By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 17 November 2018
I have lost count of the number of giant eggs I have seen in wineries recently. By ‘eggs’ I mean large concrete ones – it is the latest fad used to vinify wine – helping to add complexity, texture and improved ‘mouthfeel’ to the wine.
Concrete might sound like a strange medium for a wine vessel in a world full of stainless steel tanks and wooden barrels, but it has been used for vast square wine vats since C19 particularly in Eastern Europe, as it is hardwearing, neutral and relatively cheap.
The first person to come up with the idea of making a concrete tank into the shape of an egg was the celebrated Rhone winemaker, Michel Chapoutier (pictured right). After two years of research with his team, in 2001 Chapoutier asked French wine vat maker Marc Nomblot to make him one. The idea of the shape was derived from the old Roman amphorae.
Chapoutier’s concrete egg was made from washed Loire sand, gravel, unchlorinated spring water and cement – and crucially no additives or iron were added. Although the old concrete tanks in wineries used to be lined with epoxy resin, his new concrete egg was unlined. It was just treated with tartaric acid to prevent any corrosion or reaction from the fermenting must or finished wine.
Since then countless winemakers across the world have experimented with these trendy new eggs, from France’s traditional regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy to Chile and Canada in the New World. One of the first South African winemakers to use a concrete egg to ferment his wine was the avant-garde Eben Sadie who had been looking for an alternative to wood, that did not taste of oak, but which could breathe.
One of the advantages of concrete is that it is porous. So these unlined concrete eggs allow tiny amounts of oxygen to permeate and contact with wine – similar to an oak barrel. This helps to fix colour and soften aggressive tannins and develop more complex flavours, without any oaky influence.
French winemaker Christelle Guibert (pictured right), who makes wonderful ‘natural’ wines in Muscadet in France’s Loire valley and in Itata valley in southern Chile, says that the shape of the egg allows for continuous flow to the wine as it ferments and ages creating a more homogenous liquid.
It is all to do with ‘convection currents’. As fermentation creates heat, this in turn creates these convection currents that move the wine around, as it does in a tank or barrel.
As the egg has a smooth surface with no corners or dead spots it allows the wine to move freely during fermentation and maturation with continuous contact with the dead yeasts (called lees) which add greater depth, structure and texture without letting the wine go flabby.
Guibert has done experiments comparing the same grape from the same terroir fermented in a tank in Muscadet and the effect is obvious: “the egg wine has a better mouthfeel”, she says
Temperature fluctuations in concrete are quite small, so some winemakers believe the concrete egg wine has a ‘freshness’ as well as another layer of complexity.
Kiwi winemaker Matt Dumayne who makes Haywire wines in Canada’s Okanagan Valley reckons that the concrete egg does loose some varietal character in the wine, but believes the added texture and complexity are ‘off the scale’ compared to oak or stainless steel.
The other advantage of the concrete is that it provides good insulation and a stable temperature – so the winemaker does not have to pay for further refrigeration.
The eggs are not cheap to install, currently at £3000 a piece, and the larger 16 hectolitre size weighs two tonnes - so transport cost is high.
But once installed, a line of beautifully smooth concrete eggs in a winery are certainly very stylish and attractive – as is the wine.
CONCRETE EGG WINES:
Loire, France: ‘MOULIN BLANC’ BLANC DE NOIRS 2017 Jeremie Mourat (13%)
Intriguing white Pinot Noir from 40 year old vines in Loire’s Vendee; delicious elegant, apricot and citrus, very dry but fabulous freshness.
Mendoza, Argentina: EGGO SAUVIGNON BLANC 2015 Zorzal (13%)
(£15.29 Exel Wines, Perth; Strictly Wine; Corking Wine)
Zippy herby minerally Sauvignon Blanc with creamy palate texture from high altitude vineyards.
Savoie, France: GRINGET LES ALPES 2016 Domaine Belluard (12%)
(£33 www.lescaves.co.uk; www.buonvino.co.uk; www.josephbarneswines.com)
Fabulous mountain freshness, minerally with rich ripe fruits, soft and round from rare Gringet grape.
Lake County, California: SIDEBAR SAUVIGNON BLANC 2015 David Raimey (13%)
Rich weighty Sauvignon Blanc vinified in a mix of oak, stainless steel and concrete eggs.
Loire, France: MUSCADET ORTHOGNEISS 2015 Domaine de L’Ecu (12%)
(£13.75 L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline wwwaduv.co.uk)
Single vineyard Muscadet: elegant, subtle, flinty notes with spicy undertones and creamy texture.
Loire, France: MUSCADET TERRE DE GNEISS 2015 Vincent Caille (12%)
(£22.50 Henris of Edinburgh; www.carteblanchewines.com)
Christelle Guibert’s egg-matured biodynamic Muscadet shows rich mature ripe fruits, fabulous texture, fresh, vivid with a savoury and creamy finish.
Roussillon, France: COTES DU ROUSSILLON BLANC 2016 Domaine de Bila-Haut (14.5%)
From the original egg creator Michel Chapoutier’s Roussillon outpost: superb creamy herby rich blend of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris with Macabeu,
Mendoza, Argentina: EGGO TINTO DE TIZA MALBEC 2016 Zorzal (13.5%)
(£18.49 Exel Wines, Perth; Strictly Wine; Corking Wine)
Vibrantly fresh silky textured Malbec from dynamic Michelini brothers’ high altitude vineyards in the Andes foothills.
Okanagan Valley, Canada: HAYWIRE WHITE LABEL PINOT NOIR 2016 Okanagan Crush Pad (13.5%)
(£24.99 www.novelwines.co.uk; www.redsquirrelwine.com)
Pure expression of Pinot Noir with bright vivid raspberry aromas with delicious spicy finish.
Join Rose’s Eggs & Amphorae wine tasting on Fri 23 Nov in Edinburgh : £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com