concrete versus conventional steel vats or oak barrels

When B.C. vintners Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie decided to give friends the scoop about their radical plan to make wine entirely in concrete versus conventional steel vats or oak barrels, they threw a house party featuring the strangest lawn ornament in Vancouver history. The two-ton black egg, with a built-in pedestal base, measured almost three metres high and had to be manoeuvred into place in their backyard with a construction crane.

Built in California by a company called Sonoma Cast, the concrete fermenter was en route to Okanagan Crush Pad, the couple’s winery in Summerland B.C. Its proud owners figured a few local sommeliers and consultants in the big city might get a kick out of its unusual design before it made the four-hour trip eastward. Turns out a few uninvited neighbours became intrigued, too, wandering over to ensure, I suspect, that it wasn’t a UFO or some mammoth bylawcontravening barbecue smoker.

“It looked as though some bizarre garden sculpture or spaceship had been dropped off,” Coletta said. “It created quite a stir.”

Four years later, Coletta and Lornie own six of the 2,000-litre black eggs as well as 11 white Italian– made vessels that measure more than twice the size and look like the Michelin Man had swallowed a giant marshmallow. They’re thrilled with their concrete jungle in the country and with what it’s apparently doing for the texture and flavour of wines produced under their Haywire and Narrative brands. “They have an unbelievable mouth feel, a milky creaminess,” Coletta said. “And the wines are very vibrant.”

Okanagan Crush Pad is not the only winery stepping into concrete, so to speak. The list is long and filled with illustrious names, from Laughing Stock Vineyards in nearby Naramata B.C., to dozens of top California estates, including Staglin, Cliff Lede and Saxum.

Nor is the material new to the wine industry. It has a long history as a fermentation vessel, though mainly as a cheap, rustic option to pricey stainless steel and oak. In the past, much of it had to be lined with epoxy or wax to seal wear-and-tear cracks and facilitate cleaning.

Today, high-end producers are embracing pure, unvarnished concrete for its positive properties, which are said to combine the best attributes of steel and oak with none of the drawbacks. Neutral stainless steel helps lock in fresh fruitiness and preserve acidity but can rob a wine of the depth and satisfyingly round mid-palate that comes with slow, moderate oxygen exposure. Oak lets in a beneficial amount of air but can impart overly toasty, vanilla-like characters that rob distinctiveness.

Though unsettling to ponder when you’re standing in a tall building, concrete is microscopically porous. This permits wine to breathe much the way it does in oak. It’s also totally neutral, though some winemakers insist that it imparts a welcome soupçon of stony minerality. (The idea of imbuing wine with actual concrete residue in fact insults the good sense of producers like Coletta, who want to make complex yet natural wines free of extraneous oak or other aggressive manipulation.)

The material’s other big bonus is insulation. With walls typically measuring 12 to 15 centimetres in thickness, concrete vessels help moderate temperature spikes that can put yeasts in a foul mood and lead to off flavours.

But where modern concrete vessels are concerned, shape provides the real sex appeal. A major benefit of the new egg-like format, pioneered by French company Nomblot about 15 years ago, is that it generates a convectional swirling action as the wine naturally heats up and produces gases during fermentation. Suspended yeast cells and grape sediments get stirred around with the juice to enrich flavours in a way that traditionally had been accomplished manually – and perhaps less effectively – with plungers and paddles. “One reason I do stirring in barrels or in tank is to flesh out the mid-palate and get that nuttiness,” said Laughing Stock co-owner and winemaker David Enns, who uses four concrete fermenters as an adjunct to his steel tanks and oak barrels. “And the egg does it for me. It’s wonderful.”

Besides eggs, there are a host of shapes designed for a variety of purposes, including pyramids, cones, cylinders, chubby “hippos” and space-efficient cubes. “Space is always a big trick in these wineries,” said Micah Utter, founder and owner of Vino Vessel of Paso Robles, Calif. Utter has sold more than 350 units since 2007, when he branched out from the construction world as a builder of concrete driveways, patios and building foundations.

His bestselling model, a cube measuring roughly two metres on each side, sells for $11,160 (U.S.). At 18 times the capacity of the industry-standard 225-litre French-oak barrel, though, it can seem a bargain given that barrels have a useful lifespan of five to seven years and cost about $1,000. With concrete, “You’re going to get 30-plus years out of it, so it’s very cost-effective,” Utter said.

Coletta agrees. “They’re actually very affordable,” she said. “It’s the shipping that kills you.” Her 6.5-ton tanks from Nico Velo in Italy cost less than 6,000 euros apiece, or about $8,800, while shipping added $5,000 per unit. Coletta quips that she suspects they may have made the ocean crossing aboard a luxury cruise ship.

Technical considerations aside, Coletta ultimately takes a philosophical view about the advantages of concrete, treating her capital investment in giant dinosaur eggs as an incentive to craft wines that speak more authentically of the land from which they’re produced.

“It changes your attitude about making wine,” she said. “I think that the wines we’re making are less commercial and more terroir driven every year. There are 300 wineries in British Columbia. We don’t need another oaky chardonnay