Rod Byers: Wine eggs — something old is new again
April 4, 2017
Phil Starr loves sauvignon blanc. As patriarch of Sierra Starr Winery, he and son Jackson produce a delicious, award-winning sauvignon blanc from grapes grown in their Grass Valley vineyard.
As part of their quest, both Starrs are always on the lookout for other sauvignon blancs — partly because they enjoy them, partly to keep up with what's out there.
A couple of years ago, Phil and wife Anne were on a trip back east and, while in Virginia — big surprise — visited a winery. They were tasting in the cellar with the winemaker and Phil was particularly impressed with one sauvignon blanc.
"It had an interesting fruit character that was different than what stainless steel fermented sauvignon blanc tastes like," he explained later, "but it didn't have the oaky character of barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc either."
Further investigation revealed that the wine had been fermented and aged in an oval-shaped concrete tank, a wine egg, produced by Nomblot in France.
Originally, the Nomblot family built mausoleums out of concrete. One day, in the 1920s, a winemaker attending a funeral asked Mr. Noblot if he could put a valve in one of them. Nomblot has been making concrete wine tanks ever since.
Concrete tanks get a bad rap in California. They recall images of central valley jug wine producers in the 1940s and 50s who used huge concrete tanks poured in place in the ground to ferment and store their wines.
The modern California wine industry embraced stainless steel tanks as the cleaner and better way and the old cement tanks became crusty relics of the past.
But that doesn't mean concrete tanks don't have major benefits. Before the age of temperature controlled tanks, concrete tanks were valuable as a means of temperature moderation. Not only do they have a cooling effect on the overall wine temperature, they keep the wine from fluctuating when temperatures soar.
Modern wine producers have discovered concrete tanks offer another benefit. In a fashion similar to wooden barrels, concrete breathes. The concrete is porous enough to allow for a tiny amount of oxygen exchange but without adding the flavor of oak.
A process known as 'affranchissement' coats the insides of the tank with a slurry of tartaric acid that insulates the cement from the wine yet still allows for breathability.
In 2001, Nomblot revolutionized the concrete tank world when they introduced an egg-shaped tank. The peculiar shape is patterned after fermentation vessels used by the ancient Romans.
It was one of those egg tanks that had been used to make the wine in Virginia that Starr liked so much.
Of course, he came home talking about it. They did some research, found a few producers using them, and starting sampling other wines made in eggs.
They were impressed enough to buy one in time for last year's harvest.
Make no mistake, their current vintage, 2015, is not exactly floundering. It earned multiple Gold Medals as well as a coveted 90-point score from Wine Enthusiast Magazine. So why mess with a good thing?
Phil explained that when they first started making sauvignon blanc, they barrel fermented and barrel aged it in the manner of chardonnay. They liked the richer body that the barrel treatment added but not the oak flavor.
Over the years, they slowly converted to 100 percent stainless steel finding the resulting wines to be fruitier and crisper. They think the egg can unite the best of both worlds, retaining the fruit through fermentation like stainless steel while adding a level of richness like a barrel but without the oak.
The geometric design of the egg keeps the lees in constant suspension even after primary fermentation is done, adding additional texture to the wine, Jackson explained.
But who could be sure? To test the hypothesis, this past harvest they implemented different fermentation trials. They took all the sauvignon blanc grapes together, crushed, pressed and settled them in one large tank, added the yeast and then divided them into three parts.
One went to their stainless tank for standard fermentation. The second lot went into barrels for fermentation and lees stirring during barrel aging. The third lot went into the egg.
DIFFERENCES IN WINES
As soon as each of the lots were done, they started blending trials. It was immediately apparent how different the wines were. Most noticeable of all was the wine from the egg, offering significant differences in aromatics, mouthfeel and flavor.
After weeks of tasting, they bottled their final blend. They also kept nine cases of each of the original three wines separate which they plan to release as unique three-packs. "It was a chore," Phil explained. "I can't imagine doing that again."
It's all the more reason not to miss trying those wines. It's a rare opportunity to experience how technique alters flavor. The resulting wines really are quite different.
I had a chance to taste the wines a few weeks after they were bottled. The final blend, the 2016 Solstice Sauvignon Blanc, offered lovely fruit forward aromas of citrus and melon with layers of complexity including floral and tropical notes. Noticeably rich on the palate, the wine delivers a sense of creaminess seldom seen in Sauvignon Blanc. A few more months of bottle age will make things even better.
Look to find the 2016 Solstice Sauvignon Blanc — and the special three packs — in Sierra Starr tasting room by late spring or early summer.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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