Carbonic Maceration - Wine goes pop, but is it a hit or a miss?
Carbonic Maceration is in a full-blown rage right now. Winemakers the world over are using this method to make super drinkable, glou glou wines from just about every wine variety known to man. But critics are saying that these wines are starting to taste all the same. While they can be delicious, they sometimes follow a pattern that seems a little bit too familiar, as if you are hearing a song over and over again and thinking "Wait, am I listening to this summer's massive hit, or is this last summer's massive hit? Is that Pharell? Again?" Fear not though, there are still a few good artists...I mean winemakers...who are doing some great things with carbonic maceration and making it an art form that can be the foundation for some truly exciting wine.
So what the fuck is carbonic maceration anyway?
Well, since you asked so nicely, carbonic maceration is a method of fermenting wine that results in juicy, vibrant, and bright wines that are delicious, fun, and easy to drink. This is achieved, most of the time, by throwing whole berries into a giant steel tank, sealing it, and then filling it with carbon dioxide. Science happens and the grapes start to ferment inside their own skins before bursting and crushing themselves under the weight of the alcohol being produced inside. Yeh, its a little bit like the Alien chest bursting scene (careful, the link shows some pretty gruesome stuff but it is a classic movie scene so...) Anyway, the winemaker will start to press the grapes and the natural yeast developing on the skins will take over to complete the fermentation. The juice won't see as much contact with the skins, so the color is often much lighter it won't be as tannic.
Long story short, if you see a wine or hear somebody describe a wine as using carbonic maceration then think glou glou, crushable, refreshing, and exciting.
Following a formula, but also not following
Carbonic maceration can be a lot of fun, even if it follows a formula. Like a worldwide pop phenomenon if you stick to the formula then you cannot go wrong. The wines, like any good pop song, are easy to enjoy and memorable. They stick in your head from the first beat or the first sip. All of a sudden you are mumbling along to words you don’t quite understand. You have Despacito stuck in your head now don’t you?
There are wines that go full on carbonic maceration, and there are wines that use it in small parts to give the wine a little bit more liveliness. It is a tool for the winemaker to bring something fresh and thirst quenching to the the table with notes of berries just picked off the bush. You can go full carbonic maceration and make a stunning vin de soif that will go down a treat at any barbecue, or you can use it to add freshness to a super rich wine that will speak volumes for its place.
The downside of carbonic maceration
If there is one downside of carbonic maceration, it would be that at its worst it is a very simple technique that does not allow for much complexity in the wine. In music it would be like using the same four chords over and over again so that you sound like Coldplay or Nickelback. If you do it in a simple fashion then you get simple wine that will taste the same no matter the varietal, all berries, juice, and no substance. It is no surprise that wine writers, critics, and drinkers around the world are starting to catch on. The sudden prominence of natural wine lovers looking for the bright and acidic has led to a bunch of wines that all taste the same. This is a sin that is unforgivable.
But there are some masters of the art
If there is any region in the world that has mastered carbonic maceration as an art form it would be Beaujolais. They have been using this method on the beautiful, light skinned Gamay grape for centuries and have created some of the most delightful wines in the world as a result. Put aside the nouveau expressions for a second, they just suck, but instead focus on the Cru Villages that make this region so damn awesome. These villages show that this method of making wine can be expressive of terroir and show much more character than most give it credit for.
One such hero for this is Marcel Lapierre. The Beaujolais master is like the David Bowie of wine, pumping out hit after hit while fluttering his character creations from his light hearted Raisins de Gaulois (made by his son) to his serious, structured, and potent Morgon. There is nobody in the world who is better at creating a delicious, juicy red wine with boat loads of character. These are wines you need to seek out and stock up on because they will just get better and better as time goes on.
So yes, carbonic maceration is the usual four chord procession of a pop song. In lazy hands it will taste the same from one winemaker to the next, and from grape to grape. Yes the wines are juicy and delicious, but they may lack true exciting character. However in the hands of a real artist with great vision and passion you have masterpieces that will lift the spirits more than any other wine. In good hands this can be a process for creating a great wine that is still a fun wine.