Climate Change and the Wine Industry: “The Square Wine Cask of the 21th Century”

written by Michael Oudyn

Marbella is a playground for international jet-setters on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.  It is famous for its luxury yachts, expensive international shops, and beautiful weather.  It is notorious  for conspicuous corruption: its last mayor did hard time for real-estate chicanery after keeping the afternoon gossip shows buzzing for years with his romance with flamenco icon Isabel Pantoja.  His immediate predecessor as Marbella’s mayor did hard time for corruption after being the flamboyant president of Madrid’s second soccer team, Atletico de Madrid.  In the box-office dark-comedy super -hit “Torrente II: Mission in Marbella”, Marbella is a gross-out swamp of  international arms dealers. In the international best seller The Queen of the South by Perez-Reverte, state-of-the-art speed boats connected to Russian mafiosi make night-time “business trips” to Africa.

III World Congress on Climate Change and the Wine Industry

Last April Marbella was also the scene of the “3rd Annual International Congress on Climate Change and the Wine Industry.”   Kofi Annan was the keynote speaker.  Loire Valley superstar and biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly was a feature speaker.  We learned about the effect of changing weather patterns on grape ripening and sugar levels; the search for new heat-resistant clones; the northerly migration of certain grapes to escape the heat.  Is tough-skinned Syrah really destined to replace delicate Pinot Noir in Burgundy?  Might the sparkling-wine epicentre really move from Champagne to southern England?  Will Napa Valley and most of Australia just get “too damn hot?”

Analysis of Metabolic fluids (of grapes, of course)

Yes, but what about square fermentation casks? ROC CUVE, one of the event’s sponsors, produces the things. Located in Castilla-La Mancha, the world’s largest wine producing area, this innovative company hopes square fermentation casks prove more practical than the ventures of Don Quijote, La Mancha’s great icon.  In a brief talk company delegate Pedro Jose Lopez Montero gave four reasons why their products were destined to be “the casks of the third millennium.”  They will save companies money and combat global warming.  (At last, something about climate change.) (1) The casks are 100% recyclable. The flat planks can be removed from the metallic frames, re-toasted, and used for fermentation.  Or winemakers can recuperate about 50% of their significant and substantial initial wood investment, by planing down the flat  planks and recycling them into, say, office furniture.  (2) The metal frames can be easily removed from the barrels and re-used, so they don’t end up on the junk heap. Economic self -interest again goes hand in hand with sound environmental policy.  (3) Space, like time, is money.  And these square barrels can snuggle up real close to each other and actually save “between 26 and 120% space in your cellar.”  So “instead of using up the Earth’s energy and resources building a new bodega, you just refit the old one with square casks.” (3) Similarly you save space, money, and energy during transportation.  (4) There is about 20% more contact than with the same amount of wood in traditional round casks. Less wood does more work, so a few more trees are saved.

Well, I was intrigued.  It seemed almost too good to be true.  In a private interview Pedro proclaimed that the days of the round barrel are numbered.  (He certainly hopes so; ROC CUVE holds the world patent on square wine casks.)  Round casks, “the technology of our ancestors” made perfect sense when they were rolled on and off trucks and around on wine cellar floors.  But  “mechanization has made them a historical anachronism.”  Then why, I asked, isn’t everyone jumping on the bandwagon?   “Tradition and a kind of romanticism about the round kegs.”  “Like the cork?” I asked.  “Exactly.”  Well…

The square cask of the 21st century

The concept of the square barrel isn’t exactly new; it had been knocking around the University of Bordeaux for a while.  But ROC CUVE worked through the technical details, got the patent, and is now experimenting in France and Spain.  They claim their square barrels work “with any liquid you put in a cask: ”red wine, white wine, brandies, whiskies…” And they can be made from any oak: French, American, Slovenian…  Are there any problems?  “No actual problems, but a few mysteries.” Wine itself seems a bit traditional.  It almost mystically seeks the form of the old round barrel and builds up pressure on the corners, so metal frames had to be further strengthened. I didn’t understand it either.

But does cask shape effect wine quality?  Absolutely not, according to company studies.  Serious journalists that we are, we organized an impromptu blind tasting.  The company has been making wines the old-fashioned way for years, so we could taste identical varieties, vintages, and processes in their square and round keg manifestations.  We couldn’t tell any difference.

Square-barrel wines will be hitting the market in Spain and South Africa this year.  So after screw caps and bag-in-the-box, prepare yourselves for square fermentation casks in the near future. But back to the big question.  Can we really live without “the romanticism of the round fermentation barrel?”  Well, I don’t think this particular consumer will suffer any Weltschmertz because of it.  Especially if I never know.  And if “the cask of the 21th century” does its little part to keep the glaciers from melting, I’ll drink to that.

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2 Responses to “Climate Change and the Wine Industry: “The Square Wine Cask of the 21th Century””

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