Napa Valley winemaking techniques create a buzz

If it sounds like a good idea, California will try it.

California has long been eyed for its innovation, often challenging current trains of thought. The wine industry is no exception.

In the industry’s early years Agoston Haraszthy, Martin Ray, Charles Krug and others stand out as fervently experimenting with techniques new to the California wine industry.

Most of the techniques came from Europe and sprung from winemakers’ desires to emulate the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Portugal and Spain especially.

The biggest challenges prior to sterile filtration were keeping the wines clean and controlling instabilities. Once a greater understanding came of the chemical and microbial interactions happening in wine, the more the industry could concentrate on winemaking techniques to further aroma and flavour development, greater mouth feel and more.

In Napa Valley, a big wave of investment and innovation came in the late 1970s and 80s. Wineries experimented with or re-explored skin contact, unfiltered wines and numerous other viticultural and enological procedures.

That curious zeal still ignites the Napa Valley wine industry today, and the drinks business set out to determine what winemaking techniques are creating buzz and being used by Napa Valley wineries today.

Cement eggs, native yeasts and whole cluster fermentations are on the top of wineries’ lists.

These processes and an example of a Napa Valley wine produced using these techniques are discussed:

While cement has been used since Roman times in winemaking, the egg shape is a newer development. The Rudd and Viader wineries were the first to use these eggs in Napa Valley, sharing the costs of a shipment from France’s Nomblot manufacturer in 2003. Quintessa, Vineyard 29, Harlan, Cliff Lede, and Spottswoode are among other wineries using cement fermenters. The local company, Sonoma Cast Stone, has worked with numerous California wineries and is now producing cement tanks in the US.

The benefits, its proponents say, are numerous. The cement keeps a steady temperature during fermentation without the need for heating/ cooling coils. The egg shape in particular ensures there are no dead corners so there is better uniformity of the juice.

The material that the cement fermenters are made from is porous so the cement breathes as wood does. This reduces off odours which can come when a wine has no air, and it also imparts a rounder, richer mouth feel in the wine.  It does this without imparting oak flavours on the wine while maintaining fresh fruit flavours.

The winery Viader Napa Valley is making a Petit Verdot in a cement fermenter, and has two shapes available to it: the egg and cubes. Winemaker Alan Viader explains that the cement fermentation produces fresh, expressive fruit flavours. The winery blends this with some French barrel-influenced wine in order to combine the fresh fruit character of the concrete with the complex flavours that come from the barrel.

Another buzz word in the industry is native (wild) yeast. While certainly not new, this term is being used by those who want to express their fine winemaking. With sustainability being a major theme for winemakers today, some feel that the use of wild yeasts is a continued expression of their terroir. Using these yeasts, they say, is more natural, with a greater connection to the place of vine growing.

Some producers knock native yeasts for their slow start to fermentation or some strains’ inability to deal with higher alcohols that lead to stuck fermentations. Yet other winemakers argue that stuck fermentations can happen with commercial yeast as well.

Whole cluster fermentation is another current favourite. Some Napa Valley wineries are fermenting whole clusters in order to create fruit-driven wines. Relic Wine Cellars creates its 2010 Red Blend of 47% Mourvedre, 21% Carignane, 15% Grenache, 12% Petite Sirah and 5% Syrah in this way. The Carignane vines are 110 years old, and the Petite Sirah, 75 years old.

Another Napa Valley wine made with whole clusters is Elyse Winery’s 2007 Grenache. Winemaker Michael Trotta uses this technique to bring out the fruit character in the wine. We mention a second here because of another interesting procedure being used at Elyse. Mike is using a version of an older Rhône Valley technique and adding dried cane stalks to the must. He does this to enhance aromas, noticing an addition of white pepper and smokiness with this technique.

To complete this process, canes are chopped into smaller one inch pieces, toasted, and then put into cheese cloth sachets. These are then steeped in the open top fermenters.

In our next report on current trends in Napa Valley winemaking, we will cover small barrel fermentations, non-filtered and non-fined wines and other techniques that Napa Valley vintners are saying help them to create their premium wines.

8 Responses to “Napa Valley winemaking techniques create a buzz”

  1. Hi All, I liked this information very much. It was clear & informative. I am new to the wine industry & had not heard of this style of fermenter. I can see a lot of advantages in this style of tank. One would think cheaper costs as not to have to run chilled water & the expense of the installation of the equipment etc. Plus maybe less gas requirements to seal off air as the cone shaped top would have less area the a standard stainless steel style tank. I would like to enquire if they are hard to clean & sterilize between batches? Otherwise I generally like the concept. Thank you great web site.

    • Catherine Seda says:

      Good question – numerous winemakers told me that these vessels are actually easy to clean. But I am getting better insight for you and will post that here soon.

  2. andrew says:

    That’s amazing. All the fermentation eggs I’ve heard of are concrete.

  3. Steve says:

    Long time reader, first time poster. First off, I am very interested in the method but I have concerns. I don’t want to challenge the article just pose a lingering question that has always bothered me with this concept and some mentoring on the subject would be nice. Concrete tanks are not coated and the wine has direct exposure to the tanks. Concrete is easily broken down by acidic products. Concrete also has many compounds, many are very bad for you. Has anyone done research on the tpoic? Just because you cant see concrete residue in the wine does not mean that the concretes compounds are not introduced into the wine. After all, we deal with parts per millions every day. Looking for guidance not a thrashing for asking. Thanks.

    • Catherine Seda says:

      Steve, Always good to ask questions. I always say, the more you learn about wine, the less you know. There is so much to discover. I am delving deeper into this issue with a concrete tank producer, and will post answers here.

  4. Frank says:

    Concrete is an innovation in Oenology? Are we serious? Or the egg shape is the innovation?
    I think that we have to focus on something else if we want to improve the quality of the wines.
    Here in Italy it’s since the 20th century that we use concrete. Now we are coming back to use the concrete not only for the quality, but especially for the money. Stainless steel and wood belong to another range of money, and during crisis time it’s always good to discover something old and give it a new birth. IMHO.

    • Catherine Seda says:

      Ha! Certainly not an innovation since the Romans used it. But as you noted, yes, it it is the egg shape in particular that is creating new buzz here in Napa Valley. Overall, however, concrete has gained newfound popularity, where it had until recently been relegated as a less respected vessel. But what is old is new again, and producers are rediscovering the benefits of concrete. Interesting note re economics.

  5. Catherine Seda says:

    Further to the questions popping up on concrete tanks and residue, Steve Rosenblatt of Sonoma Cast Stone, which builds concrete tanks including eggs, says:

    “This is a very reasonable question and I will tell you both what we know and what don’t know about the reaction between concrete and wine. Concrete has been used for generations in the making of wine. For many years many winemakers have coated their tanks with wax and more recently with various forms of epoxy coatings. This practice is becoming obsolete as winemakers discover the benefits of allowing the “minerality” to naturally occur. Your reader is correct that many concrete formulas contain a variety of additives. The portion of concrete that comes in contact with the wine does not contain any additives. This formula is a mixture of Delta sand, small rocks (aggregate), cement and un-chlorinated water. The municipal water that we drink usually runs over and through the natural rocks and sands on its way to reservoirs. The cement portion is made of calcified shale and limestone that has had the organic portions removed.

    In the process of concrete forming and curing, much of the cement portion comes to the surface. Before winemakers use the tanks they are very careful to etch away, with harmless tartaric acid, that surface which eliminates most of the pure cement. As the concrete cures, the evaporating water leaves behind tiny, mostly microscopic voids. These voids fill with oxygen and become the source of oxygen exchange with the wine in the same manner as the natural voids in oak barrels. The combination of oxygen exchange and slight minerality are what give “concrete wine” its unique taste. Today a great many of the high award wines are made in concrete.

    What we don’t know is the chemical content of wine made in concrete. Most of this wine is blended with stainless and/or oak wine, so any testing would be skewed. Thomas George is just releasing a pure “concrete wine” and we plan to have a lab to testing on this as soon. If it gives any comfort, many generations of wine drinkers have been consuming wine made in concrete with no “recorded” health problems.” Thank you, Steve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters

Head of Sales and Marketing

The Lyme Bay Cider Co Ltd

Brand Manager

Hatch Mansfield
Ascot, Berkshire

Southern Regional Account Manager

Speciality Drinks
England, UK

Northern Regional Account Manager

Speciality Drinks
England, UK

Fine Wine Buyer

London, UK

Awards Sales Executive – France

London, UK

Sales Executive / Brand Ambassador

Elixir Distillers
London, UK

Brand Development Executive

Elixir Distillers
London, UK

Sales Administrator

Company details: Advised on application
London W1

London Account Manager

Speciality Drinks
London, UK

Pink Rosé Festival

7th Feb 2019

Wine Paris

11th Feb 2019


London,United Kingdom
11th Mar 2019
Click to view more

The Global Fortified Masters 2018

Deadline : 25th January 2019

The Global Pinot Noir Masters 2019

Deadline : 1st February 2019

Click to view more

Rioja Masters 2018

View Results

The Global Beer Competition

View Results

Click to view more