Today’s Wine Word: Extended Maceration



Well, this is the week for tongue twisters! We talked about malolactic fermentation for Chardonnay and now we need to give red wines equal time by visiting extended maceration.

As you know, all of the color and most of the flavor and texture and tannin in red wine comes from the grape skins – the juice runs clear. 

So, for red wine is made by fermenting the juice and skins together. But, for many winemakers, the week or so that it takes for the wine to complete fermentation isn’t long enough to get all those goodies out of the skins. There are three ways to go when the winemaker want more skin-contact time: 

1. Do a cold soak: The winemaker delays the onset of fermentation for a few days by keeping the juice cool. It’s not uncommon to blanket the crushed fruit with dry ice, which not only cools the must down – it prevents oxidation. This technique helps to get the goodies, including the relatively supple tannins from the skins, up front, before there’s any alcohol in the mix (alcohol extracts seed tannin, which is harsher than skin tannin). Many who do a cold soak follow up with early pressing (getting the wine drained away from the skins) to minimize seed tannin extraction. My Diamond Mountain client favors this approach because her vineyard (and mountain appellations in general) tends to produce very firm tannins. 

2. Extended Maceration: Once the wine is made, let the skins and wine rest together for days or weeks. More on this below. 

3. Do both. I have a valley floor client who goes with this. Valley floor vineyards aren’t often as tannic as hillside situations.

The counterintuitive part of extended maceration? More time on the skins means extracting more tannins, including seed tannins. This, theoretically, should increase astringency. But, those who favor this practice will go geeky on you, explaining that polimerization rounds out the mouthfeel because the tannins form a chain. In the meantime the wine is extracting all the other goodies: color, flavor, texture. Advocates claim better balance, increased ageability and smooth tannins.  

Like most things wine related, there’s no right or wrong way and there’s no consensus about the good or evil of it among winemakers.

Still others say that if the grapes are truly ripe, with mature seed tannins (they look brown and they’re crunchy), none of this should be an issue.

I just love it when one winemaker zigs where another zags. It’s so much more fun!

From a practical standpoint, some wineries simply can’t afford to do cold soak or extended maceration – it’s quite a luxury to tie up one tank for 30+ days. I once worked for a winery that got the wine off the skins pretty quickly because they had only so many tanks. The Syrah was breathing down their necks when the Merlot had only six days of skin contact, and they had to free up the tank whether they liked it or not. And, so it goes…

The Napa Valley crush is pretty much over. We’re still seeing a few boxes of grapes going up and down the highway but it’s winding down. With nearly perfect growing conditions, aside from a bit of rain, it’s looking like a vintage to look for! Lots of happy winemakers around here. Cheers!

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