In the world of winemaking, there exists a ritual that is both ancient and revered, a practice as old as the vine itself, yet fundamental to the creation of some of the finest wines on the planet. It’s a ritual that winemakers perform with precision and dedication, often in the quiet solitude of their cellars or amidst the picturesque vineyards. This revered practice is known as the “punch down”, or pigeage. Pour yourself a glass of wine, settle into your favorite armchair, and join us as we delve into the captivating world of punch downs, where every press and plunge shapes the destiny of wine worth savoring.
If you’ve been wine tasting, chances are you have heard the term “punch down.” But, what does it mean? This is a term used in red winemaking. Winemakers use this cap management technique when they need to break up the cap of skins and solids that form over the fermenting wine. If the cap of the wine dries out, it wouldn’t be able to let the juice have skin contact that is needed for the extraction of tannins and color.
Once the grapes used for the red wine start fermenting, punch downs are done between 1 to 3 times per day. The amount of times it is done depends on how much extraction the winemaker wants the wine to have. When determining the amount of times a wine needs a punch down, there are several factors to consider. Those include the grape type, growing season, fermentation temperature and whether or not the wine will have extended maceration.
At Aurora Cellars, our production team is currently doing punch downs on our red wines 3 times a day.
Since high-end red wines demand more labor and attention, this management method is usually reserved for them. Some of the other methods of managing the wine cap is to pump over, the process of pumping juice from the bottom of the tank to spray over the cap, or mesh screens that are pushed down through the cap. The mesh screens are used for larger tanks.
Punch Down Process
There are two different ways of doing a punch down: manual or mechanical. Manual is more labor intensive and requires someone using a pigeage plate or fork to disrupt and submerge the cap by hand. This method is usually done by smaller wineries. Mechanical punch downs are less common but require a similar tool but attached to a hydraulic arm.
When it is performed manually, there is more of a chance for breaking, tearing, and crushing of the skins which extracts more flavor and color. At the beginning, punch downs were done by foot, and still are in some cases.
Punch Down Tool
If you’ve never seen a punch down being performed, you’re probably wondering what the tool used for manual punch downs look like. The best way to describe it is an “overgrown potato masher”.
You may be wondering, “Do white wines go through the punch down process?” Typically, no. In white winemaking, neither tannins or greater color is needed so the juice is separated from the skins almost immediately. Grapes used in white wines are crushed by a machine rather than needing the extra care and attention that comes from punch downs.
As you have probably learned, punch downs are a fundamental process in winemaking, essential for crafting exceptional wines. Whether you’re a seasoned vintner or a curious enthusiast, understanding the art and science of punch downs is crucial to producing a final product that is not only delicious but also a true reflection of the grape’s potential. The practice of punch downs serves a dual purpose by enhancing color, flavor, and aroma extraction while promoting a healthy fermentation environment.