Red Fermentation Vessels

Posted April 2013; updated November 2015

Choosing the right vessel during red winemaking processes depends on various factors. Many of these have to do with what is available within the winery and how it is layed out. Others are more stylistic decisions such as cap management. Let's discuss a few popular red fermentation vessels.


Hand-harvested grapes are transported from the vineyard in 1/2-ton or 1-ton picking bins, which are commonly used as small ferment vessels in the winery. Picking bins had a relatively high surface area to volume ratio, which increases juice contact with the pomace (more extraction). They also allow good access to the cap, which is typically managed via punchdowns but can also be completed using a Pneumatage system. The biggest downside of bin ferments is temperature control, which can be mitigated by storing the bins in a temperature-controlled cool room.

Static Tanks

The majority of red wine is fermented using static stainless steel tanks. As the name implies, these tanks do not move like rotary fermentors (read below) or Ganemede tanks. While there are purpose-built static tanks for red fermentation, multi-purpose tanks an work just fine. Most wineries would ferment red varieties in temperature-controlled tanks with around 1:3 surface area to volume ratio. Punchdowns are difficult if not impossible due to limited cap access, leaving winemakers with the options of pumpovers, delestage/rack-and-return, or pneumatage. These tanks will normally be drained before the remaining must is transferred to the press (tank digging is great exercise!) Vasse Felix​ has purpose-built tanks for red fermentation that are elevated and sloped so cellar staff can dig out tanks through the bottom door directly into the basket press.

Open-top Tanks

Another aptly-named tank! Open-top tanks offer winemakers the most cap management options since they allow complete access to the cap for punchdowns, but also have the necessary valves for pumpovers. They will typically have a 1:3 surface area to volume ratio, and temperature control. The biggest concern with red ferments in these tanks are keeping fruit flies out, easily remedied by covering with a mesh screen. Niven Family Wine Estates has the best of both worlds: stainless steel tanks with removable lids, allowing tanks to convert from open-top fermentors to multi-purpose tanks.

Rotary Tanks

Rotary tanks produce high extraction due to their horizontal orientation, which creates a very high surface area to volume ratio, and their unique cap management. A rotary tank will sit on a set of rollers and attached machinery can spin the entire tank, meaning vigorous cap management with minimal manual labor. The high rate of extraction allows winemakers to press the wine off skins earlier in fermentation and avoid phenolic extraction. Thus, these tanks tend to producer rounder, fruit-driven wines that are approachable sooner than wines fermented in other vessels. Rotary tanks require a significant amount of infrastructure and space, while also having limited usability outside of the vintage period. 

Oak Barrels and Tanks

More winemakers are integrating oak fermentation into their red wine programs. Some wineries have begun removing one head of a new, 225-litre (60-gallon) barrel to use for on-skins ferments. They then press the must off skins, put the head back on the barrel, and re-fill it with the resulting wine. There are also varying sizes of wooden tanks available in today's market, including temperature-controlled options. Proponents of fermenting reds in oak contend the wine benefits from increased color stability, fuller mid-palate structure, and better oak integration. Many winemakers are opting for the addition of oak adjuncts (oak chips, oak dust, etc.) to tank ferments.

Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton
Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton