Carbonic maceration, or “carbo” as some sommeliers have taken to calling it, is a style of fermentation that the natural wine scene has embraced enthusiastically. The whole, unbroken grape clusters go into the tank, and fermentation kicks off under a blanket of carbon dioxide, within the individual berries (a process referred to as intracellular fermentation). It differs from open-top fermenting in that there’s a total absence of oxygen, which in turn creates certain pronounced effects on a wine’s aroma. You might recognize it as tutti-fruity or wild strawberry or even cinnamon when your nose crosses a glass of the stuff. It’s that rosy, jubilant red fruit character that many of us have come to love in our Gamay from Beaujolais… and now in many other wines, from Spain to Australia.
The result is pleasing more often than not, so does it matter if these same scents turn up in wines that otherwise wouldn’t have them? Does the technique help a wine to express its fruit, or does it mask its terroir? To find out, we gathered a handful of carbonically macerated wines from around the world and brought in some of the most trusted palates in the business for a blind tasting experiment. Around the table were Michelle Biscieglia (Blue Hill New York), Pascaline Lepeltier (Rouge Tomate), Christy Frank (Frankly Wines), and Doreen Winkler (Diamond Sommelier Services).
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Here, the group’s top picks:
2013 Los Bermejos Lanzarote Listán Negro Maceracion Carbonica ($26)
This red was smoky and peppery upon first whiff, so everyone agreed that its terroir expression was “obvious and immediate.” Biscieglia likened the mineral character to “rocks, being pounded together,” recalling the rugged terrain, black volcanic soils, and violent winds of its Canary Island origin. On the palate, the wine’s fruit slid into the blue spectrum, flecked with violet floral notes and a juniper-like bitterness that kept it feeling fresh. Lepeltier suggested that the carbonic maceration in this case helped to mitigate the natural astringency of the Listán Negro grape, softening what could otherwise be harsh tannins and vegetal character. But regardless of why the technique was used, it was unanimously agreed the wine was delicious.
2014 Le Clos des Grillons “Les Grillons” Côtes-du-Rhône ($18)
Through all this wine’s easy, fragrant, Morgon-like red cherry fruit, the group still managed to identify it as Old World Grenache. (In truth, it’s half Grenache, half Cinsault, as is common in its corner of France). The element that most distinguished it from Beaujolais was the unmistakable Rhône spice that Frank called “fresh, peppery, and herbaceous” and was more “clove bitterness and orange peel” to Biscieglia.
2014 Lo-Fi Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Franc ($25)
Fresh and lithe with the brambly wildness of whole cluster fruit, this Cab Franc was a favorite of everyone in the group. It was more than a simple fruit bomb, showing great spice and a dill-like herbal undertone that brought pickle juice to mind. Yet, nobody could really figure out what it was or where it came from. Lepeltier suggested it might be a sort of New Wave Syrah from France’s Ardèche; my colleague Ray Isle proclaimed it raw. Less a factor of its carbonic nature, our difficulty in placing it might simply be due to the fact that there are not many folks making wine in this style in California’s Central Coast.
2014 J. Lohr "Wildflower" Monterey Valdiguié ($10)
This wine screamed floral-tinged, pink-toned fruit of the Beaujolais sort – which is not unsurprising, considering the Valdiguié grape used to go by the name Napa Gamay. It’s the sort of wine that tastes great and doesn’t require too much thought, especially for its accessible price: light, lifted, and – my favorite word that kept coming up – “goofy.” With a slight chill, Winkler said, it’s barbecue-ready.
2012 Luc Sebille “Les Débonnaires” Chinon ($22)
This bottle was the perfect counterpoint to the Lo-Fi, since it smelled and tasted more classically of Cabernet Franc (the grape used in all Chinon wines). Carbonic maceration in this case served to smooth out any tannic roughness or austerity and bring in a cooling freshness. Lepeltier, who also hails from France’s Loire Valley, identified it right away as being from her native region, albeit a “ripe” version. Frank appreciated it for its anise or licorice aromas, bringing it a complexity that many other wines in the lineup lacked.