Élevage is a French word that describes the important process between fermentation and bottling. There is no equivalent word in English and, perhaps for that reason, this critical process is often downplayed in English-speaking countries.It is simplistic to describe the élevage process as fine-tuning, it is a far more profound than that.
In France, they refer to someone who’s well brought up as bien éleve. The formative years between toddler and teenager are equivalent to the equally formative period in the winemaking process post-fermentation and pre-bottling. By making careful choices and by lavishing plenty of attention on the wine, a skilled winemaker can greatly enhance quality.
Blending, for example, can be a simple function designed to keep tanks full and produce the desired quantity of finished wine, or it can be done with great sensitivity with the goal of making a finished wine that is better than any of its parts.
Consider the other processes that take part between fermentation and bottling. The choice of vessels has a significant impact on the finished wine. Once limited to oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, winemakers can now choose between large oval fuder of around 1000 litres, larger oak cuve, concrete tanks, egg-shaped vessels or pottery amphora.
The amount of air that wine is exposed to during élevage is another variable. Wine can be exposed to, or protected from, air when racked into or out of barrels. Micro-oxygenation, a process that mimics the small amount of air entering a barrel through the staves and bunghole, is now widely adopted in this country and beyond.
Whether to use Bâtonnage, which is the process of stirring the yeasty sediment at the bottom of the barrel for extra exposure, or not is another decision that must be made during élevage.
If the winemaker chooses to add sulphur they must also decide when and how much. Similarly is they choose to fine and/or filter the wine they are faced with many different options that will significantly influence both taste and texture.
It is simplistic to describe the élevage process as fine-tuning, it is a far more profound than that.