When we taste our favorite wine we usually think of the strain and origin of this marvel. But we cannot forget the hand, creativity and experience of the winemaker. At each step of the winemaking process there are aspects and parameters to “play” with and get an interesting and accurate wine. Today I want to tell you about the different containers that are used in fermentation and their influence on wine.
As you already know, the magic of winemaking begins when you get a grape juice called must that is fermented with yeast (native or spontaneous and / or added or commercial). The yeast job is to convert the sugar of the grape into alcohol. This process can occur in several containers. I want to present some of the best known ones.
1. Clay amphorae
Mankind began producing wine thousands of years ago and, for centuries clay amphorae or terracotta jars have been some of the most used containers. To this day, in Georgia – the cradle of viticulture – wines are fermented and stored in amphorae or jars, which are buried to keep them at a cooler temperature.
During the colonization, clay pots arrived in Chile on ships. The sailors kept fresh water in them for the voyage between Spain and America. The first Chilean wine producers only used them to store the wine and go consuming it during the year. But today, many winemakers rediscovered the qualities of this container and also choose to ferment their wines in them. Because of its porous texture, the jars allow the wine to be oxygenated. The result: a more open and complex wine. With a very particular style.
In Chile, the “lagar” is a large and open container made from raulí wood, which has traditionally been used to ferment wines during a large part of our winemaking history. Because of its open shape, it facilitates manual work with the skins and juice. “Zarandas” -kind of bamboo mats – are installed above the container and allow to press bunches manually. The juice falls into the “lagar” and begins to ferment with the native yeasts of the vineyard and cellar. Once this process is finished, the wine is stored in pipes or foudres. That’s where the name of our pipeño wines comes from.
For centuries winemakers also used foudres, pipes or these large oval wooden containers, which can save thousands of liters. The great advantage of foudre is its size. From its very beginning, the wine has a smaller contact surface with the wood, therefore, the extraction process is softer and subtler.
Following the trend of producing wines with less influence of wood, today many wineries buy foudres to ferment their wines. The result is more fruity, elegant and fresh wines. However, we are not talking about those old raulí foudres. Today, luxurious containers are imported from Austria, Germany, Hungary or Slovenia, most of them made from oak.
In addition, winemakers use smaller barrels for fermentation, such as the classic Bordeaux 225 liters, usually for red wines. If they want less influence of wood, especially for the production of whites such as Chardonnay, most choose barrels with a greater volume, of 300 and even 500 liters. Winemakers experiment with barrels of different types of oak, size and age (the more uses a barrel has, the more neutral its contribution of aromas and tannins from wood). That is why many professionals, in order to preserve the fruity purity of their wines, today opt for third and even fourth used barrels.
3. Eggs and concrete ponds
In Chile, most of the cement tanks were destroyed to be replaced by the more technological stainless steel tanks. But today these containers are reborn, mainly for two reasons: first, they allow more aerated fermentations due to the porosity of their material and, second, some consider them more ecological due to their thermo-physical properties that keep temperatures low naturally. That is, they do not need to occupy energy to lower temperatures, as is the case of stainless steel.
The cement is used especially for white or red wines where freshness is a key element. Think about it like that. If you do not have a cellar or house with controlled temperature, you will suffer a lot with the heat if your walls are made of wood or light materials. If your room is made of bricks or adobe, as our cellars used to be before earthquakes, naturally you can keep a cooler and stable temperature.
Today consumer trends point to fresher wines, therefore, winemakers prefer fermentations at lower temperatures. In this way, this process lasts longer and the transformation of sugar into alcohol is more moderate. It’s the same as putting a tea bag in a cup. If the temperature is too high, we will obtain an extracted and strong tea. If the water does not reach the boiling point, as advised by tea experts, the result will be a lighter and more elegant infusion.
So fashionable these days, the concrete egg is already part of the landscape of many Chilean wineries. Although there are also eggs made of clay, polymer and other materials, their great advantage is their physical properties. The must fermenting is not crossed arms, paralyzed; due to their oval shape there is constant movement, filling the wine with life, multiplying the contributions of the skins in the aromas and structure of the wine. In general, they are used more for the production of whites and they give away complex and fresh wines.
4. Stainless steel tanks
The boom of these stainless containers began in Chile in the 80s. The oenologists of the time were fascinated by their enormous hygienic properties (they are very easy to clean and wines run a lower risk of contamination). In addition, they are much simpler to manipulate and control the fermentation temperatures by vests that cool the containers. This new technology changed the face especially of the Chilean whites -which were generally made in raulí foudres-, regulating a new generation of cleaner, fresher and fruitier wines. Today the technology is very advanced and there are software systems that control and regulate temperatures with amazing accuracy.
Now you probably want to shout the famous question: and which is the best container? And then comes my usual response: there is no better or worse wine, everything depends on our preferences. Each of them has its advantages and define a particular personality. I invite you to find out how some of your favorite wines are made (see the technical sheets that are available on our website). This way you can define which style you like the most.