By Simone Bergese
Pre-bottling aging is a charming word adopted by the winemaking industry to explain what happens to the wine after the fermentation and before bottling.
The reality is that under this term you often find extremely different conditions. These vary based both on the grape variety the specific wine comes from and on the style the winemaker has in mind for the final product.
In the beginning, after the first phases of fermentation, the wine matter is only a jumbled mix of thousands of elements that do not have harmony or balance yet. During the following aging months, this mix will start to make sense and will finally get a presentable shape that ideally results in a balanced and harmonious wine. In some aspects, the aging also adds chemical stability to the product.
Initially, the aging process can take two completely different directions based predominantly on the color of the wine itself. In fact, white wines typically go through an aging method that tends to neglect the involvement and the natural action of the oxygen. This process is called reductive aging.
On the opposite side, red wine aging follows different rules which involve the controlled action of the oxygen as a fundamental game-changer agent responsible for this so called “oxidative process.”
The main media used for the red wine process are the wood barrels.
The reductive aging does not use barrels since wines will be stored predominantly in stainless steel tanks with no exchange with outside elements whatsoever. The wine aged in the tanks evolves slowly, minimally changing its original profile. Typically these wines will be bottled very young.
The oxidative process used for 99 percent of red wines made (and for a handful of white wines, such as Chardonnay) happens by using wood barrels for the purpose of creating micro-oxygenation conditions. Here, small parts of oxygen permeate through the staves of the barrels, bonding with the components of the wine and the barrel, while changing the wine itself over time. Everything changes: the flavors, the tannins, the body, the colloids system, and the color.
The reason we use that process is because of the way our modern palates prefer red wines or perhaps the classic American Chardonnay. Does the wine need it? No, but trust me, you wouldn’t like the wine near as much if it wasn’t aged in barrels.
As a winemaker, the aging process is a very complex phase to master with many different elements. I choose the kind of wooden barrels, the forest where the oak trees grew, the toasting level of the staves, the temperature, and the relative humidity of the room where the barrels are kept, the sulfites management, the racking, and the stirrings until the decision is made to remove the wine and bottle it.
Like with people, aging changes unpredictability into stability, allowing for some rough edges to become a complexity in accordance to what it is commonly described to be smooth and stable. We’re not so different from wine after all.
Simone Bergese is a national and internationally award-winning winemaker from Alba, Italy and holds a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from the Turin University in Northern Italy. After working in a number of well-known wineries in Italy, Australia and Virginia, he joined Château Élan in 2013. Simone’s Chateau Elan wines since won over 150 awards at prestigious wine competitions.