How happy am I? I’m ecstatic! How proud am I of the Master Vintner project? So proud that I put my name right on the box!
I’ve been working with my friends at Northern Brewer for the last year to make this happen. It’s been an amazing time, and a lot of fun working with the crew there. Designing a new wine kit might seem easy at first blush. After all it’s just a matter of putting some stuff in a box and a bag of grape juice and away you go.
Only not really: there’s a lot of logistical and technical issues that need to be solved. Ordering grape materials has to precede the harvest by months in order to ensure you get the best of the vineyard. Then you need to formulate, get the juices cold stabilised and ready to blend, make and test blends (like all wineries, kit manufacturers blend for character and consistency) and then test your packaging protocols to make sure they will arrive to customers in good condition.
Beyond that, it’s a whole new world of equipment, specific to the 1 US-gallon size, that needs to be integrated to make sure it works well together and makes the best wine possible. Lucky for me there’s a great team doing the sourcing and manufacturing, making me look good!
My Master Vintner equipment and supplies arrived this week and I got cracking right away. Step one, unbox and check the contents.
The equipment kit contains almost everything you need to make a one US-gallon (5-bottle) batch of wine. You’ll have to supply the wine bottles, which can be saved from the recycling (hurrah environment!) and labels, which are fun to make for yourself.
The first step is to read the equipment list, make sure everything is there–pretty much a sure thing from Northern Brewer. Next, we need to pull out our wine kit and check out that puppy. The first one I laid hands on was a Merlot.
California Merlot is going to be rich and soft, with warm berry and dark cherry fruit and supple tannins. Mmm!
Next, let’s take a look at the ingredients, and most especially the instructions.
The wine kit has yeast, finings, stabilisers and a fabulous set of well-written and lucid instructions (yes, I wrote them).
I dove into making the kit immediately, but that’s only because I wrote (and re-wrote, and edited and re-wrote) the instructions myself. Everyone else should immediately put everything back in the box, seal it up and sit down and carefully and slowly read the instructions from beginning to end–if you’re not sure of anything, don’t start until you get it straight!
But don’t worry about that too much: ultimately, if you can make a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal, you’re qualified to make your first batch of wine without any problem–I promise.
After reading the instructions, the first step is to mark off Little Big Mouth at the one-gallon line. LBM’s aren’t pre-marked because it’s a tricky process, and some folk’s jugs might not be completely standard, or the markings might get altered in shipping and handling. Better to do it in your own winemaking area so you’re confident you’ve got it right.
The best way to do it is to fill your gallon jug right up to the neck, about two fingers below the tippy-top.
You then pour the jug into your LBM.
Because the next step is to get things clean and sanitised (cleanliness is next to goodliness for winemaking), I put my winemaking cleaner right into the LBM, to save a step. The Oxygen Cleanser included in the equipment kit a great product–you can’t use home cleaners because they have too much perfume and other weird chemicals, which can leach into the wine and leave strange flavours.
Next step is to mark off the 1-gallon level. I used some white Duct Tape and a permanent marker.
And then it’s into the sink with the other items needed for day one: hydrometer and test jar, wine thief, lid, spoon, bung and airlock.
While the equipment comes brand-new, so it’s not stained or dirty, it’s still a good idea to give it a very good cleaning before you use it–just like you would any new plates, glasses or cups you brought into your kitchen.
After a 20 minute soak and a scrub to remove all surface debris, I rinsed everything thoroughly and then sanitised with a metabisulphite solution.
Metabisulphite solutions are the second part of cleaning and sanitising. While Oxygen Cleanser leaves your equipment clean enough to eat off of, it’s not ready to use for winemaking. For that you need to treat the surfaces with a solution that will suppress bacterial activity, and in winemaking the easiest stuff to use is a solution of three tablespoons (50 grams) of crystalline sulphite powder in 4 litres (one gallon) of water. Note that absolute accuracy isn’t crucial here, because you’re shooting for a solution that will yield 1250 Parts Per Million of free sulphite and the difference between one gallon and 4 litres or three tablespoons and 50 grams won’t move it more than a few dozen PPM.
I didn’t take any pictures of sulphiting the equipment because a) I didn’t know how to make that look exciting, and b) I always have a spray bottle of the stuff under the counter and I just grabbed it and sluiced everything down, waited 5 minutes and rinsed. By the time I remembered I was photoblogging I had already started the wine. Whoopsie. In any case, I went on to the next step, grabbing the bag of winemaking concentrate.
The caps on these bags fit extremely tight–they have to to exclude oxygen and spoilage organisms. If you’ve got long fingernails, or issues with grip strength (which is to say, if you’re not built like an ogre like me) you can pry them up with the edge of a butter knife (nothing sharp, please!) or use a bottle opener on the edge (works like a charm) or invest in a bag decapper. This doohickey fits exactly over the standard cap and levers it off in a jiffy.
Fortunately for me, I am built like an economy-version ogre, so I just pull it straight off. I am also good with opening pickle jars and other applications of brute-force and ignorance.
Careful, though: the juice is very high in sugar and red varietals can really stain fabrics–easy does it.
Next, pour the bag contents into the LBM.
Rinse the bag out with two cups of lukewarm water and add it to the LBM as well.
An important word on temperature: the kit has to be between 72°F and 77°F (22°C and 25°C for non-Americans). This is crucial for the success of the kit, because the yeast need to get fermenting quickly so your wine can stay on schedule. That means a bit of management: if the kit is coming in from a cold garage you’ll need a bit warmer water to make it up. If you’re in a heat wave in Florida, you’ll need to cool that water down a bit.
But it’s not terribly tricky. To hit my target temperature I ran the water in my sink for a minute until it hit 77°F and topped up the fermenter to the 1 gallon mark with that. When it was at the right level, it was time to stir.
You have to stir hard. Pouring the water into the juice makes it look like everything is well mixed, but that’s an illusion: concentrate and water have very different coefficients of viscosity and left to themselves, they’ll settle out. I gave it a darn good whipping with the shiny stainless steel spoon that came with the kit.
Next up, some measurements. First, the temperature check. I pasted on the Fermometer on the LMB and had a look.
With the temperature well in hand, it was time to check the specific gravity. I assembled the three piece wine thief and used it to fill the test jar.
With the level of the wine relatively low, it takes about three trips with the thief to fill the test jar. When it was full enough to float the hydrometer I popped it in and checked it.
If you’ve never read a hydrometer before, there’s a trick to it: don’t look at the wine where it meets the hydrometer. Surface tension will pull it up the glass tube and give a false reading. Instead, look across the surface of the juice and draw an imaginary line from that surface across the hydrometer markings. In this case it was a solid reading at 1.090–perfect.
Next up, time to pitch the yeast. There’s a lot of information out there about rehydrating yeast and stirring it in and suchlike. For the Master Vintner wine kit, follow the instructions and just rip the package open and pour the yeast onto the surface of the juice.
And that’s it for day one. The only thing left to do is to wait 8 days for the next step.
Well, not quite. I had three more kits to make up!
I’ll update when it’s time to rack the wine from the LBM’s to the jugs. In the meantime they’re bubbling away merrily, making alcohol and smelling better every day. Yum!
And then I did a little bit of travelling. Since the end of August I’ve been to:
In that time I’ve been to Hop and Brew School, done wine opportunity seminars for consumer beverage retailers, Limited Edition wine and food pairing events, shot many videos, attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival, helped plan catalogues, merchandised stores, drank beer and laughed a lot.
And now I’m typing this up in an airport lounge waiting to jet off to Winnipeg. I’ve had some exceptionally good luck with local weather on my travels, and had a lot of fun working with my friends in all of the cities I’ve visited, and I’m looking forward to the same over the next week.
I’ve got three or four blogs lined up, and soon I’ll have some very exciting news to share, but that’ll have to wait another few days: I’ve got some sales training to do, another couple of Limited Edition wine tastings and a webinar session for the members of the Canadian Craft Winemakers Association.
The big news is finally here! Midwest Supplies and Tim Vandergrift are working together! I’m really happy with the fit between us and excited to introduce new products and to work on advancing home winemaking. I became an independent consultant early in 2014. My biggest concern about my new career was where I could apply myself to make a difference in the consumer-produced beverage industry (aka Homebrewing and Winemaking).
While I connected with many small clients and really love the interaction I have with them, I looked around and realised that one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the industry was right in front of me, Midwest Supplies. I’ve worked with them for more than a decade on behalf of Winexpert and always loved how they ‘got’ the industry, understood home beer and winemakers, and generally felt they were my kind of folks. Of course, this didn’t keep me from thinking that they could probably use a guiding hand on the wine side, but I always had other priorities. Now that I’m their Technical Winemaking Advisor I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them to introduce some new ideas to home winemaking and do educational and promotional activities as well. I’ve even got a couple of videos up to start, one on the benefits of using a floor corker,
And one on the savage joy of using a three-pronged stirring whip! The Great! Big! Deal! that I’m really happy about is some of the new products we’ll be bringing out in the future. No hints just yet, but I’m pretty stoked about sharing them, and won’t hide that light under a bushel. If you’re already a Midwest customer, thanks! If you’re not yet, check ‘em out, and check out My Ten Favorite Wine Kits—nine of which are on sale for a limited time! Use the secret coupon code (hint: it’s WINEGURU) at checkout and you’ll save 15%. How’s that for a hello? Lots more to come, and so much to do, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud.
Summer is here and for winemakers that means one thing: the inevitable return of our sworn enemy, Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Minute little flying monkeys of doom, they’re hard to exclude from your winemaking areas, and while they’re easy to kill, by the time you’ve swatted one thirteen more have materialised out of thin air, looking for a free meal—females lay 400 eggs each, and they mature in as little as 7 days!
The reason why we need to be concerned over the little monsters isn’t just that they’re unsightly and chewy when you discover one inside a mouthful of Chardonnay. No, it’s their other name we need to think of, ‘Vinegar Fly’. The little blighters are filthy with acetobacteria, the organism that turns our delicious alcohol in to vinegar.
How to combat ‘em? First, understand that they don’t eat fruit: they eat mainly yeast. When they smell carbon dioxide and alcohol, they think it’s a piece of rotting fruit where they can lay eggs and get a delicious meal. When they smell a fermenting carboy, it’s their equivalent of a Vegas buffet ten thousand miles long.
Anybody who has ever worked as a bartender over the summer months knows the sad and icky truth: you come in for the first shift of the day and any bottles that have been left with an open pour-spout (‘speed spout’) overnight will need to be poured through a coffee filter to extract the little winged corpses from their watery graves. If a fermenting carboy smells a buffet, and bottle of vodka smells like ten tons of chocolate cake.
Step one in managing these horrific little pests is exclusion. You can’t keep them out of your house and your fermenting area, so you’ll need to exclude them from the wine itself. Always do covered fermentations. The commonest fermentation vessel used to start kit wines in the US is a 7.9 gallon (30 litre) bucket with a tight fitting lid and a port to plug in an airlock. By keeping the wine sealed and airlocked, you’ll deny entry.
Second, when your wine goes to the carboy, make sure you keep that airlock topped up with water. Some folks use sulphite, and while that’s mostly harmless the sulphite usually oxidises off in a few days into plain water. Other folks want the sanitising power of alcohol and load the airlock up with Everclear or grain alcohol—this only attracts the enemy!
Third, you’ll need to wipe up every single little tiny spill of wine or juice immediately, and sulphite the area to prevent any residue from getting a yeast film going on it. Then make sure you wash your cloths or discard your paper towels in a tightly sealed receptacle—the cloth used to wipe up the juice will become a source of attraction.
Fourth, if you have to wash all racked primary fermenters or carboys (those with lees and even a small amount of cloudy wine in them) immediately. If you can’t get to the right away, pop the bung and airlock on again.
Fifth, if you filter your wine (always a good idea—I’ll talk about that in a later blog) break down and clean your filter right away, and seal the used pads in a plastic bag before discarding them: they smell just dandy to fruit flies.
Flypaper only works on fruit flies by accident. Plus, some of the stuff is toxic as all get-out, and not good for winemaking areas. You can set up a wasp trap (available from hardware stores) for them. Normally they’re filled with fruit juice or other sweet liquid, but that doesn’t impress a fruit fly. Fill it with the magic formula: apple cider vinegar with a couple of drops of liquid dish soap. The apple cider vinegar drives them to a gustatory frenzy, while the dish soap removes the surface tension of the liquid: when they fly in and hit it, they drown right away—poof!
You can also, check out natural pyrethrin-based insecticides: they’re made from plant oils, are mostly safe and can be used in food prep areas. Never use any other kind of insecticide around wine or food prep areas! Triple-check to make sure you’ve got pyrethrin and not the synthetic pyrethroid, which is much more persistent and killier. Pyrethroids are bad for the environment and can be toxic to children and pets, especially kitty-cats, who lack the enzyme to break them down, and can rapidly succumb to pyrethroid toxicity. No kitty should be collateral damage to a fruit fly!
It should be noted that cleanly made wines that have fully fermented and are sulphited to an appropriate level (follow the manufacturer’s instructions) are fairly resistan against colonisation by acetobacteria. Sulphite in particular is a good bacterial inhibitor for this organism.
But there’s always that chance: a missed sulphite addition, a little extra oxygen pick-up in fermentation, one lone fruit fly wings in and . . . well, that’s thirty bottles of wine you can’t even pour on your salad (wild acetobacter fermentations make a kind of vinegar that tastes mostly like nail-polish remover).
One of the things that’s rarely discussed when the subject of cellaring comes up is the cellar itself. As the name implies, people used to put their wine in a hole in the ground, under their dwelling or winery. As long as human beings have striven to preserve food they’ve known that cool, steady temperatures, combined with moderate humidity would keep fruits, vegetables and meat from spoiling as quickly as it would in other conditions. Wine kept in these conditions not only lasts longer but also improves with time.
Cellars and caves work to conserve and age wine because they offer the perfect combination of environmental factors including:
Cool temperatures, usually in the 10-12C range (52-55F). Wine held here ages in a very slow and controlled manner. For every ten degree increase in the temperature, the speed of the chemical and biochemical reactions that govern ageing doubles, and some get out of control, causing the wine to die of old age while still young in years.
Steady temperatures. Variations of less than one degree per day, or five degrees between winter and summer are best. Every time a bottle of wine warms and cools, the wine inside it expands and contracts, alternately pushing and pulling on the cork. Some wine could leak out, or penetrate the cork, and air can enter the bottle. Obviously, neither of these is desirable.
Darkness—if not complete blackness then at least the absence of direct sources of UV radiation. While wine doesn’t go skunky in minutes like beer does in direct sunlight, it does age quicker and suffers from ‘photodegradation’.
Humidity—steady, around 70%. Any drier and corks can dry out. Once the end of a cork becomes dry, it wicks wine along just like the edge of a paper towel dipped in liquid. Eventually the wine level in the bottle drops, or the cork dries out completely and crumbles. Too much humidity and your corks will get mould, and your labels will disintegrate.
No vibration. Wine is a living thing, so constant jostling, thumping and vibrating unsettles it. Store a bottle of wine in an active paint-shaker and it will go bad in only a few minutes. Store it on top of the washing machine, and it won’t take many loads of delicates before it falls apart.
A ‘clean’ environment. Wine is a food product, and just like not storing angel-food cake next to garlic, you don’t want your precious wine snuggled up to paint thinner, compost or any other food or non-food item that could transfer flavours or aromas.
When asking how long wine will keep – that is, how long you can age it and still have it be drinkable – you’ll find that the answers can become quite complex. Most ageing recommendations tend to be very general, because there are so many variables to consider, including the type of wine, the storage conditions, and the quality of the cork (I’ll talk a lot about corks in an upcoming blog).
What is inside a bottle of wine often has less to do with how well it may age than the external conditions that it will be stored in. Under ideal conditions even inexpensive wines will age for years under a good cork. But those ‘ideal’ storage conditions include the absence of electromagnetic radiation (both visible and UV light), very high relative humidity, a temperature of 11C/52F, not varying by more than 1/10th of a degree over the course of one year, and an absence of any sort of vibration. Any divergence from these conditions could reduce a wine’s ageing potential.
Cool, stable, quiet, humid, dark and clean—sounds pretty simple. But most of us aren’t going to be comfortable digging a big hole under the house, and if our home had all those attributes, it’s a pretty sure thing that we’re living in a cave or under a bridge with trolls. You could buy a fancy climate-controlled wine cabinet, but those can be expensive, especially if you’re making your own wine and building up a good collection. Alternatively, you can make do with what you’ve got on hand, and extend the life and cellaring potential of all of your wine. Easiest is to start by storing your wine in the coolest part of your home, away from direct light sources, off-odours or vibrations.
You can minimize the impact of temperature changes by keeping the wine up against a north-facing wall. Sunlight striking a foundation or the earth around it can cause a temperature flux, so steer clear of south-facing walls. You might also want to build an enclosure around your wine rack if it’s out in the open: this can help diminish convection currents, and increase thermal inertia. The enclosure doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you can create it from things as simple as Tyvek (the foam-board house insulating material), duct-tape and corner brackets.
In colder, drier climates like the north and the midwest, humidity can drop quite low, especially in winter. Too low and your corks will dry out, allowing oxidation and, potentially, leakage. Humidifiers sold for home use are not a good answer; they work too well, and can cause a build-up of mold and mildew in places like the basement, where air circulation is low. It makes more sense to set up a passive humidifier. Essentially this is a pan of water, a clean dishcloth and a cinderblock. Set the pan of water on top of the cinderblock in your wine cellar, drape the dishcloth half-in and half-out of the pan, and tuck the bottom end on top of the block. This will allow the towel to wick the moisture out of the pan and increase the evaporation into the air. The cinder block will hold any excess moisture and release it slowly, helping keep the humidity steady, even in a cellaring area a large as a thousand cubic feet.
Some wines are more susceptible than others to poor storage conditions. In general, white wines–particularly off-dry wines and Champagne – are frailer than reds. Grape variety can also make a difference to how well the wine does in storage; so you would find that a robust variety like Cabernet Sauvignon is generally more resilient than delicate one like Pinot Noir.
With a newly bottled wine, it’s tempting to start consuming it right after bottling. While there are many wines that can be consumed young and be everything you want them to be, if you really would prefer to maximize your wine’s potential, a little time in the bottle can make an enormous difference. Most red wines begin life with obvious fruity aromas and some degree of astringency or bite, but with ongoing ageing, they develop softer, gentler, more complex aromas and flavours. The wines become richer as the fruit mellows and as the astringent tannins relax and contribute to the body and character.
Cellaring wine used to be a rich man’s game. In centuries past, only wine merchants storing stock for future sale, or the very wealthy could afford to purchase age-worthy wines in large volumes, and then wait as the years passed to sample them as they approached their peak. The French used to say that you didn’t buy Bordeaux for yourself, you bought it for your children, while you drank the wine your father had bought. Things are a little easier with modern wines. Most of them are designed to be more drinkable sooner and even a moderate amount of cellaring will help bring out their best.
You can find any number of articles on filtering wine—a quick search on the inter-webs yields something like forty-four million hits—and probably double that number of opinions on the topic. Winemaker magazine has run many articles on filtering, including an excellent one by their regular kits columnist, what’s-his-name. So there’s no dearth of information on the topic.
What there is, in fact, is a surfeit of information on the mechanics and execution of filtering, the how-to side of the process. What you don’t see very often is the other side, the philosophical, the ‘why-to’ side, or the ‘why-not-to’ side. That’s up three sides now, making it perilously close to geometry, but there are a bunch of issues surrounding filtering that come up over and over again in winemaking discussions.
Do I have to filter my wine?
What are the benefits to filtering, long and short-term?
What are the potential downsides to filtering?
Does filtering strip colour, flavour or aroma from a wine?
Do I have to use fining agents if I’m going to filter anyway?
What’s the best filter to use?
With these questions usually come some very strong opinions. In some cases the strongest opinions come from people who’ have a little knowledge and the proverbial danger that comes with that, but opinion isn’t limited to them: some of the most knowledgeable winemakers, making some of the most expensive and well regarded wines in the world have very strong opinions as well, and some of them directly contradict each other.
In fact, the Oxford Companion to Wine (full disclosure: I’m a contributor to that august tome) even lists filtration as a ‘controversial’ subject. From the OCtW:
Filtration of fine wines is a controversial issue. While it may be a necessity for ordinary commercial wines, it is widely thought that too heavy a filtration can indeed rob a fine wine of some of its complexity and capacity to age, not to mention some loss of colour, particularly a red wine as subtle as some fine red Burgundy. Some commentators and winemakers claim that filtration of any sort is harmful: it is not uncommon to see the term ‘unfiltered’ used as a positive marketing term.
Gadzooks! Loss of complexity! Loss of capacity to age! Any filtering harmful! Is there no upside to filtering? Well, maybe, as the entry goes on to say:
However, the possible negative effects of filtration should be weighed against the very real risk of microbial contamination or instability, particularly where perfect storage or transport conditions cannot be guaranteed. An unfiltered wine throws a much heavier crust, or sediment, than one that has been filtered.
What to think? Well, first of all, keep in mind that the venerable Oxford is almost exclusively concerned with commercial winemaking. Out of thousands of entries there’s only one on home winemaking, and until I re-wrote it, it never mentioned kit wines and only devoted half a sentence to ‘concentrate’, so their opinion might be a little fluffy around the edges, not close to the rich, meaty centre of winemaking where us consumer winemakers make our bones. We don’t need a marketing department to tell us how our wine tastes when there’s a perfectly good glass right there at our elbow.
Second, I’m discussing only the filtering systems and processes available to home winemakers–yes, cross-flow filters are like amazing magic boxes that can accomplish astounding feats of clarity, but until they drop below $20,000 and require less than 100 gallons to prime the pump, they’re not going to be of any use to real, live home winemakers.
1) Do I have to filter my wine?
Nope, at the end of the day filtration isn’t necessary. In the 10,000 year-plus history of winemaking, filtration has only been possible in the last century or so, after the advent of industrial processing and a firm understanding of the microbiology of wine (thanks, Louis Pasteur!).
With modern winemaking technology, wine kits come almost completely free of suspended solid material. Precisely calculated fining agent use, in the form of bentonite, Chitosan, isinglass and kieselsol, deals with any colloids (like proteins) and 99% of the yeast in a very short time, leaving the wine clean and quite clear.
So you don’t have to filter if you a) don’t have a filter, b) don’t want to go to the trouble, or c) don’t care. You’ll still have clear, drinkable wine.
2) What are the benefits to filtering, long and short-term?
In the short term, you will be able to expect what the industry calls ‘star bright’ wines. I said the finings leave the wine clean and quite clear, but not completely clear. After fining there can still be tens of thousands or even millions of yeast cells still floating around in your wine. There can also be unstable colloids floating around. These materials will take the edge off of clarity. There are two analogies that fit pretty well here. First, if you’re an eyeglass wearer, you know well that you can look through your spectacles and see clearly almost all of the time. But if you take them off at any random interval and have a look at the lenses, they can be pretty smeary and icky. A quick polish will allow you to see more clearly and accurately.
The second analogy works even for the perfectly-sighted: the difference between a well-fined wine and a filtered wine is the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. They both look good, and they both look shiny, but the waxed car really looks spectacular, and is much more appealing to most people who will look at it.
Long-term you can look forward to greater stability. Stability in this case is defined as the wine not changing in flavour or appearance during storage in the bottle. As the Oxford notes above, there are issues with microbiological stability and with deposits or sediments in unfiltered wine.
Microbiological stability merits a mention, but not too much concern. Since all kit wines are pasteurised at packaging, there are very few potential contamination organisms that will show up in your batch. The one place where filtration provides extra protection is for wines that have residual sugar, or sugar added post-fermentation via ‘F-packs’, ‘sweetening packs’ or ‘Süsse-reserve’. Putting these wines through a filter will help reduce the yeast population below the level at which they can ferment sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, keeping your sweet wine from turning into fizzy, bottle-shattering dry wine. Toss in a bit of sorbate to keep the remaining yeast from breeding back to culture strength (from where they can start making fizz-and-booze again) and you’ve got increased stability over the long term.
Another long-term benefit is in the appearance of the wine over time. Deposits and sediments can (and indeed, almost always will) form in fined but unfiltered wines over a long enough timeline. These deposits show up in reds as a thin layer of purple or red material on the bottom of the bottle or in a line along the side. In whites they appear as white-ish or beige. They can be dead yeast cells, polymerised phenols (a kind of tannin that’s gooped up and settled out) or (in reds) pigmented tannins. Pigmented tannins occur when tannins bind with anthocyanins.
If you’re getting a sore head from all the polysyllabic terms here, tannins are (mostly) the compounds in red wine that give astringency and mouth-feel, and anthocyanins are colour compounds. The process is insanely complex, from a chemical point of view, but when they bind together over time they can settle out as a very fine, almost paint-like layer of muck.
Filter, and you’re not likely to see any fall-out in your bottles over the medium (three to 5 years) term, and much lower levels after that.
3) What are the potential downsides to filtering?
Surprisingly, they’re pretty much the same as the downsides for any handling or processing operation in winemaking, from racking to fining and stabilising: the chance that you’ll introduce a contaminant or too much oxygen into the wine, causing an infection or oxidation.
Both of these are easily avoided. First and foremost, as in all aspects of life, with winemaking cleanliness is next to goodliness. Every piece of equipment that comes into contact with your wine must be clean—free of visible dirt or debris—and sanitised—treated with a chemical sanitiser to kill or suppress bacteria. Filter machines often have a lot of hoses, clamps, crevices and irregular surfaces, so be sure to disassemble them and give ‘em a good scrubbing, treat them with sulphite or other suitable winemaking sanitiser/suppressant, and rinse the dickens out of them.
As for oxygen, filtering agitates wine as it travels through pumps, hoses and filter media, but doesn’t necessarily introduce oxygen into it. Most filter set-ups are positively pressurised, meaning they use a pump to force wine down a hose and through the system. If there is a leak somewhere in the filter between the pump and the carboy the wine is going into, it’s going to squirt wine out, not suck air in.
The only real danger that using a filter will add oxygen is if you run the output hose down the side of the receiving carboy, where it can fan out and expose an enormous surface area to oxygen pick up—gently place the output hose directly into the bottom of the carboy instead, and allow the tip to submerge as it fills, keeping everything as quiet as possible.
What you really have to watch is that there is sufficient free sulphur dioxide (metabisulphite) in the wine to protect it during handling. This will be the amount included in the kit, added in full, at the appropriate time. Just a hint: if your kit has a note in the instructions about optional added sulphite for ageing terms over six months, add it before you filter, even if you’re going to drink the wine up sooner. This is prudent because the very small extra amount the instructions ask for, usually a quarter-teaspoon, which is less than a gram and a half, won’t change the flavour or aroma of the wine, but will make sure the extra handling that filtering represents doesn’t cause harm.
3) Does filtering strip colour, flavour or aroma from a wine?
Yes and no. But mostly no, and the aroma and flavour part is strictly temporary, and the colour part is good. I’ll explain, but first I’ll qualify: I’m telling you the strict truth, for people using filters available to people making their own wine at home. You might read contradicting opinions somewhere else but keep in mind two things: first, some of those opinions will be from people who have access to commercial filtering equipment and processes, which can be vastly more effective at removing things from wine. Second, they’re probably wrong.
The kinds of filters available to home winemakers operate on the micron scale, with the tightest, most efficient filters stopping somewhere above 0.2µ, about two-tenths of a micron. Your typical yeast cell is around 0.45µ, and a freshly budded daughter cell (they grow up so fast, sniff) is down at the 0.2µ mark. It’s far more common to see filters that allow the passage of material as large as two to four microns in size.
Colour molecules, the aforementioned anthocyanins, are not on the micron size. They are so very much smaller that their structure can’t be seen with a microscope. They’re so tiny that in fact they will sail straight through a filter pad or cartridge entirely unimpeded—you can’t filter them out.
Which begs the question, for anyone who has ever used a filter on a red wine, why do the pads come out stained with colour? Those stains aren’t pure, happy colour compounds: they are colour compounds that have already bound to other kinds of goo in the wine. When bound to tannin, they’ll fall out later as a deposit (mentioned above) and when bound to a colloid, they’ll fall out as sediment. This is a vast over-simplification (I specialise in those) but the core truth is that you cannot filter out colour with civilian filter pads—not any colour that wouldn’t fall out on its own anyway.
Flavour and Aroma
What goes for colour compounds goes for flavour and aroma: they’re just too small to stick to filter pads. And yet anyone who has ever filtered a wine has almost certainly noted that it tastes notably less distinct and aromatic post-filtering.
This is a complex phenomenon wine, referred to under the catch-all phrase ‘bottle shock’. A couple of explanations are popular. First, a dose of sulphite (usually added at bottling or filtering) mutes the flavour and aroma of the wine. Seems plausible enough, and easily observed by anyone who has ever tasted a wine right after sulphiting it.
Second, if a wine gets a significant dose of oxygen during handling, some of the oxygen can combine with ethanol and other alcohols to form aldehydes, which really cramp a wine’s aromatic styling. The good news is, both of these conditions are temporary. Give the wine a few weeks rest, and often only 24 hours will do it, and the aromas and flavours snap back into focus, good as new, with filtering not to blame after all.
I said earlier that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I still think that, but there is a way in which they’re reaching towards a sort-of truth about filtering and removing desirable compounds from wine. When a wine, particularly a red one, is very young, you want to get it off of the gross lees and then the fine lees quite rapidly, with several rackings taking place in the first year. This prevents yeast cells from decaying and transferring their flavour into the wine, and prevents all kinds of grape pulp and vineyard muck from getting funky as well. But you don’t want to strip the wine clear of all compounds right away. There are extremely complex chemical reactions and biochemical processes that can benefit from the presence of solid material dissolved and suspended in the wine as it goes through elevage (upbringing).
That doesn’t add up to an indictment of filtering, however, it just means that you should filter as the last step in your process before you go to the bottle—too early and you might cheat an ageing/elevage process of some compounds that could help.
5) Do I have to use fining agents if I’m going to filter anyway?
YES! You can’t filter a wine that isn’t already really, really clear. The amount of yeast and good in suspension would clog a filter up so badly that you’d spend more than the cost of the wine kit itself in filter pads before you got to the end.
If we go back to the car analogy, you can’t wax a car that hasn’t already been washed thoroughly: waxing isn’t to remove dirt it’s to put a final polish on the car. Filtering isn’t to clear wine it’s to put a final polish on it right before bottling.
6) What’s the best filter to use?
The most common filters available to home users are depth filters with plate and frames and positive displacement pumps. This means they’ve got some kind of structure of layered plates that trap cellulose pads in between them and the wine is forced through the pads by a pump that pushes it down a tube. There are others, including ones that use a vacuum to pull the wine through a plate and frame, membrane filters that use a setup identical to home water-filter cartridges, either with a pump or a vacuum, and even manual ones that rely on gravity to dribble the wine through a pad set-up.
Commercial wine filters can be much more complex, but most of them you can’t afford to switch on for less than a few hundred gallons of wine—a single 6-gallon/23 litre batch wouldn’t even prime some of the pumps. Things like cross-flow filters, centrifuge decanters, pressure leaf filters and rotary drum vacuum filters are amazing technology, but for most of us rather like swatting a housefly by dropping a mountain range on it.
I’m big on positive displacement plate and frame filters. They’re simple, very easy to set up and use, widely available, and ideal for our purposes. They come in sizes ranging from just smaller than a toaster, suitable for one or perhaps two batches at a go, to models big enough to do 20 gallons in a reasonably short time, and others intended for higher volumes that can filter a carboy sparkling clear in under 30 seconds. I own examples of all three, and they’re fine machines.
They’re called depth filters because the pads used in them act like a sponge, soaking up the wine and wringing it out clean on the other side, with the ‘sponge’ part retaining the cloudy goop. This makes them capable of taking quite a bit of muck out of the wine before they clog up. When they do, you toss ‘em out, because they’re cheap.
There’s no objection I can think of to using a vacuum system, set-up to pull wine from one carboy to another, with a plate and frame in between, other than an incremental increase in complexity while using it—if you’ve got a vacuum pump, more power (power vacuum?) to you.
But I’m not big on membrane filtration. Filter cartridges are best suited to water or air filtering, where they have to deal with fairly low levels of material. The issue is that membrane filters act as a screen-door, rather than a sponge. They usually have a fan-folded cartridge that almost behaves like a two-dimensional object. Anything larger than the holes in the membrane piles up on one side and clear wine passes through.
That is, until the cartridge membrane is completely blocked: because it’s a screen, there’s no depth to soak up lots of goo. After that you have to change it, or clean it before it can filter more wine. This can be done, but handled carelessly, as by backflushing with too much pressure, cartridge integrity can be compromised, allowing material to pass through.
And cartridges are much more expensive than filter pads. There are inexpensive examples, but they won’t be as effective or as strictly rated as more expensive ones. There’s not enough room in this article to discuss the difference between nominal and absolute micron ratings, but when you buy inexpensive cartridges, you’re getting pretty much what you pay for. It’s kind of the ‘toner model’ of computer printers—the money in cartridge filter systems is made in replacement cartridges, not in the actual system itself, so that’s where you pay if you purchase one.
It should be pretty obvious after these points that I’m a fan of filtering, and mostly with positive displacement depth filters. But you would be surprised how often I don’t filter. A lot of the time I’m too lazy. My reds sit for a couple of years before I get around to them, and by that time I’m out of wine and in a hurry, so I just get them in the bottle and pretty immediately into the wine rack. I’m more likely to filter whites, but even then my slack attitude towards a production schedule has me bottling without filtration at least part of the time. But with that, I have to put up with the occasional deposit in the bottle, which is fine for me, but puts a crimp in giving away bottles or sharing with others.
In the end, whether or not you should filter should come down to your own preference, your tolerance for extra processing steps, and the attitudes of those who will be consuming the wine—but don’t worry in any case: filtering won’t hurt your wine in any way, and can help improve the aroma and maintain its appearance over time.
Making wine from a kit is an awesome way to become your own personal vintner. The kits provide all of the ingredients and materials to turn out a couple of cases of wine in less than a couple of months, and the instructions are complete, clear, and very easy to understand.
Ahem. Given that I wrote most of the kit instructions out there over the years, it’s understandable that I’ve got a positive feeling about them. However, I’m aware that not everyone thinks they are as clear as they could be, and it almost always seems there’s too much detail or not enough.
One area where it’s difficult to convey the exact intent is in stirring. When you reconstitute the kit on day one, it’s important to stir hard enough to mix the juice thoroughly–easy enough. On fining/stabilising day stirring is even more important: you have to agitate the wine hard enough to disperse the trapped carbon dioxide gas. If you don’t, not only will the wine be slow to clear, it will be fizzy at bottling time and will always have a slightly off aroma and flavour–that trapped CO2 will carry a bit of other, nastier gases with it, like hydrogen sulphide and dimethyl sulphide: rotten eggs and cooked cabbage respectively.
In actual fact, you shouldn’t ‘stir’ your wine kit. Stirring merely moves the wine around, like a lazy kid on a merry-go-round. You need to agitate the wine hard enough to get all of the gas out.
This is why I’ve always recommended a drill-mounted wine whip.
To use one of these, once it’s sanitised, the top goes into the chuck of a high-speed reversible hand drill (plug-in kinds are best–those battery jobs always seem to be flat when you need them) and the three prongs are folded and inserted into the carboy or bucket. When you’re de-gassing, you always use the whip at full power, except at the very beginning, when you test to see how much gas saturation the wine has. Everything is fun and games until you’ve got Krakatoa Cabernet fountaining out of the carboy and onto the ceiling. Sequence goes like this:
Quick, one-second experimental stir. If things don’t instantly spray out of the carboy, proceed to step two.
Go absolutely full power, and keep it there.
When the wine begins to swirl up the sides of the carboy, looking like it’s going to overflow, immediately reverse direction, and go full power, against the flow of wine.
You’ll see the wine stop climbing up immediately. Keep it on full until it starts to climb up again, and repeat the reversal–full power.
Repeat this twice more, always full-on.
If your wine is not de-gassed at this point, it’s because the gods of fermentation hate you, or your wine was not finished fermenting, or your wine is very cold and it’s a bright sunny day (high barometric pressure). But I’m betting on some kind of divine divine vengeance because I’ve never needed more than three spins each way, less than two minutes altogether.
The point of intense agitation is to cause tip-vortex cavitation in the wine, at the tips of the whip. Cavitation happens when you vaporise a liquid by exposing it to decreased pressure. This vapour is the same thing as steam from a boiling kettle, but doesn’t involve heat–just the pressure reduction.
This is a little hard to visualise, but it obeys the laws of thermodynamics perfectly. The most common place to see cavitation is in boat propellers. Spin them up too fast and they won’t push the boat, because they’ll be in a cavity of water vapour, whirling about and doing nothing (unless they’re special supercavitating propellers, but let’s pretend they don’t exist).
For the last couple of decades I’ve been telling people about cavitation by quoting the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October. It’s a techno-thriller about Soviet-era espionage and features Sean Connery as a Russian sub commander with a ridiculous Scottish lisp. In the fateful scene the commie sub tries to make a run for it but the propellers spin too fast and they cavitate. Why this is a crucial plot point is that during cavitation, when the vapour bubble collapses (as all good bubbles eventually do), they slam shut with such violence that they ‘hammer’ the water, which makes a large enough noise to alert enemy sonar operators. It’s this slamming/hammering effect that literally blasts carbon dioxide bubbles out of suspension, and why stirring any slower is almost useless for de-gassing.
(Not only does this make a really great echo for sonar operators who might be looking for Rooskies, in extreme cases it can cause sonoluminescence, a burst of photons [light] from the bubble collapse. You know why it does this? Good, that makes one of you. Nobody actually has a lock on the theory of why a collapsing bubble in a liquid makes light. It just does. Probably quantum, or Vogons or something.)
That analogy worked for the first decade, less well for the next, and now it doesn’t carry any weight with people under the age of twenty-five, who never lived with a Soviet Union, just a big old Russian crazy-quilt of ongoing collapse and oligarchic wealth transfer. I’ve been trying to find a new handle on the moment, and Just This Day I found one, courtesy of Smarter Every Day. If you’re not familiar with them, you’re welcome. Destin and his support crew demonstrate scientific and physical principles in extremely clear ways and film them (sometimes at twenty thousand frames per second!) and post them on YouTube. If you’re a science geek/covert nerd like me, that link is going to suck up a lot of your time for a while. My apologies to your family.
Here’s the video, in which they shoot an AK47 in an (empty) swimming pool.
It’s over ten minutes long, and while I urge you to watch all of this fascinating and brilliantly executed demonstration, if you’ve got a cake in the oven or are being chased by zombies, you can fast-forward to 4:30 for the most excellent illustration of the hammering effect of the bubble collapse. The AK47 bullet travels through the water, pulling a vapour bubble behind it. The bubble collapses, and as it does, you can actually see the intense shock wave that the collapse produces. And it hammers so hard, it rebounds and produces a secondary shock as well!
Imagine what being shot with a Russian carbine would do to a carbonated beverage. Yep, it would really go a long way to de-gassing it. And that’s the same kind of action you get when you stir your kit wine with a whip at full speed, only with less bullets and collateral damage.
The question could come up, ‘Why are you so hot on that three-prong whip, Tim? It’s much more expensive than the other drill-mounted stirring whips on the market–do they pay you?’
Alas, I only wish I got a commission on those things. I’ve been pushing them like a madman since I saw the first one. It’s purely a functional thing–the other models of whip work, but they’re not quite as effective, for a couple of reasons. First, most of the other whips cannot take the force of being reversed under full power. Their stubby little blades shear right off, or the hook-ish shaped ones twist themselves into a knot.
Second, if it’s the speed of the tip of the whip/propeller that makes the vortex appear, then spinning a set of three whips spanning a circle nearly a foot across at the same RPM as a wee stubby little set of blades will make those long whip-tips travel immensely faster–they have to to cover the same complete circle as the wee little ones, so they’re hustling much faster.
So there you have it. Please don’t fire an assault rifle into your carboy. Instead, get a drill and one of those amazing three-prong whips and you’ll be out of gas faster than a ’59 Caddy.