Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who Wants To Punch Down?! ...Anyone?!

Punching down: a harvest activity that inspires the same type of romantic, Tuscan shared-rememberings as stomping grapes.  Much like foot-stomping, punching down is also a physically exhausting and time consuming activity that feels distinctly unromantic when you are the one tasked with it.  Unlike foot-stomping, however, punching down has not been effectively replaced in most wineries by modern equipment.

A Cellar Hand's Muse?
A welch bin filled with ~0.75 tons of Lemberger for punching down

Here at Fox Run, Punch downs are necessary for red grapes due to how we handle them following harvest. Where the white grapes are destemmed, crushed, and immediately sent off to be pressed so that the juice may be inoculated with yeast; red grapes are destemmed, crushed, and then sent back to open-top bins and tanks to begin fermenting on their skins.   Over the course of the week or more that the red grapes are fermenting to dryness, this skin contact (as well as contact with seeds and any stems) results in extraction of color, tannin, and flavors that we want in the wine.

Break On Through/To The Other Side
The front corner shows a portion of the cap having been punched down.
Unfortunately, as all of this extraction is occurring in a tank of fermenting juice, the skins and seeds rise to the top during this time and form a ‘cap’ over the liquid.  To keep the fermenting liquid in contact with these solids, which are often so compacted that they are entirely dry, we manually have to break the cap and push the skins back down into the liquid at least three times a day.  What at first may seem like fun, 15 minutes later is tiresome and blurs the line between a cardiovascular and muscular workout.

We're Going To Need a Larger Punch-Down Tool
Our two red fermenters (and the ladder up to the top cross-beams), which each hold up to four tons of crushed grapes.
Personally, I started a lifting regimen in May for the express purpose of being prepared for this aspect of vintage due to the method by which I punch down bins.  One popular method involves standing on top of the bins and using your full body weight behind the punch down tool to break the cap and stir the mixture.  At least for the 1-ton bins, however, I prefer to stand next to them and rely on upper body strength to push the punch down tool through the cap.  There is almost no risk of falling into the bins this way, but most important is that it puts almost no strain on the lower back. 
The Easy and Potentially Wet Method
Pete Howe demonstrating the 'punch down from above' technique.
With our large (4-ton) red fermenters, however, there is no choice but to stand on the large cross-beam over the top in order to punch down.  Due to the larger volume of grapes the cap is significantly thicker, so even with your body behind the punch down tool it can be an exhausting 20 minutes just to take care of each tank.  To be honest, this is the one part where punching down can be substituted for mechanically; setting up a pump from the liquid on the bottom up over the cap on top saves a lot of trouble.  

Dizzying Heights (or CO2)
Punching down through the much larger cap on Cabernet Franc from on top of a red fermenter.

For the time being, however, Pete Howe and I are managing well enough without rolling out the beast of a pump necessary for pumping over instead of punching down.  We’ve made it past Pinot Noir and are now into Lemberger, but the Bordeaux reds may end up pushing us past our limit.  Stay tuned to see if we can last through the whole vintage.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • tUnE-yArDs - BiRd-BrAiNs; "Fiya" (the ending two minutes has to include one of the most remarkable, un-singable by most, hooks I've heard):

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

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