Over the years, innovators in the Italian wine industry have come up with a wide variety of new techniques that are intended to improve the quality of the wines offered to consumers. At times, such techniques have caused issues among producers and enthusiasts alike, as can be seen during the Barolo Wars period and during the introduction of the Super Tuscans. However, this innovation has also been a key driving force for the wine industry and has led to the creation of some truly spectacular wines.
Today, we are going to place out focus on a technique that some in the industry would deem controversial. It is called cold maceration and we are going to take a look at what it is and the reputed benefits it brings to the winemaking process.
What is It?
Cold maceration is essentially a different way of extracting the various compounds from the flesh, skin, pulp, and seeds of the grape into the wine must. Typically conducted at temperatures between four and 15 degrees Celsius between two and 10 days, the low temperature is intended to reduce the effect that spoilage organisms have on the end product.
Additionally, instead of focusing on alcoholic extraction, this technique places aqueous extraction, which results in the creation of more complex wines that include more fruity notes and increased intensity in both colour and flavour. To expand on this a little bit, we are not going to look at the individual reasons for why cold maceration may be used.
Wines made using this technique push fruit notes to the forefront, which in theory can make the wines more palatable. This is particularly true of red wines, which often find their fruitier notes hidden behind more complex and bitter notes, depending on the region of production and methods used.
However, some proponents of the technique argue that it can actually result in increased complexity, with pinot noir being a perfect example. A study conducted by Heatherbell found the cold maceration of these grapes actually led to the red berry flavours that are often so pronounced in pinot noir actually falling behind the stronger dark berry notes. Further, cold maceration also led to an increase in earthy textures, such as tobacco and mushrooms, in the wine. As such, it is debatable just how much cold maceration places the fruit profile into better clarity, however, it may be that the technique works differently depending on the grape and the land.
Another use of cold maceration is to emphasize the colouring of the wine, making it appear deeper or more attractive than it may otherwise seem. However, a number of studies have determined that this colouration effect is actually fairly temporary. In some cases, it can be maintained for about six months, however, with ageing comes a return to the colouring the wine would have had through the use of more traditional techniques.
As such, if colour is an issue, generally speaking a cold macerated wine should be consumed fairly soon after bottling.
A number of studies into the technique have also found that cold maceration in grapes results in the creation of high pH levels, which are usually accompanies by decreases in TA. This is likely due to the liberation of potassium ions from the skins of the grapes and is actually the reverse of what most other fruits undergo.
As such, winemakers using cold maceration often need to make further adjustments elsewhere to account for the pH changes, else their wines run the risk of becoming unbalanced. Many choose to do this through must adjustments, however, others implement specific techniques that account for pH variances and yet others incorporate this increased pH into their winemaking style, turning it into a feature of the wines they produce.
Yeast and Lactic Acid
In regards to the production of aromatic compounds, a number of winemakers have theorised that bacteria and wild yeasts remain active in the musts produced through cold maceration. This results in the production of enzymes that possibly interact with the various fruit compounds to create the desired aromatic effects. In many cases, these interactions may also lead to the increased complexity that many find when employing the cold maceration technique.
One aspect of cold maceration that has come in for criticism, particularly from traditional wine enthusiasts, is the effects the technique can have on the ageing potential of the wine. Many argue that this is significantly reduced through the use of cold maceration, requiring consumers to drink bottles made using this technique quickly rather than storing them in cellars.
However, others argue that the effect is not as pronounced as naysayers claim it to be. While younger wines will experience reduced polymerisation, over a large enough time period – approximately two years – there are actually few differences between cold macerated wines and those produced under control.
As a general rule, cold maceration requires the use of grapes that are at peak levels of ripeness and maturity, else the results may not be what the producer expected. Discrepancies in health and grape maturity can result in lower extraction of aromatic and fruit compounds, thus eliminating many of the benefits that producers tend to look for when using the technique.
As such, for cold maceration to be effective, grapes must be carefully tended and protected from the elements. Alternatively, producers should be diligent in selecting the best grapes for the process.
The Final Word
So now you understand a little more about the cold maceration technique and why it has come to prominence in recent years. While must still needs to be done, both to develop a greater understanding of the technique and to establish how beneficial it is when compared to controlled techniques, it represents yet another innovation in an industry that thrives on the introduction of new ideas and techniques. Those who have adopted the technique have also dedicated themselves to continued checking of their must, with caps needing to be pushed down and regular must tasting both occurring in the cold maceration process. As such, wines made using cold maceration are often subject to more arduous quality checks, with the aim of achieving the benefits noted above.