Why does extreme altitude winemaker Augustin Lanus age his wine Salvaje (malbec, single vineyard, 8,694 ft.) for a year in a concrete egg?
Salvaje is a recent addition to the Partnership roster. Our man in Argentina, Diego, tasted it for the first time back in February. The grapes come from Cachi, a terroir we’ve never been able to sample before – it lies all the way up at the north end of the Calchaqui Valley, in the shadow of the snowcapped Cachi mountains.
Diego was raving about Salvaje upon his return. For good reason. It has all the raw purity of a single vineyard, extreme altitude malbec – you can taste the Calchaqui – but with a balance that might have you wondering if there’s a bit of cab or merlot in there (there isn’t).
The secret? It may be the year Salvaje spends encased in a concrete egg.
More on that in a moment. But first, here’s what you need to know about oak and wine. This week, we revisit Julien Miquel’s deep dive on oak aging… why it creates a silky texture… who thought to store wine in oak in the first place… and his expert opinion on whether using oak chips for flavor is bad practice…
The Concrete Egg Cont’d
Most wines you’ve had were aged in either oak or stainless steel.
Oak is the traditional choice. Its advantage comes from the fact that wood is porous, allowing for a process called “micro-oxygenation,” in which tiny air bubbles seep into the wine over time. They react with the tannins, softening them to produce the “silky” mouthfeel you read about on labels in wine shops.
But oak also loses a bit of itself in the wine during the aging process. A distinct “oakiness” seeps into the wine over time. In the right hands, oak produces a deep, complex wine – like an old oil painting by a grandmaster. In the wrong hands, oak (and often oak extract for the cheapo vintages) produces a gag-inducing butter (imagine a bad California chardonnay). Using oak also requires giving up a bit of control over the final product. It’s not sterile. And there’s no way to limit how much oxygen ultimately gets into the vintage.
In the 1960s, during the advent of the scientific winemaking style developed at UC Davis, winemakers began using stainless steel. Steel has the advantage of offering a high degree of control. It’s also sterile. You can re-use the same tank for years on end. And, most importantly, it does not leech any flavors into the wine. The terroir and grape come through loud and clear.
Where stainless steel struggles, however, is with high tannin wines. The effect can be similar to watching an old movie on a high definition tv – suddenly it all looks a bit too real.
Concrete gives winemakers a third option. The material had a brief period of popularity in winemaking around a century ago. The winery of the future, so people thought, would be concrete. The trend then reversed; suddenly concrete seemed drab. (Enter stainless steel.)
Until about a decade ago, concrete was rare in wineries. In the last four years, however, its popularity has surged. The reason being: concrete is, at once, flavorless, and porous. Micro-oxygenation can take place – softening the tannins – without altering the purity of the terroir and grape expression. Thus, The Guardian critic David Williams remarking, back in 2018, that concrete is “what wine needs now.”
The Partnership has been ahead of the curve on concrete. Long time members may remember the L’Intrus 2016 from our first ever French Collection (“easily a 90+ point wine if anybody knew about it,” said Julien at the time). Iconoclast winemaker Olivier Ramé wanted a wine “without makeup.” Choosing concrete allowed the cab franc to express itself without the oak muffler so common in French wines.
Up at the nose bleed altitudes of the Calchaqui Valley, winemakers are always looking for maximum terroir expression. Yet their main grape, malbec, is, especially when grown at high altitudes, high in tannin.
For many winemakers, the answer is oak. Others round out malbec’s edge with cab sauv and merlot. But for pure malbec expression, stainless steel remains dominant.
Tasting Augustin Lanus’ Salvaje, we have to wonder if concrete is the answer to this gordian knot. The raw tannin steps back, but the “savagery” that we love in extreme malbec is still very much there.
Hasta la proxima,
The Wine Explorer