“Winemaking doesn’t become much more ‘hands on’ than when I’m hand plunging”, says Simon Hall, Winemaker for Simall Wines.
What is hand plunging and why is it considered by many winemakers to produce superior results to alternate methods?
Once fermentation of the grape juice begins in the red wine vats, the carbon dioxide that is naturally produced lifts the skins and forces them to the top of the vats. These lifted skins are called the cap. Heat is also trapped in the cap. Hand-plunging is the process of forcing the skins back down into the vats to ensure that all of their colour and tannin are infused into the wine. It also evens out the temperature and prevents wine spoilage.
Left alone, the skins form a solid cap on the top of the juice. Bacteria would begin to ferment where the air meets the cap, resulting in a problem caused by volatile acidity – the wine starts to reek of vinegar and becomes spoiled.
Winemakers avoid this by keeping the cap moist, either by plunging it regularly, or keeping it submerged by a mechanical device, or by pumping juice over it.
- Hand plunging utilises a long pole with a metal disc on the end which is plunged by hand into the cap. This technique is gentle and provides the winemaker with a visual ‘check’.
- Rotary fermenters have agitators in them that mix up the cap and juice when the whole tank is rotated mechanically. This technique has been accused of producing wines that have a slight bitterness to them due to lack of sufficient oxygen during fermentation.
- Pumping over is a mechanical pumping of the must below the cap onto the top surface of the cap. It is potentially more disruptive because of the forces involved, but is appropriate for bigger, closed fermentation vessels such as stainless steel tanks.
It is generally held that hand plunging provides more opportunity for a winemaker to produce quality wines from quality grapes. On the other hand, hand plunging is not possible for makers of large volumes of mass produced wines made in very large steel tanks.
“I sometimes get my hands stained with the red wine juice when I hand plunge – you can take it as a sign I’m having fun!,” says Simon
“Below is my colleague in action” Simon