The Spoils of Wort: Corks and Bottles

We finally got our first batch of wine done.

Since this was my wife who wanted to make the wine, it’s fruity bullshit. Unlike Arbor Mist, however, it doesn’t seem to give me a hangover and it doesn’t taste like disgusting fruit syrup despite me knowing that there was disgusting fruit syrup added of the watermelon variety.

All things considered, the kits are cheap and it works out to about $2 a bottle.

The not so local homebrew store deserves a big plus for being both knowledgeable about their products and for letting me borrow a bottling device. Basically, the Island Mist is a really well done 28 Day Wine Kit. Instead of secondary fermentation in the bottle or having extremely aggressive tastes which need to mellow out, the wine is ready to bottle in about 28 days. The kit suggests waiting another two months in the fridge before the kit really hits it’s stride and from my sampling (we ended up with only 29.5 bottles after the angel’s share) of the half bottle, it seems about right. The kit itself contains all the correct stuff and doesn’t seem to cut and corners of winemaking including potassium sorbate for preservation. Apparently that’s a popular cost-saver to skip the preservatives. But, I’ve already given the kit good praise so onto other odds and ends.

Bottles – They are entirely your choice of style and color. If you buy the really cheap ones they’re just total crap quality glass and doesn’t feel like it will put up with much use. For an extra dollar per case, I opted to get nicer bottles. My wife specifically requested clear glass bottles, so I asked about UV protection. Unfortunately, the clear bottles offer none. But, since this wine would spend it’s entire life in the fridge lagering, this didn’t concern me nearly as much as beer which sits in a box in the dining room while it ages. The style and color is entirely up to the user and has no effect on the wine. I do recommend making sure the bottoms aren’t flat – not only does this show off any sediment that might be present, it makes it easier to cork the bottles since they will center themselves in the press.

Corking Press – While this seems like the least significant thing you’ll need, trust me you want to spend a little to get a little. Unlike capping beer bottles, you need to put lateral force on the cork to compress it, and downward force on the cork to insert it. The beer bottle style capping devices just don’t cut it, the homebrew store was kind enough to let me try one and it was a total letdown. plunger corkers suck and require almost a hammer to smash the cork in there, which is hard to keep straight, let alone the correct depth while struggling with it. Too much depth means the cork falls into the wine bottle. This looks like it might be decent, you compress the cork in one motion and insert it with another. Keeping it straight might still be a problem. All things considered, the reloading press style corking machine is well worth the money. The bottle gets locked in, the cork is compressed smoothly, and the insertion is consistent. A nod to the Keystone Homebrew Shop – they let me borrow one of theirs with the purchase of bottles and corks. Adjustment is the same as adjusting a reloading die – You set it to be too shallow (the cork would hang out the top) and slowly work the adjustment down. The first cork through gets a little beat up if you don’t eyeball it well, but I only had to try twice to get the depth correct. The little ball on the end of the ram is to keep the cork head from getting marred, so put the cork above the ball and adjust the nut up to the top of the cork to get really close to where it needs to be.

Corks – The least exciting part of the process. There’s three grades of cork, “fine”, “good”, “poor”. Poor cork goes into track shoes, flooring, heat pads, whatever. “Good” cork goes in fishing bobbers and things which need to look decent. “Fine” cork is what we put in wine bottles, unless you can settle for “good” cork. The grading seems to depend on the density of the cork and how well it’s expected to hold together. Cork demand is up, but the process is like harvesting birch but slower. Trees can only be harvested every 12 years or so, and they take 25 years to produce their first usable cork. The “cork problem” in wine is that the cork needs to avoid contaminating the wine while allowing it to breathe a bit. Bacteria and whatnot gets grown into the cork. The newest thing is a quarter inch of fine cork glued to the standard size of good cork. It gives fine cork ends for where the cork touches air and wine, but good cork in the middle. This is what I bought and it seems to work well. Synthetic cork might be better for wines that don’t need to breathe (have been thoroughly degassed) but they were expensive. The cork for a wine bottle comes with a light silicon coating and a quick dip in warm water makes them slide in real easy. Just for paranoid, I rubbed them with vodka and also cleaned the jaws and crusher of the press with vodka also to ensure everything was sterile.

There seems to be some debate among the guys at the homebrew store as to if there should be any space under the cork but above the wine. I’m in the camp that the wine may have some suspended carbonation, and rather then keep that in suspension or have it push the cork out, it’s best to leave an inch under the cork for gas to compress. Since I’m not aging the wine for 25 years or more, having the corks not push out is well worth the slim chance of oxidation.

The final step is to leave the bottles upright for 24 hours to let the corks dry out and any remaining CO2 flush into the cork, then tip the bottles on their side and toss them in the fridge for two months.

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