Step into most any Long Island winery — where the wine is actually made, not the tasting room — and you’re mostly going to see two types of vessels: stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. These containers are used for fermenting and aging wine. You’ll find some open-top bins that are used for fermentation too, but barrels and tanks are the cornerstone of any winery’s production facility.
Macari Vineyards has a lot of these tanks and oak barrels of different sizes and ages, but they also have something unique to Long Island wine — concrete eggs. Yes. Really.
The use of concrete in winemaking isn’t new — it dates back to the 19th century in Europe, where it’s still widely used today. The egg-shaped concrete vessel, however, dates back in Europe only to 2001.
It’s some of those European wines, and some from California, that inspired the Macari family to purchase their first two eggs a few years ago.
“My father had been looking for these eggs for years,” said Gabriella Macari, who oversees distribution and marketing for the winery. “We were tasting a lot of wines from California, France and Austria that were made in concrete eggs. Some 100 percent, some partially. We were very inspired be these examples.”
Concrete has several advantages over oak and stainless steel and, in some ways, offers characteristics of each. Unlike oak barrels, concrete doesn’t impart any of its own flavors or tannins to the wine, but it does allow slow air transfer, similar to barrels. Stainless steel is flavor-neutral but also doesn’t allow any air exchange.
Because the walls of concrete wine vessels are thick, they protect against abrupt temperature variations, keep whites naturally cool and allow for easier temperature control as red wines warm during fermentation.
Concrete isn’t without its downsides, however. The eggs are expensive — though not that different from oak barrels by volume. And because of their weight, they are costly to ship, in the Macaris’ case from Sonoma Cast Stone in California to Mattituck. Their weight also makes them difficult to move within a cellar and they require some different care and cleaning than more typical winery equipment.
That’s all true of any concrete container, however. The egg shape has its own impacts on the wine. Because there aren’t any corners or dead spaces, the wine basically stirs itself and its lees (residual yeast and other grape particles that precipitated out during fermentation). That brings added texture to egg-fermented wines.
“I think that both elements of the concrete eggs, shape and material, add to the style of the wine. The geometry of a fermentation vessel always plays a part in the dynamics of the fermentation, no matter what material the tank is constructed from,” says Kelly Urbanik Koch, Macari’s winemaker.
Joe Macari, winery co-owner, feels a more spiritual connection to the eggs, much as he does to his vineyard land.
“The actual [egg] shape interests me more than the fact that it is cement. It’s the concentration of cosmic forces that really play a part in the fermentation process that I’m really fascinated in.”
Each of the winery’s four concrete eggs holds 478 gallons of juice or wine and, starting with the 2013 vintage, Macari has used them for sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc. Those grapes were chosen for the first egg trials because they’ve proven to be the “most expressive” of their vineyard’s terroir, according to Urbanik Koch.
“Fermenting in the concrete has allowed us to explore another aspect of the fruit which we hadn’t seen before. There is purity to the fruit expression similar to stainless steel but with another dimension to the palate, which hadn’t been attained through oak or stainless steel fermentation,” she says.
That added dimension would seem to be texture and mouthfeel. I found that both in my own experience tasting the wines and when talking with Gabriella Macari, who said, “There is something magical we find about the texture of our egg fermented sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc. It’s beyond taste, it’s a feeling that we never experienced before from any of our wines. Wines are energetic, radically round and wide on the palate.”
The 2015 vintage marks the winery’s third using the concrete eggs and I’ve been able to taste the other two vintages — either from the eggs themselves or in finished wines, which are labeled “Lifeforce.” My notes are riddled with terms like “mid-palate intensity,” “balance” and “expressive.”
It’s too early to know if other wineries will invest in concrete eggs, but the initial returns at Macari are exciting. I asked Urbanik Koch what other varieties she might try in the eggs, thinking that maybe syrah or viognier would be good candidates. She wouldn’t even give me a hint, saying, “You’ll have to wait and see what we try in the future!”
Everyone should be watching. It’s an exciting development in the journey to expressing Long Island terroir.