Winemaking: Maceration Carbonique
This term refers to a process that some winemakers disdain, saying that much wine made in the normal way is made using the process anyway (rather like certain chefs who say that they have always used Cuisine minceur or Nouvelle cuisine). There are also those who make it sound so difficult to grasp – obviously details of processes vary from region to region – that the ordinary drinker is thoroughly confused. So no attempt at entering into details on what is a fairly complicated technique of winemaking will be attempted here.
In essence, what maceration carbonique achieves is the production of a fruity, slightly soft-bodied wine from grapes that might be hard, tannic, stalky while young, and which might take a long time to become reasonably drinkable. This has obvious advantages in certain regions, where the small-scale wines (formerly made only for local and domestic use) simply cannot complete in the more important outside markets with the quality of more famous wines, even with long-term maturation and careful making. Nor can these regions satisfy the demand for easy, everyday wines that are quickly ready and possess qualities that appeal to a wide public.
In very general terms, the process requires that the grapes be left to press themselves, and not be whipped off the stems by fouloir-egrappoir. While they are all piled up in their bunches, not only does juice begin to run from them because of their own weight, but also a type of fermentation starts taking place within each grape. After a set time, the grapes are then processed in the usual way – whatever it is in that region. High standards of cleanliness and supervision are essential, as otherwise the grapes would simply rot. But the resulting wine will be soft, fruity and usually very fragrant – almost from the first weeks after it has been made. This means that it can be bottled early and need not spend time in cask or vat, and that it is ready to drink immediately it is in bottle – all obvious economic advantages.
The process seems to have been first used significantly in the Rhone Valley, in the middle of this century; but it is now involved with many other wines in different parts of the world. Sometimes only a proportion of a wine will be made utilising the maceration carbonique process; at others the wine will be wholly made according to this method.
The essential character of the wine does not alter, except that it is ready to drink after months, instead of years. Even with long keeping (a costly procedure) some petits vins would simply never achieve the quality level of the great ones but, made ready to enjoy while they are young, their essential attributes are maintained. Only the elements that would otherwise have to be smoothed out by time are removed. For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon – backbone of the sort of red wines that, at their finest, have the longest lives of any table wine – can be grown on what were formerly unregarded plots owned by peasant farmers. It can be used to make a wine that has the colour, bouquet and basic flavour of a good red with a touch of class bestowed by the great grape; but it can be sold at a fraction of the price of the great clarets or Cabernet Sauvignons of the New World.
The Carignan, a grape that tends to make wines with a harsh, almost bitter, aggressive style if processed in the usual way. Can be used to yield wines which possess the warmth and sturdiness of the south without any of the characteristics that could usually only be softened by time. The numerous good vins du pays could never have attracted buyers from regions outside their own without making wines by the maceration carbonique method.
The ordinary drinker should not bother about trying to notice this – it is part of winemaking technique. Like the use of certain things for fining or a particular bottling procedure. If, however, you are interested in the backstage routines of the wine world, it is worth bearing in mind that if you try a new wine and are impressed by its fruit – although it is comparatively inexpensive and comes from a region either previously little-known or from a grape not associated in your mind with the sort of agreeably-smelling, mouth-filling, clean. Fresh wine of this kind – then it is very likely that at least some of this will be the result of the maceration carbonique process.