Explore what lies beyond oak in answer to the question of what else is wine aged in besides oak barrels!
We hope you're enjoying our new Ask The Expert series! Today we've got another great answer from a winemaker, this time on the question of "What else is wine aged in besides oak barrels?" While oak tends to get all the attention, there are other options out there that, much like oak, lend special nuances to the wine, depending on the goal of the winemaker.
To answer today's question we've enlisted the help of Christian Roguenant winemaker for Tangent Winery, which uses a number of different methods in producing their wines. Read on for some really interesting historical perspective and Christian's answer to the question: What Else Is Wine Aged In Besides Oak Barrels?
The oldest trace of wine was discovered 8,000 BC in northern France in the bottom of a clay pot. Analysis of the residues confirmed the presence of red wine with traces of dry tartaric acid, tannin and red skin pigments unique to grape fermentation.
Tracing back to 6,000 BC, a Georgian clay wine barrel, a cavernous terra-cotta pot shaped like an egg, lined with beeswax and buried to the mouth underground, was used to produce ancient white wines in large quantities. White wine made from these indigenous Georgian grapes show complex aromatics of dry fruit with some residual sugar with a distinctive golden hue.
Later the Romans introduced the amphora, a 10 to 15 gallons clay vessel used to ferment and age the wine. The amphora equipped with its two large side handles allowed to transport the finished wine by sea all over Europe and to the Middle East.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, wine was almost exclusively fermented and aged in wood vessels made from oak, acacia, and other woods, which imparts tannin for structure, flavors of cinnamon and vanilla, and small amount of oxygen to soften the wine during barrel maturation. Over the years, the only wood retained for wine vessels was oak, other types added undesirable flavors during aging.
From the first centuries following the Roman time, to the apparition of glass bottle at the end of the 18th century, the majority of the wine was shipped and poured in taverns or inns and restaurants, out of small oak barrels that could be easily moved and re-cycled (named quarto or feuillette), similar to the modern stainless keg used today.
The concrete tank came about one hundred years ago and changed the wine industry significantly. The surface of this vessel added minerality, a chalky character and richness to the wine, and by allowing the red wine to stay warmer in tanks, a better tannin extraction at the end of fermentation. The surface of the concrete was fragile and those tanks were soon lined-up with glass tile or epoxy paint. These new linings improved tank maintenance and wine quality but the thickness of the concrete made it difficult to keep a consistent low temperature for white wine fermentation.
Today concrete tanks are best for reds and stainless for white wines fermentation. Fifty to sixty years ago, stainless steel vessels took over the world of winemaking. They are easy to clean, allow excellent temperature regulation, and are virtually maintenance free and are easily transportable.
At our Tangent Winery located on our estate Paragon Vineyard in the Edna Valley, we ferment and mature the majority of our wines in temperature controlled, small to medium size stainless steel tanks. Tangent focuses on cool climate alternative white wines ranging from Albariño to Pinot Gris, to Viognier, to Grenache Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Our goal is to showcase these wines and their unique characteristics in their rawest unaltered form. Bright fragrant aromatics are essential to all of these wines. Fermenting and aging in stainless steel tanks allows us to achieve this. This insures freshness and preserves varietal character.
The yeast choice selected to ferment white wines is essential to bring more complexity to the wine such as fruitiness, richness, structure, texture. We have equipped the winery with 100 stainless barrels, which allow us to annually experiment with different yeast types. These small barrels are essentially mini tanks, but allow us to keep small experimental lots separate.
We also ferment and mature a small lot of Albariño in two seven-foot tall concrete eggs to add minerality, creaminess and richness. The presence of the porous concrete adds micro amounts of oxygen during fermentation and the natural convection movement of the yeast slowly stirred in the egg due to its shape during aging (autolysis), gives to this limited production wine its richer and more yeasty character.
Special thanks to Christian Roguenant, Winemaker for Tangent Winery and the Niven Family portfolio which also produces True Myth, Baileyana and Zocker for answering our question on what else is wine aged in besides oak barrels!
Have a burning question of your own? Shoot us a tweet or a message on our Facebook page and we'll line up an expert to get you an answer! In the meantime you can peruse all of our Expert Answers here!