Winemaker takes a concrete step forward

Jesse Lange, winemaker and general manager at Lange Estate Winery in Dundee, Ore., takes a sample of Pinot gris fermented entirely in the winery's new concrete vessel.

French oak and stainless steel have earned their place in the winery, but a growing number of Northwest winemakers are experimenting with a third maturation material: concrete.

At Lange Estate Winery in Dundee, Ore., winemaker Jesse Lange celebrated the 30th anniversary of his family business with a brand-new piece of equipment: a 500-gallon concrete tank from Sonoma Cast Stone. With a pricetag of about $15,000, it weighs about 6,000 pounds, is made from specially formulated concrete, and is shaped like a gigantic egg. According to the company’s CEO, Steve Rosenblatt, they’ve sold roughly 500 concrete tanks to wineries.

“It shows up during the middle of harvest,” Jesse laughs of his purchase. “We had to use two forklifts to unload it, it was so heavy.”

Why concrete? Jesse had tasted some concrete-matured wines from other wineries, including Syncline Wine Cellars in the Columbia Gorge AVA, and was excited by the textural and flavor contributions of the material, especially when it came to the balanced, Burgundian-style wines he and his team produce.

After an initial treatment that included spraying the egg with a solution of tartaric acid, Jesse was ready to take the egg for a spin. The very first fill was Pinot gris must, which underwent a complete fermentation in concrete.

A sample pulled from a valve in the side revealed a citrusy, lightly tropical wine with chalky mineral undertones and a soft, almost powdery texture. “The wine has gained some gravity,” Jesse says, “especially in the mid-palate. There’s a lot of richness, but it’s not heavy, it’s more like volume.”

After the Pinot gris is finished, Jesse plans to replace it with Chardonnay, followed by Pinot noir. It’s all part of the getting-to-know-you process, he says. “You can’t improve something until you understand it, and you can’t understand without experimenting.”

Concrete is trendy right now, but it’s not a brand new material in the wine world. Subterranean tanks made from concrete have historically been used in Burgundy, France, and ceramic amphorae made from similar material have been employed for millennia in Georgia in eastern Europe. Jesse is excited about concrete’s potential contribution to Oregon wines, especially white wines such as Pinot gris and Chardonnay, which he says are becoming more popular.

“We’ve been making Chardonnay for 30 years, but all of a sudden, people are like, ‘Can we get more?’” says Jesse. “I know we’re making some of the best Chardonnay in the world. New world Pinot gris started in the Willamette Valley. As Oregonians, we don’t toot our own horn very well, but as an industry, we need to do it.”

While Lange Estate Winery hasn’t released any concrete wine yet, Jesse is feeling optimistic about the first tests.

He’s not sure yet if this year’s concrete wine will be bottled as a standalone label, or if it will be used as a component of Lange’s annual Pinot Gris Reserve release, but he is already eyeing another concrete vessel — this one even larger than the first.

“It’s a 1,000-gallon cube,” he says. “I’ve heard the shape might make solids drop out of solution more quickly.” Why more concrete? Jesse says he’s excited about the way the wines taste. Then he laughs. “And having a story to tell is always important.”

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