Everyone who likes wine ought to have a basic understanding of how it is made. No need for every last detail, which you tend to pick up as you go along, but knowing the general process helps you start to understand why different wines taste the way they do, and why you prefer certain wines to others.

So, basically: Grapes contain sugars, on the inside. On the outside – on the skins, in the vineyard, in the cellar – there’s yeast. Yeasts, like human beings, live to transform sugars into carbon dioxide and water; they metabolize the sugars in grapes further into ethanol, an alcohol. Lucky for us all, crushing the grapes brings together the yeasts on the outside and the sugars on the inside, which produces an alcoholic form of the original grape juice. That’s wine.

That’s usually wine. There is another way to make wine, which does not rely on crushing the grapes. Wines made using this other process, called carbonic maceration, often have an incredibly bright, immediate, juicy, fresh taste. Though they usually contain around 12 percent alcohol, which is in the ballpark for other light-bodied, dry red wines, the character of these wines is much closer to unfermented grape juice.

At a material level, any wine is some expression of a particular nexus of grape, soil and climate. Wines that undergo carbonic maceration lean heavy toward grape. Some drinkers prefer their most vivid impressions of a wine to come from soil signature, while others care most about climate’s effects on a given vintage. But if your interest is primarily in fruit itself, in grapes, carbonic-maceration wines offer great charm and pleasure.

For carbonic maceration, whole clusters of grapes are placed carefully in a sealed vessel from which oxygen has been banished. In such an environment, an intracellular fermentation takes place within each grape, producing alcohol. Eventually, the grapes themselves sort of explode, and what pours out is on its way to being wine.

The methodology is best known, and most widely practiced, in Beaujolais, which is part of the reason the Beaujolais Nouveau you drink at Thanksgiving tastes so simply yummy and grapey. But many other wine regions employ carbonic as well.

When it is described precisely, the methodology is actually called “semi-carbonic” maceration, since almost no wines convert all their sugars to alcohol exclusively carbonically. That’s primarily because after a few days in the anaerobic environment, the top grape clusters start to weigh heavy on the bunches below, eventually causing those grapes to burst. Once that occurs, the yeasts get to work, and part of the grapes’ sugars convert to alcohol through the traditional fermentation process. While carbonic maceration can be interrupted by that inadvertent crushing of some grapes, it can also play a part in an overall winemaking strategy that begins with carbonic but then consciously moves the slightly fermented must to a crusher and press in order to prepare it for traditional fermentation.

There is, then, a spectrum of “how carbonic” a given wine is. Several winemakers outside Beaujolais, and some even outside France, have experimented with the methods recently. The “natural” wine community, broadly speaking, has been particularly open to employing semi-carbonic maceration, especially since so many of these contemporary minimalist winemakers aim to produce “vins de soif”: fresh, lively, unpretentious and gulpable beverages, pilsner-like in character if grapey in taste.

A few years ago, the number of “natural” wines that used some degree of carbonic maceration felt overwhelming, with too many wines tasting too similar. More recently there has been a swing back to the middle. But this overlap of hands-off winemaking and carbonic maceration raises serious questions about how a movement of vintners supposedly devoted to terroir expression justifies a process that gives priority to grapey yumminess over the expression of place.

It has something to do with directness, unadorned simplicity, which I like in wines (though I also like tortuousness and complexity). The carbonic-touched wines I enjoy are simple, direct and clean, and yes they are grapey, but they have something more going on as well.

What interests me is trying to determine to what extent, if any, regional differences such as grape varietals and climate have on a carbonic maceration wine. What claim do at least some carbonic-maceration wines make to represent distinctiveness of some sort? Or should I accept that distinctiveness may not be the point? Here are a few wines that help me answer these questions.

Ontañon Rioja Maceración Carbónica 2014 ($14) is alive and joyful, rife with black and red berry flavors.

Ontañon Rioja Maceración Carbónica 2014 ($14) is alive and joyful, rife with black and red berry flavors.

Rioja, interestingly enough, has a number of carbonic-happy producers. The Ontañon Rioja Maceración Carbónica 2014 ($14), from a respected producer known for treading a middle path between tradition and modern sleekness, is alive and joyful, rife with black and red berry flavors. It expresses the essence of a young tempranillo, amplifying that grape’s delicious fruit essence over any earthy, leathery aspects of more ambitious expressions.

The Herrigoia Rioja 2014 ($13) is just as easy to love, but in a somewhat lighter vein. There’s more acidity, and a touch more angularity to this wine. Tempranillo does not have a unique profile, and is given to many different sorts of expressions according to provenance and process. But in this wine I feel a more direct link to the unoaked “Joven” or “Cosecha” level of traditionally fermented Rioja tempranillo.

From Spain we go north to southern France’s Languedoc, specifically the Hérault. Château d’Oupia’s ‘Les Hérétiques’ 2014 ($12) is made from medium-old-vine carignan, half of it undergoing carbonic maceration and the other half fermented traditionally in barrels. Wines made from young-vine carignan often disappoint me, while old-vine carignan produces wines that can be wonderfully deep, resonant and earthbound. Les Hérétiques gives me a hint of depth, but with a silky snappiness ideal for all sorts of casual eating situations. Anyone who has taken a vacation in France and bemoaned, upon returning to the United States, that you can’t find here the delicious, reasonably priced table wines so prevalent in rural France, you’re wrong.

Moving north to the Ardèche, we arrive at the outlier of this collection, Andréa Calek’s A toi nous II ($20). Calek is a maverick, somewhat notoriously laissez-faire vigneron in the northern Rhône, with moderate rock-star status in the natural wine world. The wine is so numbered because this 2014 vintage is the second time he’s made it, a semi-carbonic wine from grenache.

When I first opened the bottle, I couldn’t stand it. It brimmed with volatile acidity, that sour, nail-polish-remover quality, and the overwhelming wet-wool funk of an overly reductively made wine. All the other wines mentioned above can be swilled immediately, but the Calek didn’t come into its own until after being opened for at least four hours. Then, its fresh loveliness comes alive. It remains on the tart, cranberry side of things, but has a simple, supple, take-me-as-I-am lucidity, and a disarming depth.

This is the least fruit-centered wine in a fruity category, and I’d challenge even the most experienced taster to guess where it was from. But it stands for something and carves out a place of its own, which only goes to show how much potential carbonic maceration has for adding nuance and character far beyond the Beaujolais caricature.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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