While I knew that punchdowns were performed to keep the cap moist before and during fermentation, here are some other things I learned and experienced doing these on a daily basis.
While punchdowns are a daily task, they are much, much harder to perform the first few days because so much of the juice is still tied up in the skins of the berries. The resistance you feel as you use an elongated metal tool to punch down, is very, very intense. But, as the juice leaves the skins day after day, you are pushing down more of a lighter cap which, after a while, feels almost papery.
The first day I tried to do punchdowns, it was pretty sad. I could barely do one t-bin (which again, are the larger, deeper bins). I couldn’t hold my balance on a step ladder to put enough force into it and while I’m the perfect height for standing up to do punching, I don’t have the upper body strength to push my tool down into a resistant cap. It was literally more like “stabdowns” for me, or akin to hitting a wall. I have since gotten stronger, but I still try to have one of the guys do the t-bin punchdowns if the bins are only on their first or second day because no matter what, they can just do them faster given their innate upper body strength. I can manage any bin beyond its third day of settling and have gained enough necessary muscle in my arms and stomach to use better technique.
But, no matter the stage of the cap, I always test its resistance with the first punchdown by pushing down into the cap very slowly and gently. I remember when I was first doing punchdowns and readied myself to attack a bin full force, but I didn’t realize how the resistance changes depending on which day you punch the cap down. So, I stupidly just put all my weight and strength into an initial punchdown to a bin after it had been sitting for several days, and I nearly fell in! A dark pink mini-wave of juice also shot straight up, although it didn’t leap out of the bin itself nor douse me in the process.
Speaking of color, punchdowns also serve to draw out more color from the skins to bring into the juice. I remember being amazed at witnessing this when I pushed down into a bin that was on day 2 or 3 after its initial destemming and saw brownish juice pooling in to the spot where I had just made a hole and then swirls of burgundy-colored pigment seeping in. I saw the colors coming together. Eventually, the juice in a bin gained more and more of the skins’ pigment. Some fruit’s juice, like Syrah, is so stunningly rich and deep in color it’s almost a tactile experience to look at it with your eyes.
I think I mentioned this in another post, but the sound of punching down a drier cap literally sounds like an ocean wave crashing on the shore. I absolutely love that calming sound. The fact that you are nearly paddling through these skins and juice gets you into a rhythm that is like rowing a small boat on a very large lake.
Some things to be mindful of:
- When punching down, you really need to move in a zigzag direction across the surface of the cap, as you can chip away at the dry cap more easily as much of it crumbles down on its own due to that action (and looks much like an iceberg does when it melts).
- When you near any side of the bin, be careful to position your tool so that it pulls in the skins of the cap resting next to the side without touching the side of the bin. These tools do have sharp-ish edges that, when used against a plastic bin reused year after year, can shave off pieces of the sides if you punch down too closely, grazing it with the tool. I have actually found bits of white plastic ribbons floating in the juice which I pluck out, but that’s where they come from.
- Before inoculation or natural fermentation begins, you should keep the interior sides of the bin clean of juice streaks from splashes or berry bits. But once fermentation begins, like bread constantly on the rise, it’s pointless to do this because the cap will only rise again overnight. But after fermentation slows down, it is best to wipe the sides down to avoid unwanted mold growing on the sides. Use a damp paper towel spritzed with Everclear alcohol to ensure proper hygiene is applied to the bins at all times when you’re near the fruit.
- Fruit flies near or in bins happens right up through fermentation and then at the end when it’s time to siphon the wine out. Ed says he’s never sure what they’re hanging out for because they’ll never survive in the alcohol. I often wonder that too, especially when I have a glass of wine and they just hang out on the edge and eventually drown due to their own curiosity. Unfortunately for me, I am very sensitive to the presence of a fruit fly in or near my wine because it actually changes the chemistry of the wine to me. I cannot seem to aromatically overlook that VA-like aroma while many people can; my sense of smell is simply too sensitive.
- Some bins of fruit really jive with their yeast so their fermentation creates larger caps than other bins. You can try to account for this by noticing the level of the fruit in the bin before fermentation kicks off as it may have a larger amount of fruit than some of the others, hence, it only makes sense that if it’s a good relationship, the yeast will consume away and leave you with a very large and looming cap. For these predicted caps, it is best to not lock the bin’s lid into place lest you walk into an exploding cap the next morning!
- As a female, I’ve accepted that my upper body strength is simply going to be different from that of a man’s, so I’ve had to develop some techniques to punch down more resistant caps. One technique I use to allow my body to put its full dead weight into a tough cap is to position my heels up against the exterior base of the bin behind me (during harvest, and especially if you’re working in a small facility, there are usually tons of bins surrounding you in rows with very little walkway room, so it’s easy to maneuver this technique), and this allows me to literally “put my back into it” without overexerting body parts that I might actually injure. A slow, downward zigzagging motion to cut through a resistant cap is also something I apply.
In general, I really like doing punchdowns on caps that have seen a few initial days’ worth of punching. It’s one of those tasks that allow you to use all of your senses and get into a wonderful rhythm so as to connect with the fruit, or, as Taka likes to say, to connect with the fruit as if was “talking back” to you.