Three glorious centuries of harvesting the grape

In the days when grapes were trampled underfoot, entire bunches of grapes went into the press. But when continuously operated cast-iron mechanized presses first came into use, they broke the pips and chewed them up, and the wine acquired a grassy taste from substances in the woody stems which got into the must. This is why the system of removing stems from grapes, known in French as egrappage, became widespread. Egrappage was already in use in Italy and some chateaux in Bordeaux in the 18th century, in order to avoid fermenting the pulp together with the stems, which made bitter red wines taste even more bitter. The technique There were three methods of egrappage: – A wooden rod with three teeth like a trident. The grapes were put into a cylinder and a worker put the rod through the cylinder from one end to the other, turning it around inside the cylinder in such a way that the teeth broke off the grapes, which then collected at the bottom while the pips stayed at the top and were removed. But this slow method was only used for small quantities. – An egrappage grid. A two-meter square wooden net with holes two centimeters wide. Grapes were placed on the grid and rubbed by hand. The grapes fell through the holes into a container below. – An egrappage machine was the quickest method, especially for large quantities. The grapes went into the machine’s funnel and through two serrated cylinders which broke the grapes, while a worm-screw ejected the stems from the machine. But these machines create other kinds of problems, because the cylinders often broke the pips, which contain an oil which makes wine too tangy. These primitive machines were the forerunners of contemporary automatic machines that press the grapes without crushing the pips and that remove the stems intact. At the end of the 19th century, machines for removing stems and continuous wine presses made their appearance in the French Midi, a major production center of wine for mass consumption. But the rough way they processed grapes caused them to be viewed with great suspicion in areas which produced high-quality wine. This suspicion is reflected in the following comment by N. Spetsieris- a special winemaker of the Montpellier school – in his work Laiiki Oinopoiia (1890s): It is preferable for grapes to be trampled by the workers’ feet, because the pips of the grape, which contain oils that spoil the taste of the wine, are not crushed; but if this task is done by machine, the pips are crushed; then they get in between the two cylinders and their oils give the wine an unpleasant taste. Specialization The two world wars brought about significant developments in metallurgy and machine construction which, among other things, brought benefits to winemaking in terms of improvements to winemaking machinery. Hence I. Parisis presents a completely different opinion in his Oenology (Nea Stoichiodis Oenologia, Athens, 1957): Trampling grapes by foot is repulsive, and it is without question unaesthetic and dangerous for the wine, but unfortunately this method has prevailed since antiquity. There is a danger that the must will be contaminated by contact with bodies which may be the source of microorganisms. In bakeries, cylinders have already replaced hands, and the primeval method of kneading, with sweat pouring off the brow into the dough, has ceased. So it is even more important that trampling by foot is replaced by mechanical means. Just one year later, in that postwar watershed between tradition and modernization, I made my first visit to some of the most renowned chateaux in Bordeaux. I was accompanied by the public relations officer of what was then one of the biggest names in winemaking equipment. We happened to visit one of the wineries at the same time as some French-speaking tourists from Canada, and during the tour I saw a huge two-part egrappage frame. At the vintage some 13 young women would work around it, picking out damaged grapes, while another 13 workers did the egrappage, as shown on a black-and-white documentary. When the Canadians left, my escort introduced me to the head of the winery and told him that since the vintage was approaching, he had come to check the machines and see if his customers had any complaints. None whatsoever. As you can see, they are all working perfectly, said the man, and pressed a button. This separated the two parts of the egrappage frame, revealing the new machinery concealed beneath it, and which chateaux at that time dared not admit to possessing. Nowadays the same chateaux are proud of their perfect new equipment. Visitors to modern wineries feel suspicious when faced with the huge winemaking machines whose purpose they do not know. In order to trust their wine, visitors must realize that machines are so perfect and automated nowadays that they perform tasks formerly done by hand even better. They are highly specialized workers that work according to the orders of the person who oversees and regulates their operation; they are robots in the service of good winemaking. May the wine of this year’s vintage, whether made by traditional or more advanced technological means, be good to drink and sell well too!