A year ago I wrote a story about some winery owners. I was drawn to these stories because of a passion for wine, knowing many of the winery owners and appreciating that many of them started from scratch. Also I respect their efforts to be innovative. One of the innovations I discovered was the use of concrete fermentation tanks Until recently they were brought to Napa from Europe. But now, high quality concrete tanks are made in the U.S.
Recently I had a meeting with some winemakers and overheard a conversation about concrete fermentation tanks and recalled the prior conversation with a winemaker and the experiences she had with concrete. Now my interest is piqued anew about concrete in winemaking. Concrete can be interesting, so let me tell you about making concrete tanks for wine.
In the U.S., there are a couple of manufacturers who design and building concrete fermentation tanks for the wine industry. These companies are located close to wine country. Concrete has been around since Roman times and it has been used in the wine industry in Europe for several hundred years; but you are only seeing renewed interest in concrete in the U.S. wine industry within the last 10 years. The serious popularity of concrete with Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast wineries has just hit its stride within the past 5 years. This in part is due to the innovative thinkers who make fine wines. U.S. manufacturers have been making concrete wine tanks for about 6 years. The numbers of tanks made in the U.S. are impressive; approximately 75 in 2011.
The launch of the industry in the U.S. has been difficult because it was the domain of stainless steel and wood casks. But through some research and publicity, about the benefits of concrete, the tide is turning.
By the way, concrete is not called cement by the informed. I was told politely that cement is used to make concrete which is much stronger than cement by itself.
There are about 17 wineries in Napa and Sonoma that are currently using concrete fermentation tanks. Concrete tanks have been around Napa for more than 50 years. But until about 5 years ago modern tanks came from France. Some big name winemakers and winery owners have stepped forward in the last 8 years to really promote the benefits of concrete tanks. Today, concrete fermentation tanks made in the U.S. have been sold in Georgia, Washington,Oregon and New York and internationally in New Zealand. There are approximately 40 wineries in the US using concrete tanks. Notably, a winery in Napa received a 98 point award for one of their wines fermented using concrete tanks.
Recently a winery in Napa took delivery of 2 concrete fermentation tanks; each weigh 13,500 pounds and holding 1,500 gallons each. Cost of tanks are hard to define, however, as a rule of thumb, you can expect to pay $1,500 to $10,000 for a new tank with hardware. However, there is nothing standard about concrete fermentation tanks, each one is made to orde with many styles and capacities. By all accounts it looks like 2012 will see the number of concrete wine fermentation tank sold to double versus 2011.
Can a wine-lover taste the difference when wine is fermented in concrete versus steel. The results are documented and even include some blind tastings of wines fermented in concrete, stainless steel, wood vats and oak. If a winemaker want the nose and texture of oak then oak is obvious. On the other hand concrete, when done properly, is made of clean, natural materials that are controlled throughout the process. One thing oak and concrete have in common is that both allow oxygenation of the wine; both materials are porous.
Cement doesn’t add or take away or mask the soil. It lets everything show. I would like to get a tasting expert to comment on the record some day about concrete fermented wines. Now that would be interesting.
The process of making a tank entails 8 steps. The first step being to determine the desired capacity and shape, then commit that to a computer model that will calculate dimensions, weight and pressures. Next, step is to select accessories such as leg support styles, front or top ‘manways’, coils for heating and cooling, valve placements and do you want an open top or closed. Third step is to hand-build the mold per computer design specs. At this point (step four), specially formulated concrete is mixed and laid-up by hand onto the mold. After this process is completed it takes approximately 3 days for the concrete to cure. In the fifth step the mold is disassembled from the inside. Finishing and slurry coating the inside and outside of the vessel is next, followed by step seven which is adding the hardware accessories. The last step, number eight, is the quality testing and preparing the tank for shipment anywhere in the world. From start to finish these processes results in a tank, ready for shipping, in 4 to 6 weeks. And the advantages are affordable wine storage units, easy to clean tanks and a long lasting product.
The mix of the concrete is a special proprietary mix designed by some true professionals and is free of any chemical additives. So don’t worry about concrete imparting its own character.
Who would have thought that concrete was important to winemaking?