The history of the wine press is nearly as old as the history of wine, with the remains of wine presses providing some of the best historical evidence of organised viticulture and winemaking in the ancient world. The earliest wine press was probably the human foot and or hand, crushing and squeezing grapes into a container where the juice would ferment.
The pressure applied by manual presses was limited and early wines would have been pale and light in body. Eventually ancient winemakers sought alternative means of pressing grapes. By the 18th dynasty, the ancient Egyptians were employing a ‘sack press’ made of cloth that was squeezed with the aid of a large tourniquet. The more modern winemaking equipment used to extract juice from grapes first emerged during the Greco-Roman period.
There are written accounts by Cato the Elder, Marcus Terentius Varro, Pliny the Elder and others describing wooden wine presses that utilized large beams, capstans and windlasses to exert pressure on the pomace. The wines produced by these presses were usually darker, with more colour extracted from the skins but could also be harsh with bitter tannins also extracted. That style of wine press would eventually evolve into the basket press used in the Middle Ages by wine estates of the nobility and Catholic Church leading to the modern tank batch and continuous presses used in wineries today.
A modified version of the ‘sack press’ had the sack hung between two large poles with workers holding each pole. After the grapes were loaded into the sack, the workers would walk in opposite directions, squeezing the grapes in the bag and capturing the juice in a vat underneath the bag. This early wine press not only exerted more pressure and extracting more juice than treading, the cloth also acted as an early form of filtering of the wine.
In the Middle Ages, winemaking advances were made by religious orders (particularly in France and Germany) who owned vast areas of vineyard land and produced large quantities of wine. It was here that the basket press became popular. The press included a large cylindrical basket made of wood staves bound together by wood or metal rings with a heavy horizontal disc fitted at the top. After the grapes were loaded into the basket, the disc would then depress with juice seeping out between the staves into a basin or tray. In some presses, added pressure would come from a giant lever or manual hand crank.
There are old Church records which show grape-growers were willing to pay a portion of their crop to use a landowners wine press if it was available. This was due to the added volume of wine (anything from 15-20%) that pressing could produce versus foot treading. But safety was also a driving force, since many records from the period report cellar works suffocating to death (from the released carbon dioxide) while treading fermenting wine grapes.
The highest quality was the ‘vin de goutte’ or the ‘free run’ juice that was released by the mere weight of the grapes squeezing each other as they are loaded into the press. This was usually the lightest in colour and body and was often kept separate from the ‘vin de presse’ that came from pressing which was darker and had more tannins.
Nowhere was the analysis of the difference in press fractions more astute than in the Champagne wine region where specifications for how the press fractions of juice destined to be Champagne should be handled. Pressings happened quickly after harvest to keep the juice at its freshest and to avoid any colouring from the red wine grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The free run 'vin de goutte' was considered too delicate and lacking on its own to make fine Champagne and it was sometimes discarded or used for other wines. The first and second pressings (called tailles or cut since the pomace cake was literally cut with ropes, chains or paddles to remove it between pressings) were the most ideal for sparkling wine production. The juice of the third pressing was acceptable but the fourth pressing (called the vin de taille) was rarely used and all other pressings after that the ‘vins de pressoirs’ were considered too harsh and coloured to be of any value in Champagne production.
In the 17th and 18th century, the style of winemaking in France was for more full bodied wines that could age. Winemaking text began recommending that fine wine producers employ the use of a wine press and that sometimes blending in a bit of the ‘vin de presse’ to enhance colour and body was essential to create a wine that could age. Even in Bordeaux, which was still using Lagares long after Burgundy, Champagne and other wine regions had adopted the basket press, saw the use of a wine press become more popular after darker, more full bodied wines. By the end of the 18th century, nearly all prestigious Bordeaux wine estates were using this method, giving the grapes more time to ferment in the vat and then using a basket press on the darker vin vermeil and pressing it into new oak barrels.
The advancement of steam power machinery in the 19th century brought about a revolution in wine press technology as manual basket press gave way to steam-powered presses that greatly increased the efficiency of pressing and reduced the labour needed to operate a press. In Europe, basket presses with hydraulic machinery could be found throughout Sauternes, Burgundy and parts of Italy.
In the 20th century, wine presses advanced from the vertical style pressing of the basket press to horizontal pressing with pressure either being applied at one or both ends or from the side through use of an airbag or bladder. These new ‘batch’ presses, had to have the pomace emptied and grapes reloaded, and like a ‘continuous’ press where a belt or ‘Archimedes' screw would subject the grape-pomace to increasing pressure from one end of the press to the other with new grapes being added and the pomace being continuously removed.
Large tank presses that are fully enclosed can be used for anaerobic winemaking, reducing the exposure of the grape must to air. Some advance presses can even be flushed with nitrogen to create a complete anaerobic environment which are ideal for white grape varietals. Additionally, many of today's modern wine presses are computerized which allows the operator to control exactly how much pressure is applied to the grape skins and for how long.