Canadian winemaker says concrete tanks worth their weight

Despite the romance of wine cellars filled with oak barrels, most modern wine is aged in massive stainless steel tanks. But a new, unconventional strategy is gaining popularity.

Unconventional material more traditional than you might expect

Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland, B.C., is among the first wineries in Canada to use concrete tanks instead of stainless steel to age its wine. (Lionel Trudel)

Despite the romance of wine cellars filled with oak barrels, most modern wine is aged in massive stainless steel tanks.

Those tanks allow winemakers to consistently produce vast quantities of wine to feed a growing global market. But despite the predictability of stainless steel, some winemakers are turning to another alternative.

Advocates of the concrete wine barrel compare the material to early wine-aging materials like clay or stone.

Michael Bartier, winemaker at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland, B.C., is among the first in Canada to invest in giant concrete tanks.

"It's about coming back to the beginning,” he says. “To revolve back to what is correct and traditional is to go back to the original vessel for winemaking, earthen pots buried in the earth. This is not technology at all. It’s anti-technology."
Six black, egg-shaped concrete tanks at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery were purchased from a supplier in Sonoma, Calif., in 2011. (Lionel Trudel)

Concrete tanks tend to produce wines that have more in common with older wines from the Mediterranean than they do conventional, newer wines.

Bartier says a lot has to do with the fact that concrete vessels are not inert, and harbour an ecosystem of life that affects the wine.

The giant tanks are not lined with anything on the inside. The rough, stony surface is constantly in contact with the aging wine, and that surface is home to a world of yeast and bacteria.

"They can live from vintage to vintage in that rough surface of the concrete,” he explains. “And those bacteria and yeast help the fermentation. That is yeast from our vineyard... rather than yeast imported from Champagne or Barolo or some other area of the world."

For now, only a handful of Canadian wineries are using concrete tanks for aging wine. That's partly because concrete tanks need to be imported from manufacturers in Europe or California and can weigh several tonnes each.

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