Wine School: Extended Maceration

This centuries’ old technique adds deep colors, flavors and texture from the grapes themselves

photo by Marianne Perdomo via Flickr

photo by Marianne Perdomo via Flickr

The rise in popularity of orange wines—made by keeping white grapes on the skins for a few hours, which gives wines an oxidized peach or copper hue—has also led to increased interest in a similar technique for reds. Extended maceration involves keeping the wine in tank or barrel on the skins for weeks or even months—long after fermentation has actually completed. Evan Zimmerman, general manager of restaurant Reverie in Washington, D.C., is a fan of this technique, which he says “manipulates the wine without adding anything or taking anything away.” In other words, the components that are inherent in the skins add their own nuance without the need for other ingredients, and could be lost if separated from the juice too quickly.

The main reason to turn to this process is to to crank up the volume in a way. “Extended maceration adds additional color, tannin and other polyphenols from the skins,” explains Jeffrey Bencus, lead sommelier at Bellagio in Las Vegas. Polyphenols are the micronutrients found in antioxidant-rich foods and beverages including tea, chocolate, extra virgin olive oil and blueberries. They also help preserve wine, which can be especially important for natural winemaking, Zimmerman says. “Winemakers who are passionate about making wines with no additional sulphur dioxide may use extended maceration as a way to help [them] age for many years to come.”

There is another effect on wines, albeit one that’s a bit more subjective: extended maceration can affect a wine’s texture, making it (as Zimmerman describes) “lush and elegant or crunchy and gravelly.” One of his favorite examples is the Jean-Yves Peron Savoie La Grande Journée Altesse from France, which touts funky floral aromas, a deep orange hue and a noticeable textural component.

The process is most often used in Italy, Bencus says, especially among traditionally-minded producers working with the Nebbiolo grape in the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG appellations. Here, long, slow fermentations lasting up to a few months are common (with the actual fermentation completing well before the maceration), after which wines are aged in large, old, neutral-oak casks. Extended maceration is in fact the reason that the thin-skinned Nebbiolo grape is capable of producing Barolo, arguably one of the biggest, boldest, most tannic wines in the world. “Bartolo Mascarello Barolo is a great traditionally-made wine that shows the classic ripe cherry with rose petal notes, dried strawberry, truffle and tar,” he says. Modern producers, he notes, opt for shorter maceration and smaller oak barrels to make the wines softer and more approachable in their youth.  

Zimmerman is also partial to extended maceration using off-the-beaten varietals like poulsard, a very thin-skinned grape whose bitterness is usually tempered by blending with other varietals. Keeping the grapes on the skins on their own, though, results in “beautiful wines that, although still lighter in body, have lovely texture and tannin structure… and perform wonderfully when paired with all kinds of food.”

Extended maceration is nothing new, though. Wine has been made this way for hundreds of years in Friuli and across the border in Slovenia, and for thousands of years in Georgia. For more modern winemakers, what’s old is most definitely new again.

Bottles to try:

2014 Cantina Bartolo Mascarello Barolo ($154.95), notes of classic ripe cherry, rose petal, dried strawberries, truffle and tar.

2015 Produttori del Barbaresco ($50), rose, violets and raspberries and an elegant body and finish.

2010 Gravner Amphora Ribolla Gialla ($70), made with grapes that have been cultivated in the region for more than a thousand years, fermented in Georgian amphorae buried underground, no fining or filtration.

2015 Jean-Yves Peron Savoie La Grande Journée Altesse ($50), funky floral aromas, a deep orange hue and a noticeable textural component.