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These carbonic reds are cream of the crop

Two winemakers use carbonic maceration to craft pleasing, not polarizing, fruity red wines

Carbonic reds.Ellen Bhang

Think back to a time when you sniffed a red wine and its fruitiness practically vaulted out of the glass, filling your nose with scents of berries, bananas, and even bubble gum. If that glass pour was introduced to you as “carbonic,” chances are good that you recall the experience every time you see the term on a wine label.

But not every bottle in the category is as rooty-tooty as that.

Carbonic maceration, in its purest form, describes a process where whole clusters of intact grapes begin to ferment from the inside out, sealed in a tank filled with carbon dioxide or other inert gas to displace oxygen. In this anaerobic environment, each berry metabolizes sugar and malic acid, producing a tiny amount of alcohol as well as compounds that translate into vivid aromas, flavors, and hues. Clusters are pressed, and yeast-enabled fermentation takes over from there.


Winemakers often use carbonic techniques to smooth out the rough edges of newly pressed red wine so they can sell it straight away. The term is often mentioned in the same breath as Beaujolais Nouveau, early-release French gamay; but nowadays, carbonic approaches are practiced all over the wine world, and applied to a variety of red grapes. Many of these bottles are on shop shelves now, marketed as low-tannin, chillable reds.

Like so many things in wine, the practice of carbonic maceration comes down to a matter of degree. Some producers hew closely to the strict model, while most others apply it in part. So how a finished product tastes depends, to a great extent, on how individual winemakers wield that tool in their toolkit.

At Bodegas Más Que Vinos, an hour’s drive south of Madrid, east of Toledo, Alexandra Schmedes, one of a trio of winemakers, makes a carbonic wine called “Los Conejos Malditos” (“The Accursed Rabbits”). The wine is named for the voracious hares that feed on the sap of grapevines, causing damage to vineyards. Whole clusters of cencibel (the synonym for tempranillo in this part of the country) are placed in stainless steel tanks where they remain for about a week without the addition of gas. Any free-flow juice resulting from split grapes is siphoned off. Then the whole clusters are pressed, and juice from that pressing undergoes a native yeast fermentation, followed by malolactic fermentation. The process accentuates the grape’s key characteristics.


“Cencibel has more dark-berry and licorice components than tempranillo from Rioja,” Schmedes explains via email, noting that Rioja — where she and her team also make wine — maintains a longstanding carbonic tradition. “We found that by fermenting it spontaneously as a carbonic maceration, these characteristics are more defined and ideal for the style of wine we wanted to make.”

William Allen, winemaker and co-proprietor of Two Shepherds, northwest of Santa Rosa, Calif., talks animatedly about how he applies carbonic maceration to carignan grapes, sourced from dry-farmed Trimble Vineyard in Mendocino County. He offers an ingenious insight: “Think about each grape as a fermentation bubble,” he says.

To make a wine called “Wiley” — named for a calico cat, part of a menagerie of animals Allen and winery co-proprietor Karen Daenen maintain on their farm — he and his team gently lower whole clusters into stainless-steel tanks, which are sealed then sparged with argon. After 2½ weeks in tank — no peeking — grapes emerge from that oxygen-free environment swollen but intact. “We open up each tank and spend the day bucketing out 5 tons of grapes with 5-gallon buckets — by hand — into the press,” Allen says. Ambient yeasts, and then malolactic-promoting microbes, go to work. The wine is racked and bottled unfiltered.


The red’s fruity aromas and flavors, liberated from those bubbles within a bubble, are lively and vivid — but not so over-the-top that they overwhelm your palate. Summertime imbibers are flocking to it.

“It’s a smash hit,” Allen enthuses. “We literally put it on pallets the day after bottling, and it’s ready to go.”

Two Shepherds “Wiley” Carbonic Carignan 2021 Beguiling cherry-berry aromas combine with scents of cranberry compote and something intriguingly savory. Juicy and gulpable to be sure, but flavors of strawberries and saline linger winningly. Excellent chilled. Pair with all your summer plans. 12.5 percent ABV. Distributed by Oz Wine Co. Mid-to-high $20s. At Albert’s Market, Cambridge, 617-491-0288; Bacco’s Wine + Cheese, Boston, 617-574-1751.

Bodegas Más Que Vinos “Los Conejos Malditos” Tempranillo Carbónico 2019 Scents of dark ripe berries, sweet fennel, and a hint of dusty earth lead to a lively palate full of blackberries, red plum, and salt, all anchored by appetizing bitter notes and a whisper of grip. Serve at cellar temperature alongside anything your resident grillmaster dishes out. 13.5 percent ABV. Distributed by M.S. Walker. Around $15. At The Spirited Gourmet, Belmont, 617-489-9463; Lucille Wine Shop & Tasting Room, Lynn, 781-584-4695.


Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com