Under Pressure: Wine Presses Then and Now

Chardonnay in the Press

Chardonnay in the Press

“Le Pied Violet” was the winning name I created long ago for a wine label contest.  When we think back on how grapes used to be crushed to make wine, “the purple foot” seems an apt description for open-barrel grape stomping.  Think of Lucile Ball in that memorable episode of “I Love Lucy”.

Lucille Ball Stomping Grapes

Lucille Ball Stomping Grapes

 

I always wondered about fungal infections brought in by the crushers, or alternately, the natural yeasts on the skins of the grapes somehow causing trouble…yuck!  And anyway, it would ruin my pedicure.  I know a winery in Oregon which holds a contest each year for the most amount of juice pressed by foot, placing contestants in separate small barrels filled with newly-harvested grapes.   Fun to observe from a safe distance, with a glass of wine in hand!

Following my post last year on how champagne is made, I’ve had friends ask me to write more about the wine presses, and I’m happy to oblige.

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Ye Olde Mobile Wine Presse

Although there still are some wineries in the world which use feet to press their grapes, the vast majority have switched to more (or less) mechanical means.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, not every winemaker had their own “pressoir” or wine press.  In many areas, wine presses on wheels would make the rounds.  Fill, crush, wash, move on, repeat.

As winemakers invested in their own presses, most used some form of basket press.  Big wheels turned by hand, these mostly now stand idle, as sculptures, curiosities, even big planters, and can be found in many small towns in French wine regions.

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The next stage was mechanical presses, still using the same basic shape of wine press, but when controlled automatically, this allows for a very slow, hours-long, very gentle press of the grapes. An example can be seen at the top of this post.

Wine Press Dissasembled for Cleaning

Wine Press Dissasembled for Cleaning

The space age has brought us further advances, with new wine presses which look like space capsules.  These often feature an inflatable bladder inside, which gently presses the grapes against the walls and allows the juice to run free.  The one below holds 8,000 kg of grapes (roughly 17,600 lbs), which should make about 6,600 bottles of wine, enough to fill the average Beverly Hills wine cellar.

Arming Photon Torpedos

Arming Photon Torpedos

Others are more rectangular in shape, such as this one, with a slowly-moving wall.

Filling the Press with Pinot Noir

Filling the Press with Pinot Noir

Very Modern Press

Very Modern Press

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One thing all these presses have in common is that they utilize gravity to allow the juice to run down to the fermenting tanks.  Some winemakers believe that the more the juice and wine is handled or pumped, the more it changes the taste of the final product, and not for the better (if not filtered or separated first, sending the wine through pumps can also push through solid particles, and in addition can expose the wine to oxygen).  Thus, some modern wineries are built on hillsides, with each successive stage of the process on the level below, in order to treat the wine as gently as possible.  This is referred to as the “gravity flow method,” and I first saw it in action when I worked at WillaKenzie Estate winery in the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Does it really make a difference?  Well, we’d have to run a controlled study with a double-blind, one-hand-tied-behind-the-back test to be sure, using the same grapes, same temperatures, etc.  However, if the number of wineries built since the 1990’s which take advantage of Newton’s Law is any indication, then this philosophy has spread like wildfire.  It is being used all around the world, in Europe, Australia, and of course, by those pioneers in the US of A.

So the next time you feel “under pressure” at work or at home, sit back with a glass of gravity-flow-method wine and relax.  Maybe even paint your toenails purple!IMG_4285

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