Fermentation in Stainless Steel vs. Concrete Barrels

While the quintessential image of winemaking features broad oak barrels and maybe a beautiful woman stomping on grapes barefoot and in an oaken vessel, times and winemaking has changed. Many winemakers have come to see the benefits of alternative fermentation vessels – benefits that reach beyond cost savings and efficiency and into the artistry of winemaking and the field of flavor potential.

In the rise of alternative fermentation vessels, two options reign supreme: stainless steel barrels and cement eggs.

In actuality, the cement egg fermenter isn’t a new phenomenon. The Romans were known for fermenting their wine in concrete containers and, like all history, the cement fermenter has come back time and again. In the recent climate of barrel shortages and booming wineries, the cement egg is favored for being a more porous alternative to stainless steel barrels. The porous nature of concrete allows for micro-oxidization, much like traditional oak barrels. Micro-oxidation can help a wine develop a more textured shape and flavor. However, unlike oak, cement can maintain a cool temperature and draws out a richer fruit flavor than oak barrels.

Then there are stainless steel wine barrels, such as Skolnik’s, which have risen above cement tanks since ancient Rome and aren’t going anywhere soon. Neither cement nor oak barrels can compete with stainless steel when it comes to cleanliness – both in the physical practice of cleaning and, most importantly, in flavor. Stainless steel results in a neutral fermentation. Little flavor is added to the fruit unless it is specifically put there by the winemaker. When you ferment in stainless steel you preserve the purity of the fruit flavors already present in the grapes themselves. This purity is why winemakers largely favor stainless steel for white wines like a crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

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Choosing the right fermentation barrel is an important task for winemakers. Their methods often define the flavors and reputation of their products, so it is no surprise that winemakers have their preferences. As Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines in California put it “Given the choice between licking cement and licking stainless steel, I’d rather lick stainless. Since the wine ends up on my tongue, that pretty well says it all.”

There are a million factors at play, including climate and the intended wines, but in the end it’s all about careful choice, artistry and the willingness to experiment.