Home made wine looks great in glass bottles with real corks and a fancy label, and in this article we’ll show you how. But bottling wine isn’t always necessary: you can also keep wine successfully in bulk, and transfer it to refillable wine boxes when you are ready to drink it.
So: your wine has finished fermenting and been racked, probably twice. Before you bottle it, sterilise a glass and pour some into it. Hold it up to the light, and see if it looks absolutely clear. If it does, no problem: forge right ahead to the next step. But if you’ve given it bags of time and it’s still hazy, you’ll need to fine it to remove the haze.
Stabilising your wine (aka stopping)
To make sure that your wine doesn’t start fermenting again in storage, it’s a good idea to stabilise it before bottling. This is particularly important for sweet wines, where the free sugar is practically an invitation for any yeast cells that might be dormant, but not dead, to set up house a few months down the line. There are various stabilising products on the market, but a reliable and inexpensive method is to mix in potassium sorbate (half a teaspoon per gallon) and crushed camden tablets (two per gallon). They are not particularly keen to dissolve, so it takes a good stir to get them in – unless you choose to de-gas your brew.
When you held your glass of unbottled wine up to the light to check its clarity you may have noticed lots of tiny bubbles adhering to the glass. This is dissolved carbon dioxide formed during the fermentation process, and unless you get rid of it before bottling your finished wine will be the same. Nothing is worse than a glass of red that’s practically fizzy, and the gas can make the wine taste acidic too.
The cheapest way to get rid of this gas is to let the wine come up to room temperature and then stir, or shake, the hell out of it. A one-gallon demijohn can be shaken vigorously with a clean hand over the end of it. When you turn it upright and remove your hand, you’ll hear the pfft! of gas escaping: put your hand back and shake again, and repeat until there’s no sound when you take your hand away.
A five gallon bucket of wine can’t be shaken in the same way (at least, not by me). Instead, get a long-handled food whisk or brew spoon and stir with all your might for as long as you can stand to do it. If you’re like me you’ll soon be searching for easier alternatives, and this is where degassing gadgets come in handy. Or, you could make your own by working out a way of fixing a long, sterilisable stirrer onto a cordless drill.
Bottling home made wine
At last, it’s time to bottle your wine. Dark glass is always best, because light will damage wine, given time. Start off by sterilising and rinsing them, and then syphon the finished wine into the bottles, leaving enough room for the cork and a tiny bit extra. Soak the corks in hot water (or not – look at the pack instructions) and, with the bottles on a level floor, drive the corks home using your favourite corking device. And you’re done – apply a fancy label or shrink if you wish, and take the bottles out for storage.
A word on storage: the ideal place for wine is cool but not cold, with a very stable temperature, dark, and damp so that the corks don’t dry out. Damp conditions are not, however, ideal for wine labels: make sure you still have a way of identifying the wine if the labels become unreadable. Lay the bottles on their sides so that the wine is in contact with the cork – again, to stop it drying out – and LEAVE THEM ALONE to mature if the recipe says so.
Now that you understand the ‘proper’ procedure, let me annoy some home brew purists by debunking some of the received wisdom.
Corks vs screw tops
In the context of home made wine, your choice of closure makes no noticeable difference to the drink itself. Screw tops make bottling wine quick and easy: just a swish with sterilising solution, a quick rinse, and screw them on. The bottles don’t need to be stored on their sides either, which may make space easier to manage. However, there are a few drawbacks, not least that you don’t get the tremendously satisfying sound of pulling a cork when you open a screw-top.
If you’re keeping commercial screw-top bottles, you’ll find that screw tops deform occasionally – especially when over tightened. Recycled screw-top closures also leave a scruffy anti-tamper ring left behind, although it can be removed with tin-snips. Screw tops have no chance of popping out if fermentation re-starts, so if you use screw tops on glass it’s vital to make sure that the wine is properly stabilised. It’s still important if you use plastic bottles, just not so dangerous. Hold on… bottling wine into plastic bottles?
Glass bottles vs plastic bottles
The very title of this paragraph will annoy many wine purists, but it’s a serious question – and one that the commercial wine industry is thinking hard about just now. You may think that wine has been stored in glass since time immemorial, but it’s a relatively recent invention. Up until the 18th century wine was stored in bulk, and transferred to portable containers shortly before it was consumed. In fact even today more wine is treated this way than is bottled in glass, as you’ll see if you ask for a glass in a café in any big wine-producing country. But bottling in glass allows wine to ‘age’ with much reduced chance of spoilage, making the whole concept of ‘fine wine’ possible.
Plastic (PET) is cheaper to buy and ship than glass, can be reused several times, and is recyclable. It doesn’t break when dropped, and if a bottle explodes there’s no broken glass in the mix so it won’t take other bottles with it. On the other hand, PET bottles are slightly permeable to oxygen and there’s no question that this affects the shelf life of your bottled wine. There’s also the presentation aspect: if you really want to make a fuss of wine, put it in a glass bottle with a fancy label, a cork and a shrink around the neck, and leave it in the garage for a year to pick up some quality dust and spiderage.
So the upshot of this matter is, if you’re bottling wine that needs to mature for six months or longer, keep it in glass (which probably means corks). If you’re making a quick and cheerful kit wine that’s ready in a matter of weeks and will be gone in six months or so, then screw top PET bottles will be quicker, cheaper and easier.
Why bottle at all?
For small gallon batches of wine, it makes perfect sense to bottle it as soon as it’s been cleared and stabilised. Most people start out like this: one gallon wine kit, six bottles, fancy labels, maybe a shrink… pleased as punch. But once you get some experience behind your belt you realise that bottling wine you made in a five- or ten-gallon batch is simply making work. Wine stores perfectly well in bulk, and if it throws a sediment (which can sometimes happen, due to slow chemical changes in the wine) it’s easy to rack your crystal clear wine off the top without the murk ending up in your wine glass.
For easy storage of a large batch of wine, put it in demijohns after it has been racked and stabilised. Seal with a solid rubber bung (rather than a bored one with an airlock) and leave it in a cool dark place until it is needed. At this point it can be transferred to sterilised PET (plastic) bottles, a refillable wine box, or if you want to make more of a fuss of it you can bottle into glass as usual.