So far in Grape to Glass, we’ve covered picking the grapes, an unheralded but extremely important step in the process of turning grapes into wine. In keeping with this, we’re now going to dive into crushing the grapes, another step that’s critical to the quality of wine that doesn’t get as much hype as other parts of the process.
To start, here’s a fun fact: to this day, no one has discovered a better tool for crushing red grapes than the human foot. In fact, a very common machine used for crushing at scale literally has feet shaped crushers made from a substance that approximates the squishiness of human feet. These sit at the end of pistons, which rapidly raise and lower the fake feet, applying the same pressure real foot. The result is much faster than crushing by foot, but it is still not superior.
The cost of hiring a whole team of people to crush with their feet, in most places, makes the practice too expensive. Many winemakers still prefer this method, however, such as Elena Pantaleoni, maker of Pisador (literally “the one trodden by foot”), a true gem made from país in the Maule Valley of Chile.
The reason for this is that feet are the perfect shape and firmness to crush the grapes and break the skin, while not crushing the seeds, or “pips.” Pips contain an extreme amount of tannin and other bitter compounds. Any more than a few breaking during crushing can taint the wine.
Crushing red grapes and white grapes are two very different processes. With red grapes, the goal is to remove as much juice from the grapes as possible without breaking the pips, but to then leave much of the skins in the must through fermentation. Therefore, crushing by foot, or in a manner that approximates doing so, is the ideal method. With white grapes, the skins should spend little to no time at all in contact with the skins - unless the winemaker wants to make a skin-contact white, in which case, he or she would treat the white grapes as red grapes.
To do this, a winemaker has a special press that allows for a “free run” of the juice. Basically, the press has grooves in it and sits not quite level. The slight angle of the press allows the juice to flow out while leaving the skins in the press. The juice gets collected and is then taken to begin the fermentation process. All of this happens in a low temperature, low oxygen environment to ensure maximum freshness.
To wrap up, let’s talk a bit about Rose. This pink deliciousness is generally made from red grapes, but in a manner more similar to white wine. If the grapes have thicker skins with more color, like cabernet sauvignon, then free pressing will yield a pink juice. If the grape used has thin skins, like pinot noir, then they are crushed like red grapes. However, instead of keeping the skins involved through the fermentation process, a winemaker would remove the them after the color and flavors desired are achieved.
So next time you enjoy a glass of wine, marvel for a minute at the care and attention paid to every part of the process. Often it is these seemingly mundane steps where much of the magic happens!