Thursday, April 24, 2008

Moving Away from Stainless Steel

Nearly ten years ago when he was first starting out, David Leclapart told me that he didn’t want any stainless steel in his cellar because the process of its manufacture creates a negative electromagnetic energy that affects the wines. (Leclapart ferments his champagnes in used barrels from Domaine Leflaive and blends them in an old steel tank that looks like a relic from World War I.)

This week in the Loire, I thought about this while visiting several cellars where growers expressed an aversion to stainless steel. (Admittedly, this has a lot to do with the sort of producers I choose to visit.) Fabrice Gasnier, in Cravant-les-Coteaux, makes pure and delicious Chinon from biodynamically-grown vines, fermented in large, unlined cement vats that his father built in the early 1970s. Gasnier doesn’t like stainless as it’s too reductive, noting that the porosity of cement allows for a slow, controlled oxygenation.

Bernard Baudry, arguably Chinon’s finest producer, also praises the virtues of cement. In 2005 he installed some unlined cement vats for fermentation, and has been so pleased with the results that he is now in the process of replacing all of his stainless steel with cement. Currently, his Chinon Les Granges is still vinified in stainless steel, although he ages it in cement for four to five months, and the other cuvées are all fermented in cement before being put into barrel for aging.

But perhaps Leclapart is right: beyond tradition, beyond character, beyond technical reasons for preferring other materials, there could be a property of stainless steel that inspires a negative reaction, however subtle. In Bourgueil, Yannick Amirault has recently built a new cellar where one wall is lined with stainless steel vats, which he uses to ferment his St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil La Source and Bourgueil La Coudraye, and the other with a few cement tanks and large, conical wooden vats for fermenting the other wines. The cellar is very spacious, with plenty of room to maneuver, but Amirault admits to a subconscious gravitational tendency. “I always walk on this side of the room,” he says, indicating the side with the wooden vats, “and I never really want to walk on the other side. There’s something about the stainless steel tanks that feels very cold.”


spume said...

Hey Peter, cool post. I've long appreciated other vessels for fermentation, from concrete to glass demi-johns. Anyway, when I was recently in Piedmont I found a few producers who rely on their cement tanks (some lined, some not) rather than stainless steel for precisely the reasons you state here, that the metal, and the electrical charges used int he cooling jackets, somehow disrupts the wine within the tank.

- wolfgang

Henri Vasnier said...

"[T]he process of [stainless steel's] manufacture creates a negative electromagnetic energy that affects the wines"???

Superstition? Not science, one suspects. Rationalization for use of lower-cost materials? Wood is not fully cleanable, and unlined concrete isn't a lot better, granted that one can manage around those problems.

Somewhere, a hedge fund manager is (or has been) figuring out how to make "stainless" steel products that the market will accept as such but that are much cheaper to manufacture. Are there inferior tanks on the market, made out of steel that's supposedly "stainless" but is not genuinely nonreactive? An experience or two with such tanks would certainly leave a sour taste in a winemaker's mouth....

Peter Liem said...

No, it's certainly not scientific. But then again, there are a lot of things that winemakers do that aren't scientifically "sound".

Joe said...

Totally unlined cement? Really? Doesn't it react pretty strongly with the wine to raise the pH and dissolve the container?

And I notice no negative energy around Pierre Breton's Avis du vin fort in 2007, nor in a recent '05 Nuits du Ivresse, inox notwithstanding.


Peter Liem said...

Hi Joe,

I know, I was suspicious too. But both Gasnier and Baudry said that even just one fermentation in cement builds up a thick enough layer of tartrate crystals to provide a layer of protection, while remaining permeable enough to allow a subtle micro-oxygenation. I certainly don’t claim to understand it, but that’s what they told me. Gasnier and his dad have been using the same tanks since 1972, and have been very pleased.

I just drank a delicious bottle of Nuits d'Ivresse lately as well. Maybe we've been subtly exposed to negative energy without realizing it!

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