The winery is a very busy place during harvest. The winemaker or his assistant is here at least three times a day – religiously – at 8:00a, 2:00p, and 9:00p to tend to the fermenting grapes. A critical task during these sessions is the punch down. For my football fanatics, think BIG score.
The punch down is part of the art of winemaking. During fermentation, yeast converts the grape sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide causes the solid matter (grape berries, stems, and seeds) to float to the top, creating a “cap”. Simply defined, the punch down is the process of breaking up the “cap” and pushing it back down through the wine. Why is this important? Most of the color and tannins in a wine come from the grape skins. A regular punch down ensures maximum contact between the juice and the skins, resulting in an artful wine that has a far richer color and flavor. It’s a balancing act, though. The winemaker wants to extract as much potential from the solid materials in the wine as possible. But if he extracts for too long, the wine can become bitter, because it begins to extract tannins from the seed, and not just the skin.
Speaking of balancing act… Joe cautions me as I climb up the ladder to peek in the tank. A slip into the tank would almost certainly be the end of me. I am told that death is highly likely if a person falls into a fermenting tank of wine. The carbon dioxide is so strong that it is impossible to breathe, even if you were able to get your head above the cap quickly. Looks like I’ll have to stick with plain old bubble baths.