French Winemaking and Cement: A Historical Tradition
From our experiences in Napa Valley and during our travels within Argentina, Brittany and I were both used to wine being produced in large stainless steel tanks like the ones you see below:
While traveling through the wine regions of France, there are still quite a few wineries that use stainless steel to produce their wine. But as we have learned, many winemakers that we have met don't subscribe to this technique and prefer the much older tradition of using cement tanks for making wine.
Cement, you say?! Well, actually this is not a new technique for fermenting wine. The Romans were using this technique at least 2,000 years ago. Some of the benefits of using cement is that it keeps a more consistent temperature which is required during fermentation and it doesn't impart any additional flavors the way that steel can.
Interestingly enough, Napa Valley is just starting to get in on the cement 'craze' and is purchasing egg-shaped cement tanks from France to add to their fermentation regiment. Unfortunately, these are very expensive to import into the United States, and are seldomly used among the higher end wineries in Napa. The US industry as a whole is still committeed to the tradition of oak fermentation and the ease of stainless.
While much smaller than the cement tanks we have seen in France, the design of these egg-shaped vats keep the cap (solid parts of grape) in the middle of the juice to allow for better extraction of flavor and color during fermentation; they also soften the tannic structure in the wine.
It has become clear to us that winemakers in France are devoted to finding the purest expression of each varietal in its particular soil, and want to minimize outside influences on the finished product. Cement tanks are great at doing just this and we have been very happy with the wines made using this method. While stainless tanks were created to make the winemaking process easier, we have found that the classic method of using cement is much better for getting the most out of each grape.
Below are the 'pros' and 'cons' of each method, so you can decide for yourself which technique you would use:
Pros: Makes winemaking process easier with better accessibility, cleaning of tank, etc., lighter to transport and does not corrode.
Cons: Temperature fluctuations can affect the wine during the winemaking process and can impart foreign flavors to the wine.
Pros: Preserves many of the postive characteristics of the grape into the wine, softens tannins, keeps consistent temperature throughout which is beneficial to the winemaking process and does not impart any negative flavors to the wine. Also, less maintenance issues than oak barrels.
Cons: Heavy to move and transport and can be more difficult to access and clean than stainless tanks.