Concrete revolution happening at Villa San-Juliette Winery

Concrete Wine Tanks

Concrete revolution happening at Villa San-Juliette Winery
Written by Scott Brennan, Paso Robles Daily News

According to Matt Ortman, not all fermenting vessels are created equal. In just his second year as winemaker at Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery, he had already purchased four concrete tanks because he believes that, for some wines, they’re ideal.

“Concrete accentuates a wine’s minerality, which we already have plenty of from our soils,” Ortman said. “It allows for a different texture than stainless steel or neutral oak – a softer acid profile, and, in red wines, fine-grained tannins.”

Villa San-Juliette is home to four concrete tanks: two cube-shaped tanks for red wines and two cone-shaped tanks for whites. Made locally by Vino Vessel, the only company of its kind in the United States, VSJ’s concrete tanks are not unique to the Central Coast, California, or the rest of the winemaking world.

In fact, concrete has been used to ferment wine in the Old World for centuries, and continues to hold wines as legendary as Bordeaux’s Chateau Petrus, year after year. But it wasn’t until Vino Vessel came along that American producers could buy concrete tanks without paying exorbitant overseas shipping rates. Today, concrete tanks are increasingly common in wineries across the state and the nation.
The appeal of concrete as a fermenter is two-fold: the beneficial characteristics imparted to wine when it spends time against unsealed concrete, and the way high thermal mass promotes slow temperature change and stabilization.

“These tanks have really thick walls,” said Ortman, “which means excellent temperature control. The early stage of the ferment takes a long time, and as the yeast builds in population, the strongest ones finish last and the ferment cools, but the heat left in the concrete helps keep the yeast happy. Nothing happens too quickly in concrete, which is good for stabilizing the wine.”

Factors that influence a finished wine include the tank’s shape (Ortman uses cones and cubes) and its porousness. With slight aeration from tiny air sacs in the concrete, wines are able to breathe and soften as they do in oak, without taking on any of an oak barrel’s qualities. And, though these hefty vessels also come with a hefty price tag, concrete is, in fact, more affordable per gallon than new oak barrels as it’s more labor-and space-efficient, and more durable.

In the midst of this year’s harvest, the tanks are holding plenty of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, but for their first vintage in 2013, Ortman designated VSJ’s new concrete tanks for Albariño, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, and Petite Verdot, whose tannins, he said, were complemented by concrete fermentation. “There is an appealing chalkiness to the Petite Verdot’s tannins, a wet rock gravely-ness that comes from time in the concrete. Again, it’s taking something already present in the wines – our wines show dry tannins due to weak soils – and refining them to be more fine-grained through the use of concrete.”