A Very Ancient Craft
There is absolutely no doubt: that: the most common fault in wine is its youth. Almost all wine is drunk before it is really ready for the decanter. The most difficult ingredient in winemaking is patience. Frequently the author has been asked to pass his opinion on a 'wine' barely six weeks old. It is like killing baby chicks! If you ever hope to achieve a good wine you simply must: give it time to develop, to grow up, to mature. There is no short cut. Oenologists have been searching for hundreds of years for some way in which to mature wines quickly and none has so far been found. Nothing surpasses the value of time.
In the last chapter we left the wine when it had just finished fermenting. The bubbles of carbon dioxide had ceased to rise and the wine was beginning to clear. A noticeable deposit had formed at the bottom of the jar. It is from these lees that we now wish to separate the new wine. This process is called racking and it is usually performed by siphoning the wine into a clean jar. A siphon consists of a length of rubber or plastic tube in one end of which is inserted a length of glass tubing with one end bent into a 'U'. The jar containing the wine is placed on a table and an empty jar is placed on a stool or the floor beneath. The 'U' tube is now slowly inserted into the wine and gently pushed to the bottom so as not to disturb the sediment. The top of the 'U' is above the sediment: which will not now be disturbed by the movement of the wine. The other end of the siphon is placed in your mouth and you must suck gently but firmly until the wine is about to enter your mouth. The rubber tubing is now squeezed tightly between your finger and thumb, removed from your lips and placed into the neck of the empty jar. The pressure on the tubing is now released and the wine will flow freely until the surface of the wine in the jar on the table falls below the top of the 'U' tube. If needs be this jar can be tilted carefully while the wine is still flowing to ensure that as much wine as possible is extracted from the jar without actually removing any sediment. It will be found that the wine in the clean jar on the floor does not quite fill the jar and this must be remedied at once. Most recipes are so framed that a little more must is actually made than will fill a fermenting jar and this surplus is usually fermented in a bottle plugged with cotton wool and stood beside the jar. When the wine is racked for the first time this surplus wine will be just what is required to top up the jar.
A clean hung is now softened in warm water and inserted into the neck of the jar and the label from the fermenting jar is transferred to the storage jar, with the date of racking inserted together with any other note you may wish to make. The jar of probably still hazy wine is now moved to its storage place for three or four months. This storage place should, if possible, be dark and cool and free from vibration. If the place cannot be darkened and you are using a clear glass jar, wrap some brown paper around it to keep out the light, which in time fades the colour from the wine.
In about three months' time the jar of wine should be taken out and examined. Most likely it will now be quite clear and another deposit will be seen on the bottom of the jar. A large part of this deposit is yeast and if you wish to be economical you can use this to start a fresh ferment. But for the moment the wine must be racked off into another clean jar and the process already described must be repeated. With care, very little wine need be lost and if you have no other wine to top up your jar you may use a little cold boiled water in which a few grains of sugar have been dissolved. It is preferable to use wine, of course, and if you have none of the same a similar one may be used. The quantity should be SO small as not to affect the finished wine to any noticeable extent. At this stage many winemakers add one Campden tablet to the gallon of wine, since this assists not only in stabilising the wine-that is, stop it from re-fermenting-but also it helps to develop the flavour of the wine. The record label is again brought up to date and transferred and the jar is again put back into its storage place for another three or four months.
The next time the wine is examined it should be quite brilliant and the time has now come either to rack it: yet again, and store it in bulk for another year or so, or else to bottle it. The general consensus of opinion is that a further period of maturation in bulk is beneficial. On the other hand, there is a limit to the number of jars one can obtain and store and many people prefer to bottle their wine at this stage. Whatever you do it has to be kept for another six months and preferably a year and a half, indeed longer if you can resist drinking it.
Only clean punted wine bottles should be used. Friends will give them to you, so will hoteliers. Always remove the labels and wash them very thoroughly in hot water and detergent, twirling a bottlebrush vigorously inside them while doing so. Rinse the bottles thoroughly several times in clean cold water, upend them and drain them dry. They can now be filled with new wine or put away until required. If you do the latter the bottles may be rinsed in half a pint of cold water in which a Campden tablet and quarter teaspoonful of citric acid has been dissolved. This solution will adequately sterilise the bottles, pouring it from one into the other, shaking each bottle as you do so. The solution may finally be used for soaking the corks.
Red wines should always be stored in brown or green bottles to preserve the colour, but white wines may be stored in clear glass bottles. The bottles should be filled to within 19 in. of the mouth and if the bottle is to be stored for long a cylindrical cork should be used. It is almost impossible to insert these without the aid of a corker, which compresses them while they are being knocked into the neck of the bottle. For this reason the corks must always be softened by soaking them in water for a while. Hot water may be used, but the corks should never be boiled. Half an hour is usually long enough, provided they are held under water the whole time.
When they are required the surplus water may be wiped off. If the wine is to be stored upright, or not kept for very long in bottle, cork stoppers may be used. These too must be softened, but they can be inserted with pressure from the heel of your hand. If they tend to blow back insert a thread or plastic-covered wire with the cork and withdraw it whilst still holding the cork down. This releases some of the compressed air and the cork will remain snug.
Bottles that: are to be stored on their sides must have cylindrical corks because the pressure of the wine on the cork is such that it will push out a cork stopper and waste the wine on the floor. It is often a good rip to stand all the bottles upright for a few days anyway, in case any of them develop a propensity to blow a cork. It is better for a cork to be blown upwards than outwards, so as not to lose the wine.
Wines that are to be kept for any length of time whether stored upright or on their side may have a Viscap fitted over the cork and neck of the bottle. A Viscap is a pliable plastic cap, which hardens when exposed to the air and forms a seal over the bottle. It can be bought in several colours and apart from its usefulness gives a professional finish to the bottle.
Finally the bottle must be labelled, however simply. Some winemakers have designed and use their own special labels, others buy colourful and fancy ones from suppliers, others use only a plain white sticky label or just a tag slipped over the neck of the bottle. Experience teaches, however, that it is most important to label clearly every bottle with the name and year of the wine. With the passage of time it is almost impossible to remember the contents of any bottle, especially if any reasonable quantity and variety of wine is made. However long you keep your wines in bulk, a further period of six to twelve months' maturation in bottle will be found most beneficial. Laying the bottles on their sides or at an angle keeps the corks moist and saves them from drying out and perhaps admitting air. Simple racks can be made for a few shillings, to fit any space in the home that is suitable and available, or racks can be bought ready-made. If you are going to take winemaking seriously a rack is a good investment. Spare places can be used for storing empty bottles so that no space is ever wasted. It is a wise precaution just in case of trouble to cover the floor beneath with tiles or linoleum so that ally spilled wine can be easily wiped up.
Casks are becoming more and more in favour for maturing wine as they become more plentiful on the market. When buying a cask, however, care should be taken to obtain a good one, for a bad one can ruin gallons and gallons of wine. For preference get a new one from a reputable cooper. Old vinegar casks should never be used in any circumstances, no matter how thoroughly they have been cleaned and sterilised. The vinegar will have penetrated every single pore of the wood and the flavour can never be entirely eradicated. If one is given to you by a well-meaning friend saw it in two and use it in the garden for plants on your patio.
The author hasn't a great deal of confidence in former beer barrels either, although if they are really thick and in otherwise good condition they can be satisfactorily sterilised. Reconditioned wine casks need to be quite thick and properly remade and again should only be bought from a thoroughly reliable source. Resist all temptations for bargains, they may well prove far more expensive than the cooper's new one.
When you first take possession of a cask remove the iron hoops one by one, clean them down and paint them with a rust-resistant paint. Replace them and for preference clean and then varnish the top half of the cask, that is the bung side. There is a growing school of thought that in small casks of, say, five-gallon capacity the ratio of surface to volume is such that oxidation occurs too rapidly and by varnishing the upper half you will be closing the pores of the wood and thus sealing out the air. The cask must have a simple cradle in which to rest, if it lies on its staves it will weep through the joints. If you stand it on its end the top will rapidly dry out and permit the entry not only of air but possibly of bacteria.
When the paint and varnish is quite dry the cask should be soaked in clean water until the staves have swollen sufficiently to form a watertight seal. Now the cask has to be cleaned and sterilised. Foul ounces of common washing soda may be used to the gallon of boiling water, or alternatively you can use a special cask-cleaning preparation on the market. Thoroughly roll the cask about so that the hot water can reach every nook and cranny, If the cask is very dirty this process may have to be repeated. Children come in useful here, for they love to roll the cask to and from each other! When you are satisfied that the cask is thoroughly clean, and has been well rinsed several times with cold water, the sterilisation has to be done. Commercially and for hundreds of years this has been done by setting light to some sulphur on a ladle which is inserted into the cask through the hung hole. The sulphur dioxide can, however, be released just as efficiently by dissolving a) oz. potassium metabisulphite and a oz. citric acid in a gallon of warm water, pouring this into your cask, fitting the bung and rolling the cask to and fro from time to time for up to half an hour. Drain and rinse and drain again and finally sweeten the cask with half a bottle of wine swirled around as before and finally drained. If you put your nose to the hung hole and smell the cask it should possess a clean and wholesome air. If it does, then fill it promptly with wine, label or chalk on the name and date and set in position. It is in fact advisable to set it in position before filling with wine, for a five-gallon cask when filled weighs nearly three-quarters of a hundred weight and is difficult to handle.
You will find that although you filled the cask right to the bung some of the wine will evaporate. From time to time, therefore, you should look into your casks and if necessary top them up with fresh wine. How much will evaporate will depend on the quality of your cask, as well as the temperature and humidity of the place where it is stored.
A period of six to eight months is quite long enough for a wine to mature in cask and it should then be bottled. Longer periods in small casks tend to oxidise the wine too much and it loses its vitality. Care should be taken, however, that when you actually bottle the wine from a cask you have another wine ready to go into it as soon as it has been washed and sterilised. Casks should never be left empty and if you cannot refill it immediately with wine you should fill it with water in which some Campden tablets and citric acid have been dissolved. This water should be changed every month until you can again fill the cask with wine.
Mention has several times been made of a label giving the details of the wine. Printed record cards can now be bought and all you have to do is to fill them in as you go along. But many winemakers simply use a luggage label tied on to the neck of the jar. On one side is written the name of the wine and the ingredients and quantities used and any note about method, such as, for example, 'fermented on pulp'. 0n the other side is written the date the wine was started with its specific gravity, the date of the first racking and the specific gravity. Then dates of further rackings and finally bottling. The card can be kept for future reference. In practice this works quite well, but if you are methodical you can keep a record book, and for this purpose the Fermenta Almanac is excellent. A proper record, however simple, is most important and you will be really cross with yourself if you don't prepare and keep a record of each wine.
In spite of equal care in preparation, fermentation and maturation, some wines will turn out better than others or, to put this another way, some wines will not be so pleasant as others. Unless there is a specific ailment in the wine, which is unlikely, the wine need not be thrown away. Mostly, some turn out to be acid, others too sweet, some too dry, some with too much tannin and the like. It: is not easy to correct these failings in individual wines, but by blending opposites vast improvements can be made.
Blending is an aspect of winemaking, which is still too much neglected. Too often one expects to make a vintage wine every time out of every ingredient and is disappointed. Or, worse, one believes that one has made a vintage wine every time! Professional winemakers who have inherited thousands of years of experience cannot achieve such success, so what hope have we! To obtain a well-balanced wine it is standard practice the world over to blend ingredients in the beginning and often the finished wines as well. It is not at all uncommon for a vigneron to blend six or even ten different kinds of grapes in the mashing stage. Hardly any variety of grape is so well balanced that it makes a perfect wine by itself and few wines are so perfect that they cannot be improved by judicious blending.
First check your wines for sweetness and acidity as accurately as you can; calculate the alcohol content and estimate the strength of flavour, bitterness and so on. Then mix together such wines as you think suitable in the proportions that you think appropriate, based on the factual knowledge already ascertained and bearing in mind the kind of wine you are trying to make, table, social or dessert. It is at this stage that grape juice concentrate comes into its own. Few good wines are made from concentrate by itself, but when wine made from concentrate is blended with fruit wines there is nearly always a remarkable improvement in the flavour and vinosity of the blend.
The blended wines should preferably be stored in bulk for two or three months at least, since quite frequently a further fermentation will occur. If it does the blended wine should be treated as any other new wine, racked and matured and subsequently bottled. If care has been taken in the blending and the new wine has been properly matured you will be astonished at the quality of the finished wine.
A splendid wine of mixed ingredients calls for a splendid name and you next exercise your ingenuity in making up a name both descriptive and worthy of your creation.
If you have taken the proper precautions to use clean equipment, and have always sterilised your musts, your wines are not likely to suffer from any ailments. One such ailment occasionally seen is oiliness or ropiness due to an infection of the wine by one of the group of lactic acid bacteria. The wine develops a silky sheen and has an oily appearance when poured. The remedy is to dissolve two Campden tablets in each gallon of wine and to beat the wine with a wooden spoon to break up the long chains of bacteria. Return the wine to a clean bottle or jar, put in a fresh cork and in a few days the wine will throw a deposit of dead bacteria, which you can remove by racking. The flavour and quality of the wine are not usually impaired.
A bottle with an imperfectly fitting cork, which is allowing the admission of air to the wine, will develop a 'flecky' powdery film on the surface of the wine. This is due to a spoilage yeast which attacks the alcohol in the wine, forming carbon dioxide and water.
If a wine or fermenting must has been in contact with a metal such as copper or brass, a blue haze may develop; if with iron the haze will be brown. Sometimes a vegetable such as parsnip will have absorbed some metallic salts, which may pass on to the wine and cause a haze. These hazes are usually accompanied by a metallic taint and the wine does not taste pleasant. The cure is so difficult as not to be worth while and the wine is best thrown away.
Wines should always clear naturally and most of them do. It is rarely necessary to assist them to clear, but if you do feel that help is required the author is quite certain that filtering is not the answer, albeit this is widely recommended by people who should know better. Filtering whether through asbestos pulp, a filter bag or paper cannot but fail to do more harm than good.
In the first instance one cannot tell what else is removed from the wine with the haze and it may well be that much that is good is taken away. But, more important, the process of filtering is inevitably so slow, and the wine is so exposed to the air and in such tiny droplets, that it can hardly fail to oxidise and becomes flat and lifeless.
If wine must be helped and cannot be left then beat into a pint of the wine some white of egg and when thoroughly integrated return the wine to the bulk and stir thoroughly. Within a few days the large and heavy molecules of albumen will settle to the bottom of the jar taking down the insoluble haze with it. The wine should then be racked. The white of half an egg is enough for five gallons of wine. A commercial preparation working on the same principle is Serena wine finings.
Occasionally you will notice that during maturation a jar or bottle will blow a cork and start fermenting again. This is sometimes the case with apple wine. If the wine is sweet it may be a stuck ferment that has reactivated because some of the yeast cells have died, decomposed and fed the living cells with some of their nitrogen. On the other hand the fermentation may be due to 'bacteria gracile' which acts upon malic acid and converts it into lactic acid, releasing some carbon dioxide in the process. This male-lactic fermentation is usually beneficial to the wine, which subsequently tastes less sharp than before. During the fermentation the neck of the jar or bottle should be lightly plugged with cotton wool or else an air lock should be fitted.
At all rimes jars, casks and bottles should be kept full to prevent oxidation of the wine. There is, however, just one exception to this golden rule and that is when you are trying to make a sherry-type wine. Both during fermentation and maturation the jar should only be seven-eighths full and the neck should only be plugged with cotton wool. The cotton wool will act as a filter, keeping out dust and bacteria, and the wine which should have been fermented on to as strong an alcohol content as possible will be able to develop that 'nutty' flavour so inimicable to a sherry-type wine.