- Corrosion due to acids in the must
- Difficult to clean and sterilize
- Difficulty of temperature control
- Difficulty preventing oxygen access as fermentations slowed down
The more serious of these issues were overcome by some winemakers who persevered for numerous reasons, often to do with finances, but also a belief in the qualities of the tanks. Winemakers modified their concrete tanks in some of the following ways:
- Lined tanks with glass or ceramics to prevent corrosion by the acids
- These lining made the tanks easier to clean
- Made lids for the tanks with inflatable borders to provide an airtight seal
- Added cooling coils to the tanks
As winemakers assessed the use of the newer fermentation vessels, many began to realize some often overlooked qualities of concrete tanks with the correct dimensions: some degree of automatic temperature control and better than decent wine quality.
Fast forward to the 2000’s. Michel Chapoutier of Rhone fame, worked with a vat supplier, Nomblot, to design what is now the chicest, coolest, winery addition; the concrete egg. The egg retains the positive characteristics of concrete, such as temperature control, less potential for reduction than stainless steel and none of the oak uptake that occurs in wooden vats. In addition, the egg shape causes a natural movement in the tank during fermentation which leads to greater homogeneity of the contents and temperature.
Adopters of concrete eggs praise the texture, mouthfeel and volume of their wines compared to other tanks. They appreciate the good degree of temperature control without requiring additional cooling. The negative with respect to acid corrosion still exists but, as previously, tanks will become lined with tartaric acid after a few uses and that will prevent corrosion. But, concrete eggs are expensive and very heavy so transportation is expensive. They will last longer than barrels so the longer amortization could bring overall costs down.
At this level, it’s really all about ratcheting quality ever higher. Don’t expect to see budget priced concrete egg wines any time soon.
Cheers to our most dedicated producers for their expensive experiments and our increased enjoyment!
GreatWine2U.com does not have any concrete egg wines at present but will do soon.
In the meanwhile, if you wish to try a wine with texture and amplitude, click on the bottle below.
Selected by Peter Koff MW
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