Is Concrete the way to go?

By Tim Pawsey

A few years ago during a visit to Murcia, in the searing heat of a Spanish summer, we were ushered into a simple, two-centuries-old building. An old farmhouse turned winery, its thick, stone walls offered instantaneous relief in contrast to the baked outside. And below us was a cellar with a large concrete vat.

From clay urns to amphorae and vats, stone and soil worked in various forms have played a role in the history of winemaking and storage over the ages. Travel the world enough and you’ll find evidence everywhere, from small batch fermenters to giant 20,000-litre concrete vats that were once the mainstays of local co-ops from Yecla to Maipo.

With the onset of “modern” (as in “sterile”) winemaking, most of those massive, hard to clean, old vats fell into disuse, as stainless steel became the more logical medium for most wines not kept in oak. Even the few tanks that do remain in use have been reconditioned with a prophylactic liner of some kind.

In the last few years, however, concrete’s star has risen again, spurred in part by an interest in natural winemaking, greater attention in the New World to terroir and what might loosely be described as “authenticity.”


enter the egg

Evidently more than a passing fad, egg-shaped concrete fermenters have grown rapidly in popularity over the last few years, particularly since being brought into service by luminaries such as Michel Chapoutier and Loire biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly.

As many have pointed out, there’s nothing new in the idea of the concrete tank itself, which has been around for at least a couple of centuries, if not longer. However, what’s revolutionary in the modern incarnation is the use of the egg shape itself — and its link to the Golden Ratio. Sometimes referred to by the 21st letter in the Greek alphabet, Phi, the ratio pops up in several examples of ancient architecture, ranging from the Great Pyramids to the Parthenon.

In the modern era, the concrete vat was developed by French pioneer Nomblot, who’s been making concrete tanks since 1922. Curiously, the company used to specialize in mausoleums until one day (as luck would have it, at a funeral) a winemaker asked if they could put a valve on a mausoleum. Nomblot obliged — and a new industry was born.

It was pioneering Chapoutier who kick-started the current trend, commissioning his first egg-shaped fermenter in 2001. He worked with the manufacturer to come up with a design that was an evolution from the kinds of amphorae used in Roman times, though with some necessary adjustments.

The Nomblot recipe — now widely emulated — is entirely natural, using no chemical additives.


the trailblazers

BC’s most proactive early adopter, Okanagan Crush Pad, incorporated concrete eggs into its plans as soon as the winery hit the drawing board. When owners Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie unveiled their plans in 2010, they had a fermenter specially shipped in to Vancouver from California’s Sonoma Cast Stone, as the idea was still quite novel at the time. Since then, in a relatively brief five years, in wine terms, OCP has all but eliminated oak from its winemaking, focusing entirely on concrete.

Their current concrete capacity totals some 60,000 litres, shared between 17 different vessels, most of which are 4,500-litre volume eggs, along with half a dozen 2000-litre fermenters.

Coletta says the winery is so maxed out, that for their last shipment they could only find room for five, not six fermenters. (The only barrels left on the property (aside from those used for clients’ products) are employed for Haywire’s port-style wine.

Their philosophy has been shaped with consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini, who continues to work with concrete fermenters around the globe. It’s very much an extension of his approach to natural winemaking.

concrete: a life of its own

When OCP was launched, Antonini summarized his observations of concrete as follows: “In my experience, concrete is very good, especially if you want to ferment with wild yeast.” He insists that the use of concrete provides for a much better environment than stainless steel.

“When you smell an empty concrete tank you smell life … which is important when making a premium wine.” Not known for mincing his words, he added: “When you do the same with stainless steel you smell death. To me, the making of premium wine is about life, not death …”

Concrete eggs don’t come cheaply, and in some earlier instances there were issues with the expensive fermenters being cracked or damaged in shipment. Sonoma Cast Stone’s fermenters are lighter than the traditional design, and incorporate concealed glycol tubing for temperature control, as well as racking and tasting valves, and a cleaning trap. By using two different types of concrete — traditional for the liner and reinforced Earthcrete for the outside — the company gains a significant weight reduction, which allows more volume to weight.

Concrete eggs are definitely on a roll in the Okanagan, with a number of wineries, from Laughing Stock to Culmina incorporating them into their programs. Laughing Stock (which began began using concrete egg fermenters in 2009) has three, nicknamed Free Range, Scrambled, and Benedict. They’re also working with Italian amphorae, all to create fuller texture without the influence of oak. In Ontario, early adopters include Peller Estates, Pearl Morissette, Tawse and Hidden Bench.


Michel Chapoutier

Michel Chapoutier

but can you really tell the difference? 

Like an increasing number of winemakers, Antonini and OCP winemaker Matt Dumayne have now had plenty of opportunities to compare wines fermented in cement to those fermented in stainless steel and oak. In a few tastings over the last couple of years I’ve been struck by the difference and impressed particularly by the texture afforded by the concrete wines. The change in the Haywire bottlings over the last few years has been especially apparent.

A recent Vancouver tasting conducted by Emiliana winemaker Noelia Orts included a comprehensive look at the history of of oak and wine vessels, as well as some interesting comparisons of the same wine in barriques and foudres (large oak vats). Orts also points to the numerous benefits associated with concrete eggs, ranging from their breathability, keeping the wine cool but always in movement, as well as giving more substance and life to the lees, which cling to the wall of the egg. The curved egg design also interacts with the gasses given off during fermentation to promote a constant, rolling current; and reduces the need to punch down the cap as often as with conventional fermenter designs.

In direct comparisons, the clarity, depth and relative complexity of the egg wines, across the board, with a number of varieties, was dramatically noticeable.


everything old is new …

Even if concrete eggs are getting all the glory, there’s also been a resurgence in that most ancient of vessels, the amphora. These earthenware jars closely resemble the earliest vessels used in winemaking. And they too are very much connected to the natural movement, that aims to make wine in the purest and most traditional way possible, with the minimum of intervention.

Over the last few years, Chile’s De Martino Winery has made a point of hunting down as many of the old Tinajas jars it can find, to support its program of reintroducing indigenous varieties, and making wines with traditional techniques.

The winery has won worldwide praise for the likes of its Viejas Tinajas Cinsault (which Britain’s Jancis Robinson described as “extraordinary” and “so fresh and pure that it washes over the palate like the gentlest of waves … ”).

Among BC winemakers experimenting with amphorae is Mission Hill’s Darryl Brooker, who’s been tasting and collecting amphora wines from around the world. After Brooker ordered his own clay amphora from Chianti in 2013, he decided to make a natural CedarCreek Cabernet Sauvignon, from Desert Ridge vineyard in Osoyoos.

The winemaker says that his biggest surprise was how hard it was to do nothing. “All I wanted was to open up the amphora and sample the wine. However, this would have spoiled the trial.”

However, even though no preservatives, yeast or malolactic bacteria were added, the otherwise highly traditional wine did receive one modern concession: It was finished in stainless steel for eight weeks.


going local: a unique approach

Not everyone is inclined to invest considerable dollars in egg fermenters or amphora replicas, although some wineries have pursued some ingenious avenues to implement their own style of program.

In the Similkameen Valley, Orofino Winery has a well earned reputation for being innovative: When owners John and Virginia Weber started out (in 2001) they built the first straw bale winery in the country.

Noticing the trend to concrete, John was suitably intrigued but also reluctant to invest the funds needed for eggs, whether shipped from California, France, or Italy.

Weber’s more practical and entirely local solution involved a quick jaunt down the road to nearby Osoyoos and a visit to South Okanagan Concrete Products. From them he purchased a couple of sections of standard, precast concrete, large diameter water pipe sections. The bottom of the tank was cambered for easier cleaning; and custom fittings and valves were made by Ripley Stainless of Summerland, BC.

Weber sourced Syrah grapes from nine-year-old vines on a neighbouring hot and rocky site above the Similkameen river, very typical of the region. And then he went to work. Or rather, didn’t. The grapes were lightly crushed in one-ton open fermenters, hand punched down three times daily. Once fermented, the wine was placed in the converted concrete pipe tanks for five months.

The hardest part, says the winemaker, was leaving the wine entirely to its own devices — echoing the sentiments of Mission Hill’s Darryl Brooker. The project turned out to be a great success, with the Wild Ferment Syrah brought to market within eight months of being harvested. And that tank, laughs Weber, must be a better expression of local terroir than anything imported.

As the winemakers push for purity, less intervention and more local expression in the bottle continues to shape our wine culture — not to mention the added appeal of being able to bring wines to market more quickly — there’s little doubt that this 21st resurgence of concrete and clay will continue.

A Taste Of Concrete

Emiliana Signos 2015 sample: Barrel/Large Oak (Foudre)/Concrete Egg

A comparative tasting of the Chardonnay component revealed the concrete egg’s ability to add richness and mouthfeel, but the wine was devoid of associated oak flavours, such as vanilla or buttery notes. While the wine, which had spent time in foudre (large oak), was less overtly oaky than the barrel-aged wine, the absolute clarity, varietal expression, complexity and texture of the wine, which had spent the same amount of time in concrete egg was quite profound.

Emiliana Signos de Origen White Blend 2014, Casablanca ($25)

Chardonnay 67%/Viogner 18%/Roussanne 8%/Marsanne7%

Creamy and floral notes on top, followed by a luscious, quite juicy palate with generous mouthfeel, with some nutty hints and tropical tones wrapped in well balanced acidity. Pair with richer white fish and seafood plates. Concrete egg fermented, with partial barrel-aged portion.

Haywire Switchback Pinot Gris 2014, Okanagan ($25)

Arguably one of the best examples of a ‘concrete’ wine to date. Organically-grown grapes from Haywire’s original, definitely cool climate and southeast facing vineyard, in Summerland, high above the west shore of Lake Okanagan. Orchard fruits on top, followed by remarkably textured mouthfeel, excellent balance of fruit and acidity with mineral hints and a lengthy finish.

CedarCreek Amphora Wine Project: Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 VQA, Okanagan ($53)

Suppleness and approachability, with freshness of character and complexity, announced by intense aromas of lively, fresh red and dark berry fruits, followed by layers of redcurrant and herbal hints with earthy undertones and cedar, all unmasked by oak — a pure expression of the varietal. Brooker says the 2014 is “equally exciting.”

Orofino Wild Ferment Syrah 2014, Similkameen ($30)

A lovely expression of Syrah, very clean and lineal, with lifted blue and black fruit, some meaty hints, stony notes, lingering pepper and well-integrated, approachable tannins. And it’s untouched by oak. A remarkable wine on many levels, well worth tracking down from the winery. Only 90 cases made.

Chapoutier Bila Haut Roussillon Villages 2013, Midi, France ($18)

Affordable red shows off schist and limestone terroir perhaps just a little more thanks to fermentation and some time spent in concrete. Medium bodied blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Carignan yields mulberry, blackberry and peppery notes before a well integrated, earthy and mineral toned, vibrant and juicy palate with good acidity and approachable tannins before a lingering, fresh fruit finish.

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