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Friday, September 10, 2004

Wine Whine 

(Yes, from now on it's all bad titles all the time. Sorry. -RjC)

Thursday was my glorious flex day, and as usual, I frittered most of it away. But in the evening, I got a little busy. It was more than time to finish primary fermentation on the crab apple wine project.

By the time I actually got down to this first racking, the fruit had devolved into messy scum atop and below a large quantity of wine. After an hour of sterilizing bottles and washing equipment, I was ready to siphon out of the primary fermenter and into the glass 12-gallon bottle where secondary fermentation would happen. But I had no way to lift the load safely (12 US gallons of water weighs just under 50 kg, or somewhere around 100 lbs. I can lift that much, but not when it's in an awkward container and I'm trying to disturb the liquid as little as possible).

So, I did some clean-up and waited for my father-in-law to come home.

Wine is a fun thing to make because when done right, you can drink the results. And as I mentioned previously, this wine project started as a desperate attempt to use up the parish crab apples. There were a lot of crab apples. Fortunately, my in-laws have a serious hobbyist's collection of wine-making paraphenalia, and my mother-in-law was making fruit wine before I was born. Theoretically, the process is pretty simple: you introduce yeast to fruit juice and sugar, because yeast loves sugar. When there's no free oxygen available (in this case because the yeast is in juice, which is mostly water), it turns sugar into alcohol. When the alcohol concentration gets into the 10% area, the yeast gets poisoned and dies happy, thus stopping fermentation.

As we siphoned wine, I got the occasional mouthful, which is a good thing, since it let me test the basic flavour of the raw wine. It's not vinegar! I'm not blind! That's a good start.

The devil is in the details. For example, that basic process, which turns fruit into wine, takes a week or so. But if you stop and bottle that, you get raw, hard-to-drink wine (the state at which my crab apple wine exists now). That's bad. So instead, you rack and wait. Racking is just a nice word for siphoning wine into another container, but racking and patience is the key to changing your wine from something like paint thinner into something like good wine.

The blindness joke up there is really only applicable when you do distillation. Things would have to go rather wacky to get enough methanol in a fermented beverage (wine or beer) to cause trouble.

I did a little web search on wine chemistry to find out what's going on. There's some rather nice stuff out there about the reaction which turns sugar into ethanol, but that's a reaction which is almost completely done a week after you've started making wine. So what happens next?

As far as I can tell from a cursory check, very little. There's really no fermentation going on after the yeast gets drunk and dies. Most of the other pages I checked talk about the racking and aging process as being primarily about removing wine sediments (which are generally made up of bits of fruit, random impurities like leaves, and lots of yeast corpses) and letting the wine settle. I think there are also some nice slow reactions that change the esters in the mix, which are the chemicals that give a wine most of its flavour. But mostly it seems to be a very slow method of getting rid of sediment.

So now I should just leave the wine alone. No messing with the stuff for about three months, at which point I'll be siphoning again, mainly to reduce the amount of sediment carried through. After that, another three months of rest and settling for the wine, at which point I'll be racking it into gallon jugs, and from then it's mostly a question of patience as to how long before the wine is drinkable. If all goes well, pessimistically guessing that I'll lose about a quarter of the wine to racking and sediment, I should have about 45 (!) bottles of wine in about a year.

You'll know if I don't give you a bottle next Christmas, you must really be off my list.

Interesting page on wine-making issues.

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