We often hear about the maturation and aging of wine. What does this do to the wine and how is it done? This process occurs after harvesting the grapes, covered in our previous edition of Millesima Tips. In this edition, we dive into the process of maturing wine.
Aging vs. Maturation: What should you say?
Wine can be matured or aged. What’s the difference between the two, you ask? When discussing wine that is stored in barrels or after bottling, the French language is very useful to understanding the nuances of this crucial process. France is one of the most reputable wine producing countries. Let’s look to the language used by the world’s top wine-growers for enlightenment. After the fermentation period is over, wine is put into barrels or stainless steel tanks before bottling. This is called “elevage,” which quite literally translates to “breeding” of wine. In English, we refer to this step in wine production as maturation. After the wine is bottled it undergoes “vieillissement,” or aging. Unfortunately, somewhere over the years, the clarity of this distinction has been lost. Aging can be incorrectly used for both the process when wine is stored before and after bottling. In this article, we will be discussing the maturation of wine.
Adding flavors to wine
Wine is fermented into grape juice after yeast converts sugar into alcohol. After a wine is matured, its natural aromas and flavors are strengthened. Tannins become more round and less acidic. The wine’s structure becomes more pronounced, which allow them to age post-bottling for longer periods of time.
Lees, or leftover yeast from the fermentation process, is often removed from the wine before maturation. One way that this takes place is a process called racking. Racking is the evacuation of wine from a container, with lees, that is transferred to another using gravity. If the lees are left in contact with wine, unwanted flavors and aromas can develop. However, in certain cases, lees stimulate the development of distinct pleasant characteristics. When this happens, the wines are stirred regularly so that the lees can be in contact with all of the wine in a container. This is known as “batonnage” in French.
Barrel & Tanks
Wine is a living product, which means that is always in a constant state of change. How a wine changes before bottling is determined by a myriad of influences: grape variety, the duration of the maturation process and the type of container used.
Maturation in tanks can last from 1-2 months for wines meant to be drunk in their youth and up to 10-12 wines for wines designed for extended aging. Tanks preserve the fruity aromas of young wines, and remain neutral (not adding additional flavors). However, using tanks requires several filtrations and racking. There are several different types of tanks that are used to mature wine, especially concrete and stainless steel.
A popular technique used to mature wine is barrel maturation in oak (French & American are quite common). The oak of the barrel provides additional complexity. Wood is a porous material that provides a slight oxidation of the wine. Depending on how toasted the wood is, the notes can range from vanilla, caramel and hazelnuts. Wood-matured wines also have tannins that are more rounded than its non-aged counterparts. When wine critics describe wines saying that they have complex flavors, it is very common that they were matured in oak.