A foundational aspect of wine making for which there is no direct translation in the English language. In English, 'élevage' most nearly means 'rearing', 'breeding', 'raising' and refers most commonly to human social upbringing or to commerical livestock.
When applied to wines, however, élevage is both: a philosophy or vision of wine production, and the crucial series of cellar operations that take place between fermentation and bottling.
Élevage implies that the wine-maker takes on the role of a loving parent who guides, disciplines, and civilizes the raw, virgin wine as it emerges from the fermentation vessel. The highest caliber wine-maker takes great pleasure and care in the élevage ritual.
Élevage can be likened to that early stage of child development (24 - 36 months) when the utmost attention to giving affection and exploring language with the child is a benefit to both the child and the parent. The word élevage suggests that the investment of time and energy at this state in the wine's development is well worth it.
The wine élevage process varies depending on the type of wine:
- White Wine
- The wine must first be freed of the artifacts of its production (clarification). Rough clarification includes removing: gross lees, dead yeast cells, and fragments of grape skin, stems, and seeds.
- In warmer climates, the wine-maker will use acidification (process of lowering ph to increase freshness and fruitiness, while protecting the wine against attack from bacteria and loss of color) and coupage (blending contents of different vats and barrels) processes to obtain depth of flavor and character.
- The wine may then be set in wood or barrel for the process of ageing. This crucial step - which may last as long as two years - bears responsibility for the wine's maturity and nascence (coming into life). At this stage, the wine may take on a complexity of flavor and aroma.
- Red wine
- Red wine first requires the processes of clarification, acidification, and coupage as described for white wine above.
- The ageing process for red wines places greater demands on the wine-maker than does white wine. Red wine generally requires wood ageing, usually in (quite expensive) small oak barrels.
- Barrel maturation requires regular observation and monitoring; ouillage ('topping-up': refilling wooden container to replace wine lost through evaporation); and fining (removal of colloids to reduce cloudiness) and racking (separation of clear wine from sediment and lees) from barrel to barrel.
- Malolactic fermentation to reduce acidity in flavor, and final filtration to remove some - but not all - deposits, since these are more acceptable in red wine than white.
- Bottle ageing at the winery is viewed by some wineries as a central aspect of élevage.
It is a well-known tenet of wine-making that thoughtful attention to and individuality of élevage technique leads to the production of superior wine.
Note: On the use of the word 'ageing', there are two correct spellings of the word, 'aging' and 'ageing'. The former usually denotes the process of acquiring years in humans, the latter for materials, such as wine.
Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion To Wine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Invaluable guide for its illumination of the complex aspects of wine-making and history, especially that of élevage technique.
Halliday, J., and Johnson, H. The Art and Science of Wine. London, 1992. Supplemental information on acidification, clarification, and fermentation processes.