This is part of a new series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word will post every Wednesday and will cover anything and everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term. If you have a recommendation or request, please leave it in the comments.
Carbonic Maceration (n.) Winemaking Term
Also called Carbonic Fermentation, Whole Cluster Fermentation and à l’ancienne, depending on who you're talking to and in what part of the world they're making wine. This type of red wine fermentation is anaerobic. Entire clusters of berries are gently placed in the fermentation vat and covered with a blanket of carbon dioxide, which blocks oxygen from interloping with the fruit. The fermentation process then begins inside the unbroken berries, as if each grape were producing one tiny bottle of wine for tiny fairies to drink upon their midnight mushroom rings. This method produces light bodied, lightly colored red wines with exuberant fresh fruit flavors - some people note bananas or kirsch in the glass, though the former often means a manufactured yeast has been used - that are intended to drink young.
Beaujolais is typically the go-to region when we think of carbonic maceration. That's not always the case, especially in more vineyard and cru specific cuvées that carry a bit more color and tannin and years, but the method is common. The carignan grape, popular in southern France, is often a candidate for carbonic maceration because of the fruit's genetic makeup: high acid, high tannin, deep color, astringent and bitter. Undergoing carbonic maceration produces red wine with a soft nature and easy drinkability.
Broc Cellars in California makes a beautiful old vine carignan by this method. (I've written recently about the Love Red and the Cabernet Franc, neither of which employ carbonic maceration, but both are damn delicious and I highly recommend seeking them out.)
Earlier this week, I wrote about Château d'Oupia Les Héréritiques, made from 100% carignan, only half of which undergoes carbonic maceration.
A few years ago, I wrote about Marcel Lapierre's Raisins Gaulois, a superb representation of the carbonic maceration in Beaujolais. The first bit of the post is a personal story about a lunch I once had in Beaujolais (please excuse the improperly used semi-colon) but if you scroll down, Lapierre's wine is in bold.
**November 30th adendum: Upon speaking with importer Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler this afternoon about the Pierre Chermette Beaujolais 2014, I learned that the carbonic maceration method, where the clusters are blanketed with carbon dioxide in a sealed tank, is actually a modern approach that came about in the 1960s. The traditional or á l'ancienne is technically a semi-carbonic process. An intra-cellular fermentation takes place, but the protective layer of carbon dioxide is "self-formed carbonic," Weygandt says, where the grapes begin fermentation on their own accord with the native yeasts that followed them in from the vineyard. The soft tannins and bright, cherry flavors are still there, but so is a distinct note of terroir and backbone.