Grape crushing – yesterday and today

From 'chaff cutters' to precision equipment

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Grapes from some of the best vineyards in Australia

Grapes from some of the best vineyards in Australia [©Winepros/VisitVineyards.com]

Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham
Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky

 

After being picked, nothing happens to a bunch of grapes until the berries are crushed.

That may sound like a profound statement, but each intact berry has yeast on its outside surface adhering to the waxy whitish substance known as the ‘bloom’ which is so obvious on black grapes and juice inside – separated by the skin and the pedicle where it enters the berry: only when the berry is crushed do the two ‘meet’!

So, a 'crusher' is a machine that does just that.

Sixty years ago, our crushers were proudly locally made. Truth be told, they were more akin to a chaff cutter, given that they partially macerated the grape stalks as well as the berries. Then my company of the time imported the first Amos crusher from Germany: comparison was stark.

It revolved very slowly and could very neatly spit the stalks out separated gently from the grape bunch: the berries were then squashed between slowly revolving rubber coated rollers which could be set at varying distances apart, so as to minimise any crushing of seeds.

During the preceding visit to Germany when I first viewed the machine, I was also taken to meet a man named Willmes and was startled to be informed that he did not want to meet me because I was an Australian.

The reason was because an Australian engineering company had copied his radical and extremely successful Willmes press which universally replaced the basket press that had been used by winemakers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (I saw a 15th century version, made entirely from wood including the large central screw, in Spain).

Further, quite unfairly the imitation had been actively sold in our country with the spiel that the stainless steel used in the construction of the Willmes was not type 316 as could be proven by a simple magnet adhering to it. That was a ‘furphy’, as we say, since juice only contacted the stainless steel for seconds there was no need for construction with top grade stainless steel.

The Amos crusher could actually leave the stalks with the crushed grapes if required by the winemaker. This was a ‘sop’ to old Burgundian technique of fermenting the stalks with the berries, a practice embraced by some Australian oenologists who have done a stint in France.

However, most are concerned about the dangerous methyl alcohol derived from such cellulose matter during fermentation, so choose to separate them at crushing.

Of course crushing is not essential. Whole bunches can be directly pressed and this is an entrenched practice in Champagne so as to minimise the contact time between juice and crushed grape skins in the presence of air, leading to unwanted extraction of tannin-like material which rather catalyse undesirable oxidation. Our riesling makers can choose to adopt that method for the same reason.

Sadly, within a year of the first Amos crusher arriving in Australia, the same happened again: it was copied by an Australian engineering firm. I don’t know if there is a 'Mr Amos' in southern Germany!

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

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December 16th, 2010
 
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