It is a common misconception that the traditional image of French peasants stomping on grapes were part of the grape pressing process, actually the treading grapes in a barrel or vat is about mixing the grapes during fermentation rather than pressing them. |
Those hoping to witness this sight, or even join in á la I Love Lucy, on wine tours in France, will be disappointed to discover that today feet have been almost entirely replaced by manual tools or, in larger producers, by machinery.
While the tradition of ‘pigéage à pied’ (literally ‘punching down by feet’) has mostly been replaced, the process of pigéage (punching down), is still a vital part of French viniculture.
What is Pigéage?
Pigéage is the mixing of the fermenting grapes in vats. It is important because during the fermentation process the cap of the grapes (that is the skin, stems and seeds) rises to the top.
This cap is the source of the tannin, colour and flavour which will eventually make up the final product. It is vital, particularly when producing red varieties that it is regularly mixed back into the grapes to create a rich colour and flavour.
The Pigéage process also helps to ventilate the fermenting grapes (called the ‘must’). It also helps to cool it down, creating colour, texture and astringency in the final product. By exposing any bacteria that may have formed in the cap to the ethanol in the must, it also prevents spoilage.
While you may no longer find workers doing this with their feet on modern wine tours, you will find that, particularly in smaller or higher quality vineyards in France, pigéage is still carried out manually with a metal broom or other tool to break up the cap. It is believed in France that pigéage, rather than the more mechanised method of ‘pumping over’, is gentler on the grape and so creates a smoother, finer quality result.
The amount of pigéage which takes place depends on what the producer wants from the final flavour. For white varieties the contact between the must and the cap is minimal and therefore this process is avoided, while for rosé there is some pigéage to create the colour and flavour.
It is in red varieties, however, where this process is most important to transfer the colour and tannins from the cap to the must. In some areas, such as Burgundy, pigéage is done as many as five times a day.
The History of Pigéage à Pied
While pigéage is considered a traditional part of French viniculture, its history can be traced back to Roman times. In fact, a 3rd Century roman artwork was discovered which depicts a rural grape harvesting scene including the stomping of grapes in a barrel.
Modern hygiene laws have meant that French wines for export can no longer be subject to pigéage à pied, which sadly means the sight is no longer common on wine tours, but the tradition for pigéage is still a fundamental part of French viniculture.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge holidays. Offering holidays to France and other great destinations, itineraries include wine tours and other cultural and themed activities. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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