Looking at wine descriptions you will sometimes see winemakers refer to a bottle as “all free run juice.” What does it mean?
“The simple definition of free run is that it is the wine that runs freely out of the tank by gravity when you open the bottom valve [after fermentation],” says Caleb Foster, owner and winemaker at Gunpowder Creek Winery in Richland, Washington.
Many wineries separate juice after fermentation into free run, press and hard press fractions. Free run comes when little to no pressure is applied by the press to the grapes. Press wine comes from increased pressure, and hard press comes from high pressure.
Winemakers separate press from hard press based on the force applied and analytic measures. Taste also plays an important role.
“As soon as it hits that part where [the wine] gets tannic or the green phenolics start to come out, that’s when we will cut the press,” says Marcus Rafanelli, winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Washington.
As one presses harder and harder, it soon becomes a matter of diminishing returns. “Out of a wet rag, you get most out of the first squeeze, and it’s the same thing with the press,” says Foster.
Free run and press fraction juice have a number of differences. “The free run is definitely a little softer,” says Rafanelli. “It’s really the purest expression of the wine.”
As winemakers press increasingly harder, different compounds are extracted. These include tannins and phenolics compounds, which affect color, feel and taste.
“There’s a pretty big difference in intrinsic quality,” Tyler Williams, winemaker at Kiona on Red Mountain in Washington, says of the different fractions. “The aromatics and texture are just never as elegant or balanced in your mouth when you move up to those higher pressures.”
So, why not only use free run juice? Partly because winemaking is often about volume. The more you capture, the more wine you can make. Additionally, press fraction juice can be very high-quality.
“There are vintages where press wine is the best part,” says Foster. “There’s so much goodness in the skins, it’s actually difficult to get it all out.” Growing region, vintage and style can all be factors in whether or not to use press wine and how much of it.
“First press barrels have a very important role in how we present the wines in our brand to be elegant and not necessarily over extracted but also have all the weight and the density to support what Red Mountain does, which is make high alcohol, fairly powerful wines,” says Williams.
Fiona Mak’s SMAK Wines in Walla Walla, Washington is dedicated to rosé. She says her style also needs press fraction juice, calling free run juice “too pure, it’s too delicate,” she says. “Your press fraction is going to be a little bit more phenolic, and phenolics are how you build body into the wine and help the structure as well, so you kind of need a balance of the two.”
“There’s a pretty big difference in intrinsic quality.” —Tyler Williams, Kiona
Hard press wine, meanwhile, can serve several different functions. Some use it for entry tier wine.
“Hard pressed wine, we make $17 and $19 wines, and it’s pretty darn good at the end of the day,” says Williams. “That material is still valuable for me at that price point.”
Some winemakers use hard press juice to top barrels as wine evaporates. Others simply discard it.
“I literally call it the bitter end,” Foster says. “The last 5-10%, when it comes to expensive wine, it’s simply not worth carrying around a five-gallon carboy or 15-gallon keg and worrying about this extra press wine and trying to make money off it.”