Wine élevage: coming to terms with aging

Sunday, 9 June, 2024
Wine Searcher, Vicki Denig
"Élevage" is a term often used by winemakers, but do they just mean "aging"?

Like many wine terms, élevage is a word that's thrown around frequently, though there's more to its meaning than meets the eye.

Although industry professionals have come to apply the term interchangeably with "aging", the nuances between the two words render élevage a lot more complex than may be implied.

Three industry professionals weigh in on the intricacies between the two, the decisions that encompass each, and how both processes affect final wines in bottle.

What’s the difference?

Josh Bergström, second-generation proprietor/winemaker of Willamette Valley-based Bergström Wines, describes élevage as the act of "raising" a wine, including interventions or technical actions taken between alcoholic fermentation and bottling.

"[This includes] lees stirring, choice of aging vessel, malolactic fermentation, intentionally stopping a fermentation for acid or sugar retention, fining, filtration, and additions to the wine," he says. On the flipside, Bergström finds that aging is simply what happens to a wine once it is "the way [a winemaker] wants it to be" and has been bottled.

Austria-based export sales manager Nina West echoes Bergström’s definition, describing élevage as the period of time between fermentation and bottling.

"During this timeframe, whatever methods the winemaker chooses to employ are considered to be part of the élevage, or the period when a wine really turns into wine," she explains, stating that these actions, particularly those taken post-fermentation – which according to her, allow the wine to harmonize – are crucial to its final outcome.

Raising wine – sort of

Beyond harmonization, West emphasizes the crucial concept of "raising" as part of what sets élevage apart from aging.

"The notion of raising a wine [élevage] versus aging a wine comes down to the intent the winemaker has for the lifespan of the wine," she says, stating that élevage brings the wine to a place where it is ready to drink/be enjoyed, and can involve a number of processes, including racking or adding sulfur.

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