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The History of the Wine Press

Every Italian wine producer has their own unique little touches and flourishes that they bring to the production process. Of course, there are also several different processes that producers can use, especially for those who create sparkling wines.

However, there is one thing that all Italian wine producers have to do:

Press their grapes.

When grapes are pressed, their juices are extracted so that the producer can begin the process of making wine. And as time has progressed, our methods for pressing grapes have evolved. What was once a manual and time-consuming task is now something that producers can do using massive machines capable of pressing thousands of grapes at a time.

In this article, we’re going to explain exactly what a wine press is. We’re also going to take you on a little tour of the evolution of the Italian wine press.

What is a Wine Press?

As the name suggests, a wine press is a device that is used to press the grapes that are the main ingredient of wine. The device will typically work by crushing the grapes using a controlled form of pressure.

Control is crucial because of the presence of seeds in the grapes.

If the grapes are crushed without any care, the seeds are crushed along with them. This can result in the release of deep tannins into the wine, which can have a negative impact, especially when the producer is making white wine. As such, a good wine press will enable the user to control the pressure they place on the grapes, allowing for the extraction of juices without any additional elements of the grape getting crushed.

There are five commonly used forms of wine press. They are as follows:

The Basket Press

One of the oldest forms of wine press, the basic design of this press hasn’t changed much over the last 1,000 years. The idea is simple. You have a big basket full of grapes and a plate suspended above them. The plate is lowered, crushing the grapes in the process, to extract the juice.

The Bladder Press

A bladder press is a large cylinder that is sealed at both ends once the grapes are loaded into it. Once the grapes are loaded, a bladder within the cylinder is expanded, pressing the grapes against the cylinder in the process. The juice flows out of small holes in the cylinder as this occurs.

The Horizontal Screw

This works in a very similar way to the basket press. However, in this case, there are two plates on either side of a cylinder, rather than one plate above a basket. Pressure is applied by pushing the plates together. Typically, this horizontal screw is capable of pressing far more grapes than most other types of wine press.

Continuous Screw

An older form of wine press, this uses an Archimedes screw to constantly push grapes up against the wall of the press. The juice extracted flows to one end of the press, with the pomace forced to the other end. Unfortunately, this press comes with the problem of crushing the wrong types of grapes, which has led to most wine producers abandoning it. In some cases, its use is banned entirely, especially when creating high-quality wines.

Flash Release

While not a traditional form of wine press, the flash release technique is worth a mention because of how unique it is. It involves heating the grapes to 95 degrees Celsius using water vapour. The grapes are then placed in a strong vacuum, which allows for the flash release of the fruit’s juices.

So, we can see there are several types of wine press. While the techniques used differ between each, the general concept is the same. There are also more archaic forms of pressing grapes, such as gathering them in a barrel and stepping on them. However, these forms of pressing are rarely used when creating consumer wines.

The History of the Wine Press

The wine press has existed for as long as wine has been produced. However, it is only in relatively recent years that we have seen the mechanical elements discussed above get introduced.

Early wine presses worked how we described them a little earlier. Grapes were poured into a barrel, which had a faucet at the bottom. The grapes were then pressed manually, either by hand or foot, with the faucet being used to release the juice, which would then be fermented.

However, mechanical ideas did exist for thousands of years before we came up with the types of presses that are in regular use today. For example, the ancient Egyptians came up with an interesting technique that involved placing the grapes in a sack before using a huge tourniquet to apply pressure and squeeze the grapes.

Later accounts from historians including Pliny the Elder and Cato the Elder speak of huge presses that utilised large wooden beams, windlasses, and capstans.

The problem with all of these early presses was the lack of control. As mentioned earlier, pressing grapes without controlling pressure leads to the release of undesirable tannins. This was proven with these early mechanical presses, which were said to produce wines of a deep red colour that tended to be very bitter.

It was not until the Middle Ages when we saw the advancement that changed everything for the wine industry. It’s during this time that the concept behind basket presses came into being. These concepts were built upon with the advent of steam technology, allowing for stronger and larger presses.

The Final Word

The advancement of wine presses was vital to the development of the global wine industry you see today. Without them, we would still be limited to pressing grapes manually, which would result in a tiny output of Italian wine.

Thankfully, we’ve also seen presses evolve over the centuries, allowing for the creation of wines that are not loaded with heavy and bitter tannins. Today’s presses are complex bits of machinery designed to balance volume with the production of quality juices. And it is thanks to these machines that we’re able to enjoy so many wines from around the world.

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