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Hands on Winemaking

Hands on Winemaking

There is no substitute for being there. I take pride in being in the cellar with my wines during harvest. That is no knock on those who have moved up the ladder, so to speak, and don't spend as much time with the wine as they once did. Speaking for myself, I can't imagine making wine without getting it all over me (although I am better at staying clean than I was in my youth). 

That thing I have over my shoulder in the photo is known in the US as a punchdown tool. In France it is sometimes called a "pigeou," the implement with which one performs pigeage. In other words, it is the device we use to push the floating cap of grapes back down into the fermenting wine in the process of making red wine. As the wine ferments, CO2 is produced and this makes the solids float on top of the fermenting wine. In order to extract the goodies, most of which are in the skins and to a lesser extent the pulp, you need to get the solids and liquid together. You can push the solids back into the liquid, or you can pump the liquid over the top of the floating cap of solids.

While there are machines to "punch down" the cap, many of us take pride in doing it by hand. On a larger fermentation vessel this can be quite a chore--it is surprisingly hard to break through a cap of skins that is several feet thick, especially at the beginning of the fermentation when the fruit hasn't broken down yet. When you use whole clusters, as I do, it's even harder. More than once I have cursed myself for making the punchdown so difficult. It's a good whole body workout! 

Every fall I get "harvest hands." The combination of callouses and grape, wine and barrel stains turns your hands rough and stained. Once, many years ago, I went to a local sushi restaurant with a group of friends. Apparently I was the only one with harvest hands at the time, and as I approached the table where my friends were already seated, there were several hot towels at my place. I was told that the waitress said "I think your friend needs these." It's a badge of honor to have harvest hands, notwithstanding the disapproval of those with more delicate sensibilities. 


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