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Press Wine: Plonk or Special Ingredient?
By Roger Morris
Jan 10, 2024
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On a reporting trip to Bordeaux during harvest a few years ago, I had lunch with the staff and sizable picking crew, mainly Danish students on holiday, at Château Palmer in Margaux.  The main courses were quite delicious – blanquette de veau in a mushroom sauce and rice with ham quiche.  The red wine being served with it was also quite good.

When I inquired, I was told, “Last harvest, we bottled some of our press wine – not for sale, but for drinking at the château, especially during harvest.”

Press wine – that is, wine made from juice pressed out of grape pomace once the free-run is separated – doesn’t get much press, even though it is often added in small proportions into the final blend of both the premium or estate wine and, especially, into its secondary labels.

The quality of press wine, which traditionally is more tannic and astringent and thus considered inferior, depends on a number of factors – grape variety, whether fermentation is whole cluster or not, type of press used, fractions from with graduated presses, even the size of the winery.

Similarly, press wine may have various fates – bulked off (sold) to someone else to make less-expensive wines, for use in the winery’s less-expensive wines or blended in smaller proportions back into the main blended after first being handled separately.

While tech sheets may go into voluminous details about how a fine wine is made in the vineyard and in the cellar, the utilization of press wine is seldom mentioned, nor is the topic often raised during media briefings and interviews.

As 2023 was coming to a close with a new vintage sleeping in the cellars, I posed the question of press wine to several winegrowers.  Their answers have been lightly edited, condensed and paraphrased:

Brigitte Rullier, Owner, Château Dalem

Rullier has modernized this lovely Right Bank property in Fronsac overlooking Pomerol.  Her wines are great bargains.

“Until 2018 I worked with Michel Rolland, and I loved my work with him.  But I wanted to change the style of Dalem wines, less power but more precision.  So, with the vintage 2019, I started to work with Eric Boissenot, who advises the greatest châteaux of the Médoc like Lafite Rothshild, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild.  His method is very different method from Rolland’s with less extraction and therefore better press wines, [providing] better balance with fresher aromas and finer tannins.

“We put the press wines in barrels.  Then we select the best press of what we keep for blending the wines.  According to the year, we add back between 10% to 16% of the press wine to provide structure, volume and length.”

David Ramey, Founder, Ramey Wine Cellars

Like a handful of Napa and Sonoma winery owners, Ramey had significant experience in Bordeaux winemaking.  And, as he notes, not all press wines have to be monsters.

“We treat press fractions differently by variety.  For Pinot Noir and Syrah, they’re incorporated directly, out of the press—partly because with a portion of whole cluster, the press wine contains some sugar which can make for ‘problem lots’ if not blended straight away.

“For fully de-stemmed Cabernet varieties, we separate the press lots and combine them with some free-run for our Claret [brand] bottling.  We still make wine the way Moueix did in Pomerol during my ’79 and ’89 vintages there – three weeks cuvaison or time on skins with some heating once dry—a trick I gleaned from Michel Rolland.

“The grapes are pretty thoroughly extracted by the time we drain, so the press wine can have 50% less color and 50% less tannin than the free-run.  It makes a lovely wine, but less impactful than the free-run.  We match that with the percent new oak—more for free-run, less for the Claret.”

The Winemaking Team, Château Haut-Bailly

Livia Perrier consolidated staff comments of this prominent Pessac-Leognan estate presided over my Véronique Sanders.  Note the emphasis placed on different types of presses.

“The management and quality of press wines have changed considerably over the last decade.  A few years ago, these wines had little color and were drained of substance and tannins.  Today, they are of sufficient quality to be included in blends (grand vin: 5% to 10%, other wines: 15% to 20%).

“In fact, pressing methods have improved: the modern pneumatic press has given way to a small traditional vertical press.  We press more gently, for longer, so the pomace is no longer dried out.  The pressed wines are separated according to their origin and the intensity of the pressure, then placed in barrels.  Each one is tasted to classify them into three distinct categories, the best of which can be beneficial and bring a touch of structure and color to the final blend.”

Kathy Joseph, Founder, Owner and Winemaker, Fiddlehead Cellars

In this conversation with Joseph, who makes wines from Central Coast and Oregon grapes, she emphasized the importance of detailing terms in talking about free-run juice and press wines.

“People aren’t always talking about the same thing,” Joseph says.  In her case, she begins making her Pinots Noirs by using a tornado-type device on the first separation from the skins.  “You can see through it [the free-run juice] as you’re putting it into the barrel.  The rest minus the seeds goes into the press. I use a bladder press.  With a screw press, you are dealing with maceration as well as pressure.

“There are many degrees of pressure, and I judge the wine’s taste and texture to decide when to stop pressing.  This press wine goes into a stainless tank overnight to settle.”  Then, Joseph puts the press wine into the same mix of barrels as the free run and blends the two after racking and post-malolactic fermentation.

“The positives of press wine are that it has a higher pH with fullness, richness, more viscosity.  But its texture, color, sediment and the chance of microbials are all problems.  Also, on occasion the press wine doesn’t settle as easily as you would like.  So, you have to make the decision if you add it will you have to filter, because I like a brighter and clearer wine.”

Jean-Michel Laporte, GM and Winemaker, Château Talbot

 This St. Julien estate has long been a favorite of American lovers of Bordeaux because of its consistent high quality yet affordable prices.

“The press wines at Talbot... generally represent around 13 to 15% of total wine production, therefore a significant proportion – in 2022, with the small size of the berries, this amount climbed to 18%!  They must be tasted barrel by barrel in order to be classified by quality and grape variety.  This allows us to obtain batches of uniform quality with a view to their integration into the blend.  Thus, our grand vin, Château Talbot, generally receives around 10% of press wines.

“Press wines bring additional presence, richness, in the middle of the palate and a lot of aromatic length.  Very clearly, our assemblage would be less good without them.  The rest of the volumes are integrated into our second wine, Connétable Talbot, and a tiny part is evacuated [sold] in bulk.”

Anthony Vietri, Founder, Owner, Winemaker, Va La Vineyards

Vietri is the perfect American manifestation of the traditional small, independent European vintner; in this case, a one-man vineyard and winery on a hillside in Avondale, PA.

“We actually use an odd little press: a vertical, basket-type with an inflatable bladder inside.  It looks like the traditional ancient-style basket presses, but instead of rotating arms that are used to screw a plate down into the grapes, which gives a very rough extraction of tannins, this device uses an inflatable bladder that expands to gently press the juice from the skins.

“It is very small and labor intensive; however, it is extremely gentle on the grapes, and it is designed in such a manner that no matter what you do you cannot over-press the grapes.  The replaceable bladder will simply burst if you get too much pressure.  Thus, using this device makes separation of press run no longer necessary.

“The trade-off with this kind of press is that you get a bit less juice yield per ton, but that higher yield from the traditional press would generally be made up of over-extracted juice that you then would have to hide in other wines.”

Devyani Gupta, Head Winemaker, Valdemar Estates, Washington

Gupta is the winemaker at this Walla Walla outpost of the Rioja wine producer.

“‘Press fractions’” and ‘hard press’ can be difficult to talk about since to some they imply inferior quality; however, enological tannins are often used to freshen wines ahead of bottling for their antioxidant properties.  It is becoming more common for boutique wineries to push their press cuts and utilize hard press in small amounts as a tool for completing the profile of their wines.

“With our press program, this cut usually takes place around 0.4 to 0.8 bars of pressure and in the first 30 minutes of the 90 minutes press cycle, which completes at 1.6 bars.  The remaining 10-15% yield from this press cut is segmented and kept separate.  These components are then stored in barrels or small tanks, and the lees are stirred weekly for the first four months to help polish the tannins.

“In previous years, the press lots have been mainly declassified and sold on the bulk market.  In a few cases where a second cut was made, sometimes the lighter press fractions – yields between 140-145 gallons/ton – have been blended back into final wines, as the tannins can freshen an elongate the blend in this small proportion.”      

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