Pigeage (Fr.) – A winemaking technique of punching down the cap of grape skins that forms during the beginning of the wine’s fermentation. This is done several times a day, occasionally more frequently, to extract color, flavor, and tannin from the fermenting juice. (e-robertparker.com)
I was first asked to take off my pants in a winery in 1997 at Coldstream Hills. Let me explain.
They have a long tradition there of fermenting the Amphitheatre Block 4 (as I recall) as 100% whole bunches, as a parcel to include in the Reserve Pinot Noir. At least they did then.
This was a technique that James Halliday had borrowed from his time at Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis in the 1980’s. This was also a technique that Halliday had known was used at Domaine De La Romanee Conti exclusively for all cuvees. So it was seen as an important piece of the puzzle called Pinot Noir, and remains a stylistic feature of the Coldstream Hills wines which I love.
I saw the same method being used in 2001 at Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot in Vosne Romanee. Its goes back a long way, and clearly predates mechanical crushing and destemming machinery.
In fact, in Neolithic times, this must have been how things were done. So if we go back to the beginnings of Wine and Man, its worth noting a few points. Firstly, mankind is really big on wine from grapes, above all other fruits. Secondly, wine is not only valuable for its attractive alcoholic attributes, but its also a microbiologically safe drink, and in a world of cholera and other diseases, this is important. Thirdly, there is an open policy to do as little as possible in winemaking.
The reason Man has learnt to cultivate Vitis vinifera for winemaking purposes is twofold. Firstly, the grapes have a realitively high sugar content when compared to other fruits, hence yielding good alcoholic strength above 9% and typically over 12%. Secondly, vinifera yields fruit with high quantities of tartaric acid, a food acid which is unusual in the botanical kingdom. (Tartaric acid is otherwise found in bananas and tamarinds, the latter is used widely for its sour contribution to foods. )
The role of alcohol in wine stability is critical, since we know that alcohol has sterilizing attributes, and in particular this has selected for Saccharomyces yeast strains which have strong fermentation capacity and, aside from alcohol itself, no pathogenic attributes harmful to man. The higher alcohol, the more stable the wine.
The role of acidity is also critical, since the low pH of grape wines excludes many yeast and bacteria microflora from growing in the grape juice. This acidity is relatively stable, too, since tartaric acid has the magical property of not being a source of food. Other food acids found in fruits – citric and malic acids – have important roles to play in biochemical pathways and are consumed as food by microorganisms. Not the case for tartaric. This builds a strong case for the existence of God.
Back to the winemaking. If you take whole bunches of grapes, and leave them in your fruit bowl for a few days, you will notice they ripen a little, and the green stems turn woody and brown. So, like bananas and other fruits, ripening continues after picking, the grapes are in a sense still alive.
If you take lots of whole bunches of grapes and put them into a fermenter, the weight of the fruit will inevitably cause some grapes to burst, and so there’s always a little juice at the bottom, which sooner or later starts to ferment. This fermentation produces carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air, and so within a few days the whole lot is immersed in carbon dioxide. The biochemistry becomes anaerobic – there’s no air and no oxygen. And a whole lot of interesting perfume and aromatic interest evolves.
After a few days the fermentation runs its course, so more sugar is required. This is the fun part. We jump in and stomp the grapes, a little at first. This breaks up the fruit and feeds the fermentation underneath with juice. The yeast grows upwards into the must. On day two, we stomp a little deeper. By day four, your feet are touching the bottom, the must is fizzing against your legs and the whole thing smells terrific.
People often comment at this point about hygiene. They make jokes about tinea. And so I find myself explaining, over and over, the whole point of grape wine is hygiene, and that not a single cell of whatever grows on feet can grow in the wine. It’s a natural thing, really good fun to do, and ultimately makes much better wine. Which is why we do so much of this old school winemaking at Circe. That’s why its OK to do full body pigeage.