Winemaking – Back To Its Roots
The winemaking process begins in the earth. Nature creates beautiful vines whose history is rooted deep in the soil. Old branches sprout new life every year in formed bunches, bunches of grapes that slowly ripen. Vintners wait patiently for just the right time and then pick, process, and wait once more. So why have winemakers strayed from the historically documented process of winemaking? Using Qvevri clay vessels dates back 8,000 years to the Georgian Era. Although many folks may recognize the reddish clay pots from history books, few really understand the significance they had on the development of winemaking.
A leader and innovator in the use of the terracotta clay vessels for wine fermentation is Josko Gravner. Deep in his vineyard, located in the northeastern region of Italy, hides a number of buried vessels. “The ground has all the life you need to give birth to grapes,” Gravner says. “A vine needs the earth to make a grape. Once you have that grape, you need the earth again to make the wine.” Although many winemakers still prefer traditional methods, others are looking toward the future, seeking out innovative ways of taking their wines to the next level. But what if nature and innovation collide?
What was once old can be new again. That is exactly what has happened with the wine industry in America, particularly, California. There has been a big buzz lately about the “next big thing”…the egg-shaped vessel. In the December edition of Wine Business Monthly, the cover story features large cement egg tanks. The coverage coincides with their March event, I+Q…Innovation + Quality, a “forum for ultra-premium wineries to focus on cutting-edge innovations that advance wine quality.” Vessels will be the main topic for discussion. Some of the West Coast’s largest wineries, such as Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Jackson Family Wines, and Michael Mendovi, are gathering there to discuss the new designs and new material vessels that have caught their interest. Cement tanks have been in wineries for years. But the chatter among these monster wineries is what’s now considered the next big thing in winemaking.
Vital Vessels, a California company, has recently introduced a ceramic egg vessel, the Magnum, to U.S. winemakers. Phil Sedgman, CEO of Living Water Flowforms, developed this egg technology from a tiny workshop in Byron Bay, Australia. Sedgman, assisted by Callum Coats, a gentleman revered as an expert on Viktor Schauberger’s work, created an egg-shaped vessel that mimics the hyperbolic cone design. Schauberger, a naturalist, philosopher, and visionary inventor of the early 1900’s, sported a particular motto around invention. He said, “Comprehend and copy nature.” That’s just what Sedgman and Coats have done. Following his study of Schauberger’s work, Coats pioneered the shape some 20 years ago, and with his assistance, Living Water Flowforms has brought the vessel to fruition.
Contemporary winemaking consists of several complex processes that once followed a natural occurrence. Today, the high tech processes used in winemaking are somewhat unnatural. Returning to nature starts with the egg shape itself that represents birth and new life. Like the Qvevri, the egg-shaped cylinder used during the fermentation process, is nothing new – it’s been around for thousands of years. Schauberger notes, “The beauty of the egg-shaped cylinder is its ability to allow nature’s innate movement to occur.” When water moves in a stream, it is considered alive. When it stops moving and becomes stagnant, it loses some of the healthy living properties it contains. Like spring water, water that flows contain higher nutrient value than when it rests.
This same concept holds true for wine. Oak or steal barrels have corners that stop liquid from moving naturally, causing stagnation, but in an egg-shaped cylinder the developing wine moves gently and naturally providing continuous circulation. Because of its unique shape, the vessel allows fluid to move with an even flow similar to a convection motion. Uniquely, during the fermentation process, the wine moves and breathes without stirring. Literally, there are no punch-downs needed. Subtle natural motion liberates the wine allowing it to form itself over time. This science in itself is a remarkable and mind-boggling concept.
The fermentation process is being simplified. The egg-shaped cylinder is a vessel with self-cooling properties. Sedgman claims that this ceramic egg “will not only maintain the vitality of the contained wine, but the finely-tuned porosity over the whole of the outer surface that assists in cooling and maintaining its coolness.” This is an advantage for wineries whose cooling systems are minimal.
Today’s winemakers use a chemical treatment or wax application necessary for retaining micro porosity. But if we’re trying to get back to nature and simplify the processes, a more organic and less time consuming approach should be taken. Ceramic is made from earthen materials that are vitrified – heated at a high temperature. This process creates the Magnum’s semi-permeable characteristic, eliminating the need for any chemical or wax treatments.
The weight of a vessel is another important element. A comparison conducted between the weight of cement and ceramics concluded that an Artisan Barrels cement egg that holds 158 gallons, weighs 2,645 pounds versus the Magnum ceramic egg that holds 178 gallons, weighs only 401 pounds including the 20-gallon additional capacity.
Innovation is at the forefront of winemakers’ minds. Discussions about new vessels, shapes, materials, and the quality of wine produced will be lively. Overall, the ceramic egg seems to provide the winemaker with several better characteristics than the other barrels and tank types made of oak, steal, or cement. It is lighter, holds more, lasts longer, requires no chemical treatment, and creates circulation that eliminates unnecessary steps in the fermentation process. The ceramic egg vessel will not only simplify the winemaking process, but also return an ancient process to its natural roots.