Drinking wine made from grapes that spend a lot of time hanging around oak vessels often feels a bit like listening to a comedian who idolizes Rodney Dangerfield. It’s hard not to roll your eyes occasionally at the forehead-slapping lack of subtlety.
Winemaking, in recent decades, has turned a corner. Both winemakers and wine lovers are increasingly inspired by wines that are made with purity—organically grown grapes, less intervention in the cellar—and that transparently reflect the terroir. Land over hand.
A winemaker’s most obvious fingerprint is often made by their choice of vessel.
“The vessel a winemaker chooses to ferment and age their wines in can have an enormous impact on the final product,” says traveling winemaker Carlo DeVito, also author of Drink the Northeast: The Ultimate Guide to Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries in the Northeast. “Over the years, I’ve worked with everything, from oak, to steel, to clay, to glass. They each have their purpose, but I will say that if you want a completely clean fermentation and you want to know what a grape truly tastes like, fermenting and aging it in glass will you get you there.”
The material of the container in which a wine ferments and ages must be chosen with care. These days, it’s common to see a mixture of qvevri (a.k.a. amphora), wooden barrels or barriques, concrete tanks or eggs and stainless-steel tanks in a winery’s cellar. Each item has a purpose and a fairly straight-forward lineage.
The first winemakers in the world used qvevri to ferment, age and store wine in modern-day Georgia around 8,000 years ago.
The qvevri is a simple terracotta amphora, and the porous vessel allows for oxygen transfer between the air outside the qvevri and the wine itself. The material is neutral and won’t add flavor to the wine, but the oxygen transfer lends the wine a deep, rippling texture that has an effect on the mouthfeel of the wine.
Several millennia later, around the 1st century B.C., Romans discovered that the wood barrels they were using to transport wine also smoothed out harsh and rustic reds and enhanced the aromas of wine, lending notes of vanilla, baking spice, toffee and other flavors. Different woods impart different flavors and aromas, and French oak became, for centuries, de rigueur for discerning producers and wine lovers. Oak is less porous than amphora but capable of impacting texture and enhancing complexity as well.
Concrete tanks were also introduced by the Romans and were then popularized in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Like oak, concrete allows for some oxygen transfer, so there is an impact on texture and body, but because the vessel is neutral, there’s no change to the wine’s inherent flavor.
Stainless steel tanks were introduced in the 1950s, and winemakers began fermenting, aging and storing wine in them. The goal was to create an inert vessel that would practically eliminate the wine’s access to oxygen and wouldn’t impart a flavor on the wine.
Then, in the early 21st century, Michel Chapoutier and a concrete wine container manufacturer developed the concrete egg; proponents say the egg shape helps build texture and flavor better than the larger square tanks because the lees (leftover yeast particles) remain suspended during fermentation.
Glass, typically the vessel of choice for home winemakers, has been popping up more and more in some of the most experimental and progressive cellars in the world.
“Burgundian winemakers noticed that at the end of wine’s batch, the ones they kept in ‘dames jeannes,’ or small glass vats, had an exceptional expression, precision, freshness,” says Marie Paetzold, a managing partner at Wineglobe. “So, they asked Michael Paetzold to work on similar containers but of a larger size and more resistant. That’s how the Wineglobe came about in 2014, from the demand of winemakers.”
Paetzold says that glass helps the wine tell its story.
“In the Wineglobe, wine tells everything about its terroir, varietal characteristics and the work involved,” she says. “The absolute neutral-ness of our glass-made vessel enables full expression of the grapes without any incidence or mask. Every single Wineglobe user has commented on the precision, the purity and the clearness. The objective, ultimately, is to create expressive wines with great aging potential.”
The Bordeaux company will offer wineglobes that hold up to 400 liters by 2023, and their clients for smaller globes already include several of the hautest cutting-edge vignerons in France, including Stephane Deroncourt at Domaine d l’A, Christophe Perrot-Minot at Domaine Perrot-Minot and Anabelle Cruse Bardient at Chateau Corbin.
Fermentation and aging procedures, Paetzold explains, are up to the winemaker.
“Fermentations take place classically, as in any other vessel,” she says. “The aging process depends on the winemaker’s objectives and technical itinerary, of course. Wineglobes are used as other containers for eight to ten months on whites and a year and a half on reds, but again, there is no rule. For example, a Burgundian client was so happy with his 2015 vintage that he decided to keep part of his production in Wineglobes and commercialize it in 10 years!”
Experimental winemakers have been using smaller glass containers like carboys and demijohns for decades.
“In the Hudson Valley, we worked with a lot of hybrid and native grapes, like Jefferson, Delaware, Burdin and Iona,” says DeVito, former co-owner of Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, NY, which he sold in 2020. “I often did micro-vinifications in carboys or demijohns for experimental purposes. We knew with the glass, we’d get a clean taste and precise picture of each grape. We’d vinify them separately, then decide on the blends for our Heirloom White and Red.”
From there, DeVito would establish blend percentages and finish them in steel.
The driving force behind the push toward glass among larger vintners is often all about letting the grape and terroir have their say.
Anabelle Cruse Bardinet, owner of Chateau Corbin, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé winery in Bordeaux, has been using Wineglobes to ferment and age wine, starting with the 2019 vintage of Cabernet Franc.
“We use them mainly for Cabernet Franc but also for our Merlot in the Chateau Corbin blend,” Cruse Bardinet explains. “We age the wine inside of them during the end of fermentation until the bottling, just as we would use a new oak barrel. We’re looking for purity and respect for the wine. We want to keep the freshness of the grapes and their typicity.”
Christine Derencourt, the vigneron at Bordeaux’s Domaine de l’A ferments and ages whites and ages red in 220-liter Wineglobes. (They age most of their reds in oak barrels, but Derencourt loves what the globes do for Cabernet Franc.)
“Our job as vintner leads us to experiment with various methods in order to gain even more authenticity towards the land,” Derencourt says. “Aging is a matter that is essentially based on the intimate role of oxygen and time. We want to experience aging without oxygen, and we are experiencing that time on its own can smooth out the tannins while preserving the aromatic quality. A lot of patience is needed, but the result seems very promising.”
At the biodynamic Vins El Cep Bodega in Penedes, Spain, meanwhile, the team has started finishing their Malvasia in glass demi-johns.
“We do carbonic maceration and then age the wine in barriques and finish it demi-johns to round out the flavor without influencing it,” CEO, winegrower and winemaker Maite Esteve says. “It allows the flavor and purity of the wine to shine through.”
Raj Parr, winemaker at Sandhi Wines in Sta. Rita Hills and Evening Land Wines in the Willamette Valley, was excited enough by what he saw happening to the wines his colleagues were making in glass to grab a few globes for his grapes.
“I’m just bringing them in now, so it’s too early to say how this project will evolve,” Parr says. “But I’m really excited to see what anaerobic fermentation and aging will do. Unlike concrete and wooden barrels, glass globes won’t breathe. The wines, I think, will be more linear. [It’s] like a steel tank, but because it’s a globe and the wine will have more contact with the vessel, I think more texture will develop.”
The ultimate goal?
“I am hoping this will allow me to let the grapes be what they are and deliver the purest expression of grape and place,” Parr says.