Everyone who loves wine should volunteer to work crush some harvest season. The process that takes fruit-from-the-vine to wine-in-the-glass is a fascinating one, and while we all get the basics – pick ripe grapes and let them ferment – there are many dozens of concurrently running strategies that few oenophiles ever have the opportunity to experience in action. It gives one new respect for a great glass of wine.
All of us understand that certain things are ‘good’ winemaking practices, but we may not really know why. It’s good to handle the fruit gently, and since many steps of the process sound rather violent (punch down, crush, squeeze, press, de-stem), it’s interesting to see just how delicately good winemakers treat the grapes.
Case in point…punch down. This is just what it sounds like; while grapes are fermenting in a bin, the solids (grape skins, seeds, stems, pulp) rise to the top, while the juice settles to the bottom. Once or twice a day, the cap, as it’s called, is pushed down into the juice by a tool that looks like a giant potato masher, and the whole thing is gently merged. After punch down, the contents of the bin separate, and the solids rise to the top again.
One can assume a number of reasons why this might be done. To keep the cap moist, or extract more juice, or give the juice more contact with the skins would certainly seem to be reasons to go through this repetitive and physically demanding process. But it’s a practice that seems so, well, old-fashioned and inefficient. As you watch it you can’t help but think, “There has to be a better way.”
The truth is, as with many aspects of winemaking, what appears to be an outmoded process is done the way it’s done because it is simply the best way to do it, if your idea of “best” means ending up with quality wine. And while there is a punch down machine, there are a few good reasons to do this arduous task by hand.
Here’s how our winemaker Stephen Hall explained the purpose of punch down…
The long, slow movements of pushing the cap back through the juice stretches the tannins, resulting in more layers. The longer the tannins, the more complexity, flavor and color, attaches to them. By being up close and personal with each bin, the winemaker and his crew can closer monitor the progress of every lot, keeping their nose out for things going right or wrong. There are still opportunities at this point to designate bins for one wine program or another, and there’s no machine that can do that.
Without a doubt there are aspects of the process that have been improved with technology and machinery. But some things are just better done the old-fashioned way. Think about that next time you enjoy your favorite glass of wine from Troon Vineyard..