Every year, dozens of guests gather barefoot at Peju Province, tucked away in the dry hills of Napa Valley. There, they sink their freshly-cleaned feet into barrels of hand-picked Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The foot-crushed wines on this estate have a delicate flavor unlike their peers made with a more modern pump-over technique.
Pigeage, or crushing and pushing the grape skins beneath the surface of the fermenting juice by hand, has been done in winemaking for more than 8,000 years, but fell out of favor after producers found they could replace hand-crushed grapes with an automatic pump system. Today more wineries are turning back to pigeage to craft their wines, believing that the resulting flavors ring more true to the terroir in which the grapes are grown. Many of these producers are experimenting with pigeage for white wine varietals, which seems to bring out tannin qualities we typically associate with red wines while retaining the delicate character of the white wine.
Heightened Aromatics of Orange Wines
Pigeage seems to improve greatly nearly every white wine’s bouquet, no matter the terroir. Dubbed “orange wines,” white wines made using pigeage have an amber color due to the slow, skin-on crushing process. The grape skins deepen the colors and the scents of the wine, allowing it to become far more complex than if the grapes were macerated by machine.
Alsace has used a skin-contact pigeage technique for the past few centuries. By crushing and steeping its white varietals with their own skins, producers in the region create wines that are highly aromatic. To collect a wine with this quality, choose Gewurztraminer varietals from Alsace. In wines such as the 2001 Hugel & Fils, the intense bouquet has a strong floral quality, coupled with a grape skin-like taste on the finish.
Pigeage has a reputation for creating bitter-tasting white wines, which is why wine experts find the method controversial. Producers need to keep a close watch on pigeage wines, because one missed pressing or extra day of skin contact could spell disaster for the entire grand vin. Few winemakers dare use this technique on Chardonnay, since the balanced, neutral flavors of this grape become overly tart with any prolonged skin contact during processing.
Instead, pigeage-favoring producers use varietals such as Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Finger Lakes area in New York leads the way in modern Riesling, and the region’s Ravines Winery recently decided to embrace pigeage.
Ravines spends twice as much time as traditional wineries pressing its grapes, avoiding all contact with the stems and the leaves. A small portion of the grapes go through a skin contact process, filling out the wine with stronger aromatic notes and a more complex finish. This winery uses the method to craft a strong backbone for wines that would otherwise emphasize a straightforward, clean taste.
Harvest Climate Makes or Breaks Pigeage
Napa Valley is one of the largest producers of pigeage-based white wines because the warm, arid climate allows grapes to grow slowly, producing fruit that can withstand the process of skin-on crushing. Estates such as Robert Biale embrace traditional grape-stomping in Sonoma Valley. The estate grows Zinfandel from 100-year-old head-trained vines, and it owns plots of land on a variety of terroirs, allowing it to tweak its crushing methods based on varietal and climate. While hand-crushing works well for grapes grown in warm climates, pigeage often makes wines grown in cooler climates taste worse than those processed with a pump-over system.
You might imagine that late harvests would result in the finest-tasting pigeage-crafted white wine, but in fact, the longer a producer waits to harvest his grapes, the less likely he is to use pigeage. This method requires grapes with a perfect internal pH balance; if a grape’s pH is too high (as is the case with late harvests), then the resulting pigeage-crafted wine will be too acidic and bitter. Similarly, producers can’t use early harvest grapes because the unripe, “green” flavor will mimic the bitterness of the skins, resulting in a wine that tastes far too young and tart.
Pigeage Is Still Controversial
The argument against pigeage boils down to terroir. Modern winemakers claim that fast pump-over systems express the terroir of the white wine varietals more clearly, allowing their flavors to shine through without skin distractions. Mineral-heavy soil in regions such as Alsace create wines that have strong mineral notes, but critics argue that introducing the bitterness of the skins throws off the balance of these mineral qualities, muddying the expression of terroir.
In many of these wines, however, the terroir is adequately expressed, and the white wines have often had more care and attention paid to them than wines made using pumpovers. Simply turning on an automatic pump allows less meticulous producers to largely ignore their harvests as they are being processed. Winemakers do not get this luxury as they hand-crush their wines, especially since every batch requires a different number of pressings.
Finding White Wines for Your Collection
Collections of the finest white wines always include highly aromatic vintages from world-renowned producers. When you use Vinfolio’s online wine search tool, you are immediately connected with hundreds of bottles that represent the best of each varietal, including Riesling with strong bouquets and toothsome Sauvignon Blanc. Read the latest reviews from wine critics around the world before you purchase your perfect bottle.
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