Vino, ruby, red, white, grog, vin—whatever name wine goes by, there is little argument that Dionysus's drink of choice is among the most satisfying alcoholic libations produced by human beings.
Over the past few decades, the micro-winery scene has exploded across the world and more and more people are learning how to make wine—cultivating their own strains of grapes, fermenting their crop and producing wonderful homemade vintages of Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah—and learning how to bottle wine.
Although much of the blood, sweat and tears (figuratively) poured into the wine-making process are spent during the growing, harvesting, fermenting and aging processes, there is an extremely important step that comes after each of these: bottling.
In this article, we'll explore the secrets and tricks to bottling wine using a few different methods, from traditional bottling to bottling sans corker, bottling from a carboy, and bottling in mason jars.
Many characteristics of homemade wine do not reveal themselves until after wine has been properly bottled.
Wine ages both aerobically, during the grapes' fermentation and preparation, and anaerobically, as the result of chemical changes that occur inside the bottle. This is the main reason why bottling wine is so important: it allows the wine to develop in an oxygen-independent environment.
The majority of the work involved in bottling wine actually takes place in the preparatory period before the bottling occurs.
Each piece of the bottling equipment, as well as the bottles, must be fully sanitized. Most large-scale commercial wineries use sterile filtration techniques and environments, but that goal is well beyond the budget of most home enterprises. Equipment and bottles should be sterilized with bleach and citric rinses, or even with ammonia solutions (usually a half cup of ammonia for every five gallons of water.)
Choosing the bottle type to use can be an easy decision or an agonizing one. It is almost always more economical to recycle bottles, particularly because new bottles can run prospective bottlers up to $10 each!
Different types of wines are often stored in different types of bottles, but the pressure on a home winemaker to conform to these expectations is negligible. Many home vintners use five gallon storage tanks and carboys, which typically fill 25 750 milliliter bottles of wine, or two gallon tanks, which typically fill 10 bottles.
Finally, cork treatment is a part of wine bottling that often flies under the radar. All newly purchased corks should be soaked in water for at least an hour before insertion. Many winemakers change the water into a sulfite solution by adding potassium metabisulfite to the water, but this step is not necessary and somewhat controversial among those who claim that it may lead to contamination.
The following sections will detail contingency plans and strategies for learning how to bottle wine under different circumstances. These circumstances will be faced by many vintners, and it is important to know what to do in every situation that you could possibly face.
Bottling wine is a little more difficult without access to a corker, but no enterprising vintner should be slowed by a lack of equipment.
Certain types of corks can be installed by hand. These corks are called T-corks and they are typically plastic. T-corks provide an excellent seal that, although it does not rival the seal of a traditional cork, can preserve the wine's bouquet and allow for anaerobic aging.
Screw-top bottles can also be closed by hand; in fact, many cheaper bottles of wine produced by professional winemakers are closed using screw-tops as a cost saving measure.
The main issue with bottling wine without a corker is that the wine cannot be allowed to age for as long as corked wine can. Oxidation occurs much more easily due to the looser seal that T-corks and screw-top fasteners are able to provide, and it is usually recommended that wines corked using these methods be consumed within 9 months to a year.
First of all, what is a carboy? A carboy is a cylindrical container that is used either to transport liquids or to ferment beverages like beer or wine at home.
Typically, it is fitted with a type of fermentation lock, most often a rubber or plastic stopper, to prevent oxygen from entering the vessel. Most micro-wineries or home brewers making small batches of wine use carboys to ferment and store their product.
The most common method for bottling wine from a carboy involves using an auto-siphon device. These clever tools allow home winemakers to easily transfer their finished wines from the carboy to the bottle.
Winemakers can use the same siphoning technique by employing more basic tools, such as siphon tubing and a racking cane, but a simple auto-siphon can save hours of hassle and be bought online very cheaply.
The bottling process is actually very simple.
Insert the siphoning tube into the carboy, and attach the other end of the equipment to a bottle filler (or just eyeball the filling) and place it inside the first bottle. Make sure that the bottles are inside a container or a bucket so that the floor does not suffer any unnecessary damage.
Start the siphon and start filling bottles. Most bottle fillers are designed to leave the perfect amount of space between the wine and the cork, but a good rule of thumb when you're eyeballing is to leave between 1.25 and 1.5 inches empty.
After the bottles are filled, cork them with a corker as quickly as possible so as to stave off aeration. Remember the tips pertaining to sanitization, cork treatment and bottle type that were detailed above.
Obviously, storing homemade wine in mason jars is less than ideal. The looser seal on a mason jar lid will likely expose the wine to higher levels of oxygen, and the lack of any corking procedure means that the wine will have a more difficult time with its anaerobic development. Wines stored in mason jars may have less flavorful bouquets, shorter shelf times, and less developed complexity.
However, there are a few precautions that home bottlers can take to diminish the risk inherent in mason jar bottling.
After using a typical siphoning method to fill the mason jar with wine, do not immediately screw the jar's lid back on. Instead, cut a square of wax paper big enough to cover the entire opening of the jar. Fasten the wax paper to the jar with a rubber band, and then place the lid back on and tightly close it.
Wax paper or related materials like paraffin help create a more airtight seal than would otherwise exist in a mason jar. This seemingly insignificant step could be the difference between a lousy wine with a three month shelf life or a flavorful wine that can be aged (in a cool storage space between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius, of course!) for up to six months.
As with anything, wine bottling attempts do not always go smoothly the first few times, and the same goes for corking bottles and racking homemade wine. Luckily, it is possible to bottle wine passably and even effectively using extremely inexpensive equipment and simple methods.
This video demonstrates the ease with which the average home vintner, with careful attention to sterilization and process, can bottle his or her own private vintage.
Learning how to bottle wine is a rewarding process that simultaneously improves the appearance and taste of the product. And for someone aspiring to be the prince of Pinot or the master of Merlot, it's an indispensable skill to acquire.
As an assistant D.A. in a small city, Tim Packard always drank whiskey whenever he was out to dinner with clients, until an Italian mobster introduced him to a classic Valpolicella. One mouthful of the latest vintage, round with the flavor of cherries and earth, and he never again allowed friends to order the second-best wine.