Crush time is an important part of the winemaking process. It sets the tone for what happens months, even years down the line.
The name says it all: a grape is squeezed to break the skin and to release juice from the pulp. Depending on the wine’s intended style, the juice may spend time in contact with the skin as a part of maceration. This intermingling is essential, as it adds to a wine’s structure, complexity and texture.
Reds and rosés also get their color during maceration, though skin-contact white wines, also known as orange wines, are becoming popular as well.
Foot vs. machine
The favored method of crushing grapes is generally the two-in-one destemming and crush machine. However, in certain pockets of the world, like Spain, Portugal and increasingly in US regions like California, a more cinematic means is still employed: grape stomping.
Crushing grapes with feet is hardly a new trend. There is ample evidence that humans have stepped on grapes in vats, tubs and lagars to make wine for at least 8,000 years. In 2017, scientists discovered earthenware jars with wine residue and decorated with images of grapes and a man dancing in Tbilisi, Georgia. But why are winemakers still stepping on grapes?
Advocates say the foot provides more control over the wine’s flavor profile.
Imagine you place a grape between your fingers and crush it. Now picture doing it in a vice. Stomped grapes allow winemakers to customize tannin structure and reduce seed breakage, which can create harsh, off flavors.
“Depending on the berry structure, we will foot stomp the whole cluster portion and then destem and sort on top,” says Sherman Thacher, co-owner / winemaker of Thacher Winery & Vineyard in Paso Robles, California.
Thacher says that with varieties like Cinsault and Counoise, they employ 100% whole cluster and foot stomping, and stomp varying amounts for Mourvèdre and Syrah, depending on the vintage.
He even walks all over Cabernet Sauvignon.
“[In a] head-trained, dry-farmed vineyard, depending on what happened that year in terms of weather, our Cabernet can be a pinch soft on the palate,” says Thacher. “So foot-treading adds stem tannin and structure.”
Winemakers in the US that gravitate toward this ancient, low-tech technique also tend to espouse low-intervention, organic or biodynamic production methods. One such advocate is James Spark, winemaker at Liquid Farm and his own brand, Kings Carey, both in Santa Barbara County, California.
“I want control over how many berries break, or how they break,” says Spark.
Stomping also encourages greater skin contact, proponents say. David Delaski, winemaker at the Demeter-certified Solminer in Los Olivos, California, leaves red grapes and even many of its white varieties, especially Grüner Veltliner, on skins for weeks to encourage color and flavor development.
“Foot treading is especially important if you do full-cluster fermentation, as we do,” says Delaski. “We find it adds more complexity, allows the vineyard site to shine through and also adds more spice and texture to the wines.”
Troon Vineyard, a Demeter-certified biodynamic winery in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, also employs foot-treading for its red, white and rosé wines. According to general manager Craig Camp, direct physical contact with the grapes is the most practical way to control the grape’s structure and flavor development.
Meanwhile, many producers in Portugal and Spain have maintained their grape-stomping traditions, in part because of the types of grapes that thrive in their exceedingly dry terroir.
“Treading is the only way to get the characteristic Mouchão trait our wines are known for,” says Iain Richardson, whose family has owned Herdade do Mouchão for six generations in Portugal. “It also allows us to avoid the over extraction and sappiness that accompany the mechanically pressed reds we grow, like Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Syrah.”
But … what about the feet?
The ability to shape a wine’s final flavor and character, an ambivalence about technology and a deep understanding of the intricacies of a region’s terroir are things that most winemakers and wine lovers can get behind.
But seriously, what about the toe jam?
Despite any squeamishness that some may have to drink fermented juice that has come into contact with a stranger’s foot, it’s perfectly sanitary. Winemaking is far from antiseptic. Grapes that have just come in from the vineyard aren’t clean.
“Grapes are grown in the open air, with bird droppings and slug slime that come along with that,” says Michael Christian, winemaker at San Diego’s Los Pilares. “But the process of fermentation, which dramatically reduces oxygen levels in the solution, combined with the natural sugar levels [that] convert to alcohol and the natural acidity in grapes, eliminates pathogens.”
In an increasingly antiseptic, robotic world, it seems that for many, wine made by hand and foot is at once retrograde and progressive.