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Wines of Canada

Since 1992

Concrete Wine Tanks


Okanagan Crush Pad -The Egg Concrete Tank

Just Breathe! Like most things, wine likes to breathe. Cement is porous, meaning air is able to permeate the material via countless tiny holes. Vintners look to that moderate interaction with oxygen for improved mouthfeel. Some prefer it to stainless steel, believing that the wines are more lively and dynamic. It’s mostly attractive to makers of white wine, or other styles that involve minimal-to-zero skin contact.

In history wine was made for millennial in clay pots of many sizes, then came the cement and last century (After 1945) the stainless steel was introduced and it is used widely in the food industry and beer and wine industry. I know lately many old technologies and materials are being used here but I never compared their products with “traditionally” made equivalent. What is your experience ? Is there a difference or is just a fashion ? Or we can say a choice ? Similar story reminds me of the “Orange wines” nothing new there just using the old technology that wines were made for many centuries !

The Romantic old world tradition of wooden Barrels are their day numbered?

 Wines created in concrete tanks tend to be bright and fruit-forward, with excellent texture and minerality. The trend has taken hold in both the Old and New Worlds, where many winemakers feel that concrete’s sturdiness and quality of wine produced outweighs the upfront cost and bulk of the tanks.

Steve Lornie, co-owner of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery (OCP), with tanks he made from sand and gravel taken from OCP's three organic vineyards.
Steve Lornie, co-owner of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery (OCP), with tanks he made from sand and gravel taken from OCP's three organic vineyards.

Okanagan Crush Pad was the first Canadian winery(2011) to invest in concrete fermentation tanks in a significant way. On the advice of their consulting winemaker, Alberto Antonini, who helped them design the wine cellar, OCP decided to trial 6 concrete eggs from Sonoma Cast Stone (California) in 2011 when the winery opened. Alberto was aiming for a wine style that was emblematic of the Okanagan and sought to build structure and mid-palate without the influence of oak.

The goal of concrete is to enrich the texture and add layers of complexity, develop the wine through slight oxygenation around half of what a barrel would provide. The wine ages in concrete gracefully and without outside flavour influences that would detract from our amazing organic vineyard sites.

Certain wines can benefit from stainless steel – eg, to highlight acidity or to really display fruit forward characteristics. Sometimes a combination of both concrete and stainless works wonderfully. OCP still have some very old barrels/puncheons which are a great home for aging certain wines, but they can not add detracting oak flavours to our wines. We also still have 2 x 3000 litre light foudres which are fantastic for Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir as the larger surface area allows the wine to breathe and age but not impart oak flavours.

Currently, the winery has 40 large vessels that can hold 120,000 liters (13,000 cases). Six black concrete eggs were made by Sonoma Cast Stone, 25 tanks of various shapes and sizes are made by Nico Velo in Italy, and 9 tanks were made right here at home in Summerland by co-owner Steve Lornie. Furthermore, sand and gravel from each of our three vineyards – Secrest Mountain in Oliver, and Switchback and Garnet Valley Ranch, both in Summerland – were collected for us in construction of three 300 litre tanks from each site to add nine new tanks to OCP’s inventory. Each tank was filled with a lot of wine with the goal of evaluating the flavour profile impact of the specific sand and gravel on the wine. Based on findings, larger versions of the tanks will be constructed using the material from one site.

Steve Lornie when asked why he build his own concrete tanks (pictured above) he responded: We made nine 300 litre concrete tanks using sand and gravel from each of our vineyards to determine if the materials used to make the concrete tanks influenced the wine profile. We trialed pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir in 2020, using one of each “vineyard” tanks for each lot. The tanks are named after the vineyard site the materials came from. We didn’t draw any firm conclusions, but the wines made in tanks created from Garnet Valley Ranch, preformed well across each varietal.  

More and more winemakers are adopting concrete as they have discovered that it provides the benefits of oak, but without any of their negative aspects (ever had an overly oaked Chardonnay?). One of the much-appreciated benefits of concrete eggs is due to the fact that its shape offers a high level of contact between the wine and the lees which contributes to the beautiful viscous texture that is so commonly a trademark of OCP wines.

Concrete is also a natural insulator, able to adapt to both heat and cold. This allows for a gradual fermentation without any temperature spikes, especially important for wines made without commercial yeasts


Okanagan Crush Pad

Egg-shaped cement containers have become especially trendy. The bulbous piece of equipment models age-old amphora, resurrected about twenty years ago in France. In the last decade, New World winemakers have looked to such curved vats for the ongoing flow they provide during fermentation, creating a more even liquid mixture while keeping the temperature stable. That kind of balance during one of the most important parts of the winemaking process can yield palate-pleasing magic.*2

Dating back into the early 1900s, concrete tanks were widely used in winemaking.   The often-giant tanks were poured on site, then lined with an inert material and used for both fermenting and aging wines. They were long-lasting and sanitary, and unlike wooden vats, didn’t harbor molds and bacteria that could compromise the wine. They also provided thermal stability, helping reduce temperature variations during  winemaking.  Some  people even think egg-shaped tanks have mystic properties. In some regions like Northern Italy and the Republic of Georgia, winemakers even used ceramic amphorae like those from classic times, usually buried in the ground to keep them cool and protect against breakage. During the mid-20th century the development of stainless tanks seemed to render concrete obsolete, although many of the old tanks remained in use in many wine regions.*3

"Concept" tank produced by Sonoma Cast Stone of Californina.
"Concept" tank produced by Sonoma Cast Stone of Californian.

Somona Cast Stone is one of the major producers of concrete tanks in North America. They make several different design (shape) tanks) Haywire of the Okanagan is one of their costumers.

Nomblot a world leader in Clemente tanks says : wine fermentation tanks have many qualities for wine making. The first advantage of concrete tanks is their perfect thermal inertia. Indeed, concrete is a material capable of withstanding the temperature changes that take place during wine vinification. The required temperatures vary several times during the process, before and after the fermentation of the wine.

The micro-oxygenation technique is easily achievable in concrete wine tanks. The natural porosity of the concrete guarantees a slow and continuous micro-oxygenation for the softening and stabilization of the tannins.

Finally, Nomblot wine fermentation tanks are known to be neutral and durable. Concrete is a neutral material that does not alter the quality of the wine. Concrete wine tanks are durable and easy to maintain. Neutrality and durability are essential criteria for winemakers.

Nico Velo is the maker of concrete tanks in Italy. Okanagan Crush Pad has tanks from them. The benefit is the quality having made these tanks for decades. The heating/cooling is built into the wall.  The decision to purchase the concrete tanks from Nico Velo (2013) came at the urging of Okanagan Crush Pad’s consulting winemaker, Alberto Antonini, who uses the same tanks at his Poggiotondo winery in Tuscany

Michael Bartier, winemaker BC's Okanagan puts it this way, "Concrete does a very good job of showcasing a wine’s true terroir. Oak can mask those distinctions, but concrete doesn’t add, remove, or mask anything. It lets the fruit shine through to be a true statement of the place it was grown."

Bartier says a lot has to do with the fact that concrete vessels are not inert, and harbour an ecosystem of life that affects the wine.

The giant tanks are not lined with anything on the inside. The rough, stony surface is constantly in contact with the aging wine, and that surface is home to a world of yeast and bacteria.

"They can live from vintage to vintage in that rough surface of the concrete,” he explains. “And those bacteria and yeast help the fermentation. That is yeast from our vineyard... rather than yeast imported from Champagne or Barolo or some other area of the world.
"

Okanagan Crush Pad winemaker Matt Dumayne (2013): This is my first experience using concrete tanks, and I am very impressed with the results. We now have just over 38,000 litres in concrete tank capacity,” notes Dumayne. “They have excellent fermentation kinetics such as temperature retention. The conical shape of the tank moves the fermenting juice around in a vortex, which produces wines with enhanced depth, complexity and roundness of tannins. We have found that the resulting wines have a complexity and an enhanced creamy mineral character.

However according to Bodegas Resalte de Peñafiel Winery on the other hand, stainless steel is impervious to oxygen. Concrete tanks does not add aromas to the wine, it is neutral. Thus, fruity aromas and flavors are preserved.*4

Of course, no material is perfect. Disadvantages include concretes sheer mass (special forklifts are needed to move concrete tanks, which come in cube, cylinder and egg shapes), its fussy cleaning regimen (many techniques that work for other vesselsscrubbers, metal, very hot water, ozone, chlorine, strong acids cause damage to concrete) and the potential for pinking a white wine by first using the concrete tank for red. Cost is also a big factor. Concrete cost more as does shipping.

Stainless steel vessels remain the most popular options for unoaked wines, but recently winemakers have varied their preferences in the cellar. Over the past decade, more winemakers have started using concrete tanks, a fermentation and aging alternative that offers the best of both steel and oak.

The biggest disadvantage to oak barrels, they are not airtight, allowing oxygen to come into contact with wine. They easily house bacteria if not cleaned properly.*6

Michael Clark winemaker
Michael Clark

Michael Clark - Winemaker / co-owner at Clos du Soleil Estate Vineyard,very popular Célestiale blend is fermented in concrete tanks.

Micheal Clark: We use Nomblot tanks, imported from France. We use them for our red wines (Bordeaux varieties), though concrete can certainly work well for white wines too. The two biggest impacts they have on wine are due to their large thermal mass (ie they smoothly moderate the fermentation temperatures, including keeping the must warm towards the end of the fermentation) and secondly they are slightly porous, as we use unlined concrete. I think both of these characteristics give our red wines elegant tannin structure and mouthfeel.

Basically all (or vast majority) of our red Bordeaux varieties, and also our Syrah, are fermented in concrete. So this means that the components for both Celestiale, and Signature, and our Estate Reserve, all come from concrete fermentations, followed by aging in French oak barrels.


Mission Hills - clay amphora

Mission Hills Family Estate Winery, one of the Okanagan's largest wineries uses both clay and concrete tanks. Peak Cellars uses the tanks for small batches of Gewürztraminer and Gruner, to build weight to the wine with access to lees stirring.

CheckMate Artisanal Winery 
CheckMate  Artisanal Winery 

Lariana Winery, Dan Scott, in Osoyoos uses concrete tanks (egg) for their amazing Viognier.

Gianna Kelly, winemaker at Napa Valley's Galerie, who says she uses concrete eggs to ferment and age Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, for their superior influence on texture, complexity and flavor."The big advantage of the egg is of course, that oval shape," Kelly says. "The shape allows for a natural convection of the lees all throughout fermentation, and this constant contact adds weight and complexity to the texture of our wines."

Matias Cruzat, a winemaker for Vina San Pedro's 1865 Wines in Chile, uses tanks and eggs to ferment Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and then ferments and ages Pinot Noir in concrete to "preserve the fruit and character of the place". He saw his first egg in Santa Barbara County in 2010, and says he was immediately fascinated because he'd studied the ancient process of concrete egg-aging as a student, but had never seen them in action. He began using them himself in 2014. Now, instead of fermenting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in new and old French Oak barrels, 1865 uses concrete, and Cruzat is thrilled with the results.

Blue Grouse Vineyards on Vancouver Island purchased 3 - 3200 liter concrete tanks this year (installed in July 2022 ) and will try them with their 2022 vintage... winemaker Bailey Williamson is not sure yet what he will use them for, but probably PN and some Chardonnay . Again the idea to to heighten the profile of our wines by adding a different dimension of complexity. They also have 2 clay amphoras of 600 liters each used for Pinot Noir.

Winemaker Bailey Williamson and his Amphora vessels
Winemaker Bailey Williamson. Blue Grouse Estate Winery, and his Amphora vessels 

Besides concrete some winemakers have chosen to use Amphora Vessels.  An amphora is a traditional clay vessel used to hold and store liquid for an extended period of time. They have been in use for at least the last 6,000 years. The clay material used in amphora allow some oxygen to penetrate to the juice during the winemaking, without imparting the flavors one gets from oak.

Another winery to recently add a concrete tank is Monte Creek Winery located near Kamloops British Columbia. They went with the Egg shape tank. They state advantage of having a giant egg in the color of your choice, apart from its just looking really cool? Three main things: micro-oxygenation, circulation, and flavor neutrality.

Evaporation loss is quite small, as is temperature fluctuation. Unlike stainless steel, the inner walls of concrete tanks aren’t uniform. They are porous, with thousands of tiny pockets that trap air. This allows for minimal air contact with the wine.

If you were to look into a tank of fermenting grape juice and you would see plenty of motion. In a concrete fermentation tank, the juice moves in a swirling motion. This movement circles from top to bottom which naturally stirs the sediment to provide complexity. As there are no “dead corners” where the juice may sit still, there is an improved composition of the liquid.

Concrete tanks don’t give off any additional flavor either, which makes them ideal for winemakers who want to reflect the true terroir of the grapes in the wine. Therefore, wines created in concrete tanks tend to be bright and fruit-forward, with excellent texture and minerality.

A new generation of winemakers has embraced the amphora wine vessel for the different steps in winemaking, from fermentation to aging, as a way to craft bespoke wines. Many small to medium-sized producers have now fully co-opted amphorae into their winemaking toolbox.

The Stainless steel is neutral easy to clean, remove the tartrate crystals and absolutely sanitize. Easy to shape in forms that leave no air pockets on top to oxidize and grow detrimental microorganisms on top that with time sink into the wine and spoil the quality. Easy to control the temperature of the fermentation and cool for cold stability. Easy to install valves, thermometers, sparking neutral gases in and/or on top of the wine. Easy to transport even very large capacity tanks and light in weight.

Benjamin Bridge - Nova Scotia
Benjamin Bridge - Nova Scotia

For more than a decade, head winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers has championed Benjamin Bridge’s specialized wine program. Nestled in the picturesque Gaspereau Valley of Nova Scotia. Benjamin Bridge is a leader in Sparkling wine production.

Big Head Cellars - Niagara-on-the-Lake
Big Head Wines - Niagara-on-the-Lake

Andrzej (Andre) Lipinski a successful winemaker and consultant in Ontario who opened his own wine company featuring Big Head Wines has used concrete tanks since 2016. They allow for Oxygen without oak vanillin and better temperature control.

Shiraz Mottiar, winemaker at Malivoire wines, Ontario, shows off his new Ceramic Orb

Shiraz Mottiar, winemaker at Malivoire wines, Ontario, shows off his new Ceramic Orb from Italy. It will be used for Gamay.

He says: Concrete has several advantages versus stainless steel, which is more common in wineries. As concrete is a material with porosity, wines have an oxygen interchange with the exterior and that results in a slow evolution which helps to obtain smoother and fine tannins. Therefore, wines with a great harmony, both on the nose and on the palate, are achieved, with balance, long finish and a fruitier profile.

Disadvantage ( but not really)Concrete tanks does not add aromas to the wine, it is neutral. Thus, fruity aromas and flavors are preserved.

Lighthall Vineyards,Ontario: We use concrete tanks for fermentation of all our reds – Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  I’ve found that there are two distinct benefits – first, at harvest time, the ambient temperature is generally cooler, and concrete will be cooler yet, so it keeps the contents of the tank cooler at first, then the concrete absorbs a lot of the heat generated by fermentation, allowing a somewhat cooler and longer fermentation period, which leads to greater extraction of color, flavor and tannins;  second, concrete is porous to gasses, allowing micro-oxygenation during the fermentation – micro-ox makes the yeast happy, and happy yeast always equates to better wines!

We’ve also started using the tanks for aging of chardonnay (as of the 2021 vintage).  This again is about micro-oxygenation, as we have by barrel aging, however there is no flavor imparted by the concrete, unlike oak barrels.  Watch for our first “Chardonnay beton” release next spring!

 

Betz Family Winery

Betz Family Winery is located in Woodinville, near Seattle, Washington. It is in this context of exceptional wine production that Betz Family Winery has chosen to call on Nomblot, a French manufacturer of concrete tanks for wine, to equip its winery with truncated cone-shaped tanks of low conicity.


Three different tanks

The interest of concrete tanks is to facilitate natural vinification of the fruit. Through the micro-oxygenation of the concrete, fine oxygen bubbles slip inside the tank and mix with the wine to soften the tannins and develop the aromas.
Furthermore, concrete tanks have an excellent thermal inertia, which protects the wine from sudden and harmful variations in temperature and enables a gentle vinification process, respecting the beverage and the lees.
In addition, the truncated-cone-shaped concrete tank, beyond its resolutely modern design, facilitates the draining of the wine at the end of vinification and the cleaning of its bottom and sides. In fact, the Nomblot truncated cone tank has a slight slope towards the drain valve. The beverage at the end of vinification is thus recovered in its entirety, and the dead lees can easily be drained off.
Finally, Nomblot's concrete wine tanks can also be used to store the wine until it is bottled.

Pearl Morissette, Redtail Vineyards and Hidden Bench are among other Ontario wineries using concrete tanks. Redtail states: unlike stainless and oak tanks, the cement tanks remove any influence of the tank on the fermentation of the grapes. Leading to a true reflection of the local terroir in the wines.

Cement/concrete tanks unless they are very small are impossible to move, they are heavy so they are build to stay in one place with thick walls to be strong enough for the job, they can crack and leak. If not coated with food grade resins could breath and affect the quality of the wine. Cement contains Calcium and Aluminum Silicates that will react with the wine components. The tartrate crystals with time they coat the surfaces inside. This destroys the smooth surface and has to be resurfaced. Todays technology is working to correct these concerns.

Matthew Dumayne winemaker Okanagan Crush Pad.
Matthew Dumayne

Okanagan Crush Pad chief winemaker Matthew Dumayne sums it up: Concrete tanks are fantastic for wine fermentation and maturation and have been used for many many years across the old world winemaking regions. A key item is the thermal mass of concrete.  The 5” thick walls do a stellar job of moderating the temperature rise that occurs during fermentation: less chance of undesirable chemical reactions at lower ferment temps. And the rough porous internal finish of the tanks allows a year-over-year habitat for our native yeasts, keeping them healthy for the following vintages. The walls absorb temperature very well creating a gentle ambient temperature which allows our natural yeast to flourish. Direct glycol contact from the dimple jackets on stainless tanks can create stress and reduction issues from cold temperature negatively stressing yeast.
The warmth, texture and complexity added from concrete tanks is found in no other winemaking vessel.
Any thoughts on Clay tanks would be appreciated

We use 800 litre Amphorae from Italy and have used them since 2014. The wines require extensive skin contact or heavy lees for protection as they are quite a porous vessel. We have tried a number of varietals in them but I have found bigger reds such as Malbec, Petite Verdot and Cabernets respond well and gain a delicious milk chocolate esq tannin structure with a great plushness to the palate.

Any thoughts on Concrete vs Stainless steal
Stainless creates very linear, fruit and acidity focused wines, concrete creates deep textural complex wines with more energy and vitality. Stainless can be a cold lifeless inert material but it’s the way you handle each and respect the wines and variety that build complexity and ultimately make the best wine.

Audrey Enixon wife of Culmina Family Estate Winery winemaker
Audrey Enixon wife of Culmina Family Estate Winery winemaker Jean-Marc's

Authors summary.. Most winemakers using concrete tanks considered the tanks essential in producing the proper flavours for the wine. However I also notice the majority of the wineries using these tanks were not loudly proclaiming we use Concrete.

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.

Perhaps concrete will never replace the romantic feeling of the barrel room.

Contributing:

Wine consultant: Elias Phiniotis
Michael Clark - Winemaker at Clos du Soleil Estate Vineyard
Okanagan Crush Pad
Steve Lornie
Christine Coletta
Matthew Dumayne - Chief Winemaker OCP
CBC
John Schreiner
Sandra Oldfield
Townhall Brands
Paul Brunner - Blue Grouse Vineyards
seattlemag.com
wine-searcher.com
resalte.com
vinepair.com
Big Head Wines
Peak Cellars
Culmina Family Estate Winery
Malivoire wines
Lighthall Vineyards

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