So it seems to me that there are a lot of fun facts that float around the world: 70% of your body is water, most of your body heat is lost through your head, 80% of people believe they’re above-average drivers, etc… And I think a few float around the wine world, todays example: red wine gets all its flavor from the skins. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fun fact if there wasn’t a lot of truth to that and to be honest, where the flavors of the wine come from within the grape could be an article all it’s own, but today I want to talk about one thing: Extended Maceration.
So what is an Extended Maceration? The idea is stupidly simple. Let the wine soak in the skins longer after fermentation. The logic of this seems pretty simple, right? If the skins are the source of the flavor, more contact with the skins should result in better extraction of the flavor. But if it’s so simple, than why doesn’t every winemaker do this process? There has to be a reason.
At Fresno State, my professors and mentors gave me a variety of theories on this subject. The big problem was that they seemed to conflict and I have yet to work at a winery that employs this technique, so I have yet to see the results first-hand. The first thing to understand, however, is that the red wine doesn’t get its entire flavor from the skins. (don’t tell your local tour guide that, their head may explode) While the skins provide a lot of elements to the wine, their primary contribution to the wine is color and textural components.
So confusing theory #1 is that since the tannins (read molecules in wine that cause texture and mouth-drying effect) are largely localized in the skins, by doing a little skin-soak, we can get more tannin into the wine. Again, pretty simple concept, so the tannins should be extra intense as a result of this process, no?
Cue confusing theory #2: extended maceration is supposed to soften the wine. What? What happened to intensifying tannins? Now the wine is getting softer, isn’t that the opposite of what we were talking about? Apparently this theory is supposed to what I affectionately call “tannin-balls” in which the tannins clump up into big balls that roll over the tongue and create texture without creating overtly intense amounts of mouth-drying. (In chemistry tannin-balls are actually called “polymerized complexes” of tannin and are basically big snow-flakes of connected tannin molecules, but for me, it’s easier to think of them as big balls of tannin that roll over the tongue) Ok, so is the wine softening with tannin-balls, or is the tannin increasing in intensity?
Confusing theory #3: as the wine sits with the skins, it often is sitting with the seeds as well. With time the alcohol can eat away at the seeds causing them to release bitterness and astringency. Ok. This just isn’t fair. So the wine is getting more tannic and bitter, but now it’s getting bitter? What’s going on?
Unfortunately, before leaving Fresno State, I never got a chance to put all these theories together, and even during my first and second harvests, I never got to see us put this technique to work, so there I was, stupefied, trying to make sense of this conflicting information. However, I did eventually get my epiphany, and it came in the form of a line for gumbo.
Michael Eddy, the head premium Cabernet maker for Gallo was standing behind me in line for Gumbo at the Gallo Harvest Party, and I decided to ask him about these theories.
Apparently the tannin-ball theory is correct. As Michael explained, extended maceration tends to soften the wine, but it’s not so simple. Aromatically, it creates darker flavors, reducing fresh fruit and creating more earth tones. However, it takes a little of time before it starts to show any positive effect. At first, much like a teenager, the wine goes through a phase in which it’s hard to like and generally unpleasant, but like a teenager, after a little time, the wine begins to mellow out and improve. However, if an extended maceration goes for too long, it can get bitter. (It must be the seeds!)
This makes a lot of sense. For any international wine fanatics who may be reading this, extended maceration is common practice for the grape Nebbiolo, which has lots of tannin to soften and is known for its earthier flavors. Michael actually went as far as to say he didn’t like the technique, but it’s part of the winemaker’s paintbrush, and I’m excited to know more about it.
Update- 10/14/2012- The winemakers at Donelan are believers in confusing theory #1 and in the short-term winery results, it appears to be true, at least for concentrated Pinot Noir fruit. Still not sold that theories #2 and #3 are completely wrong, truth is likely somewhere in the middle.