Grape stomping is still a thing. A friend of mine once asked me if people still stamp grapes for wine with their feet. I said yes, despite being unsure of my answer. Although my suspicions were confirmed on a trip to South Africa recently, when 2 women with purple feet showed up for a braai we were attending, complaining that their feet would never return to normal colour. They were purple!
Why is foot stomping grapes such a popular image in winemaking?
It conjurs up romantic images of a winemaker smooshing his grapes with the power of his feet, standing in a wooden barrel, perhaps surrounded by his family, maybe a dog or some chickens and his vines visible in the background. Stomping on your grapes has been around since at least the Roman times, where images can be found carved on to various buildings and sarcophagi, depicting those hard working farmers keeping Rome going by making wine!
However, Grape stomping is somewhat a traditional method of macerating grapes before fermentation. Sure, these days this process is mechanized, and can be cheaper and quicker, but who doesnt love a grape squashing by foot? Pigeage is the fancy french word for it, basically translates as “punching down” the grape skins. This method is all about being close to nature, and being as natural as possible in the wine making process and keeping that all important control.
In fact, it has been said that stomping by foot applies the perfect amount of pressure to the grapes, enough the break the skins but not to crush the seeds. Those seeds add bitterness and tannins to your wine, and too much is not a good thing, you will be left with a dry tongue that tastes and feels like you just licked a horse saddle. There are a lot of arguments the say foot pressing grapes is actually inefficient at extracting juice, and you would need to press them again anyway. But the truth is, the idea of foot pressing is both charming, and still used today. Remember the two women with the stained feet from earlier? They were on a working holiday stomping grapes during the harvest season. This technique has seen its decline in wine production over time, with many wineries offering it as a tourist gimmick. Except in good old Portugal, where grapes for Port are still squashed by the power of the human foot. Basket pressing tended to be more popular in the medieval times replacing stomping, and now the machine has taken over. However, as more and more wine makers and producers are going back to basics, and we are seeing a more hands off approach to wines, this tradition could make its return!
Also: a disclaimer, foot stomping grapes is not unsanitary. The acid, sugar and alcohol in the grapes prevents the growth of human bacteria in the wine. So, drink on, recommend and repeat.