Today’s Wine Word: Cap Management


Doesn’t sound very winey, does it? Is it about the proper way to arrange your chapeau or ?

Cap management is a term that’s used only during harvest, but it’s an important one.

As you know, all of the color and most of the flavor and tannin in red wine comes from the grape skins. With very few exceptions the juice of a dark variety runs clear.

TRIVIA! The few varieties with red juice and flesh are called teinturier (ten-toory-AY). The best-known example in the wine world is probably Alicante Bouschet, which is often part of a field blend and can also be used when the winemaker wants to ramp up the color.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming: The thing is that the darned skins keep going up to the top of the tank, buoyed by the carbon-dioxide gas produced by the fermentation. If the “cap” of skins is allowed to stay at the top, color and flavor extraction isn’t good and it also tends to get hot up there. You don’t want it to get so hot that it starts killing the yeast.

Which introduces two other wine words:

1. Pump over: The most common way to get the cap mixed in is to pump the wine from the bottom of the tank up over the top. The schedule might be anywhere from two to four times a day depending on how active the fermentation is. This is a great technique for tannic wines because the process has an aerating effect, which can soften the tannins. Some winemakers purposely augment the aeration during pump overs. 

2. Punch down: This is the old fashioned way. The tank can’t be too large or it won’t get the job done – or not very well. The cellar worker opens the tank top (if there is one) and pushes the skins back into the wine with what looks like a giant potato masher. Done properly it’s a very gentle process which is ideal for thin skinned varieties like Pinot Noir.

TRIVIA! The French term, “pigeage” refers to breaking up or punching down the cap but, for many of us, it also brings to mind doing it by foot, the truly old-fashioned way.

There are all kinds of other methods but these are the ones you usually hear about when cap management is mentioned on a winery tour.

At this point in the Napa Valley harvest, for sparkling wine, they’re fairly far along. Early whites, like Sauvignon Blanc are coming in and Pinot Noir should be right on their heels. The harvest for mid-season reds like Merlot and Cabernet Franc aren’t too far off but it will be awhile fore any  Cabernet Sauvignon is ready. The Napa Valley harvest usually takes about eight to ten weeks when you account for all the different styles that are produced here. This year, harvest is running a few weeks early, which may help us avoid complications from rain – a very good thing!

If you’re anywhere near wine country right now – and every single state in the union has at least one bonded winery – you should really go check it out for the smell if nothing else. It’s very seasonal, very fleeting and unforgettable. Get thee to a winery!!

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Filed under wine making, wine trivia, winegrowing

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