The last step in winemaking is filling and corking your bottles.

collection of wine bottles

Few things are more important to the shelf life of your wine than how it's handled at this point. This is especially true when it comes to preparing your wine to be bottled, better care = better wine.

First, your wine has to be finished, clear, stable and free of C02. Clear means the wine is free of particles that could later fallout of suspension and leave a deposit in the bottles. Stable means that the wine has finished fermenting and has enough sulfites (S02) present to prevent oxidation and spoiling. Free of C02 means that although the fermentation may be finished, a wine can still be saturated with carbon dioxide. If it is, it will go into the bottles with the fizziness intact and depending on the conditions, could expand and push the corks out (or worse, break the bottles) or provide you with the dubious pleasure of drinking a sparkling wine that's supposed to be still (sparkling Merlot, anyone)? Get rid of C02 in your wine by stirring. When the fermentation is finished, most people add fining agents and this is when vigorous stirring needed. Like shaking up a soft drink, vigorous stirring chases the bubbles out and not only prevents the wine from being fizzy in the bottle, but also helps the fining agents to work better. If you're not using fining agents, make sure your wine is free of C02 before bottling. THE MIX STIR has hinged arms which allow the business end to fit into a carboy. When you spin the tool the arms open and release trapped gas from the wine. It can be motorized with an electric drill. Durable stainless steel shaft with the same hinged arms as he original. Shaft will never break.

Wine Bottles: The first thing you need to do is to make sure you've got the right kind of bottles. A standard wine bottle has a neck opening 18.5 mm in diameter. This will accommodate a standard cork. There are bottles with different neck sizes on the market and you may encounter some as used bottles. In particular, the flagon shaped bottles from Portugal (Mateus) have a much smaller neck opening and screw-top bottles have a very large neck opening. Also, with screw-top bottles, the thinness of the glass in the neck area makes them unsuitable for corking.

The second step is to make sure your bottles are clean and sanitary, which are two different things. Clean bottles can't harbor any lurking gunk under a layer of dried wine. If your bottles have some residue, soaking them in a solution of Straight A and rinsing with hot water will clean them up in an hour or so.

To sanitize, just before bottling rinse them with Easy Clean. This will prevent the growth of any spoilage organisms in the bottle. The best way to prepare bottles is with a bottle tree and a spray pump. Used together, they turn a tedious job into a five-minute breeze.

Filling the bottles comes next. A sanitized siphon hose and racking cane are necessary and a siphon filler is an excellent tool for getting the fill levels right. Consisting of a rigid tube and a one-way valve, it allows carefully controlled filling. It also helps prevent excessive splashing and agitation of the wine, which can lead to oxidation.

Bottles should be filled so that the wine is about one inch away from the bottom of the cork. This is important, you don't want to leave a lot of ullage (airspace) in the bottles, but you have to leave enough room under the cork for the compressed air to sit. What is compressed air? Think of the neck of the bottle as a cylinder. The cork acts like a piston, pushing whatever air is underneath it into the bottle compressing it down. If there isn't enough room for the air, the cork could pop right back out, refusing to stay put in the bottle. The care and attention you take when filling your bottles will go a long way to keeping your wine fresh.

Dressing Up: After all of your bottles have been safely filled and corked, you can choose to put capsules over the neck of the bottle. While not necessary to preserve the wine, they give a nice finished look to your bottles and when coordinated with labels give your wine a professional look. Capsules are often called shrink-caps, because heat is used to shrink the plastic onto the bottle neck, holding it tightly and smoothing out any wrinkles or seams in the plastic.

The best way to apply this heat is with the steam from a kettle. At a rolling boil the kettle will produce enough steam out of the end of its spout to shrink a capsule in only two or three seconds. Be careful not to burn your fingers! While you can use blow dryers, they are very slow. Hot air paint strippers work better, but they aren't as fast as a kettle, and are a bit more dangerous to use. In a pinch the heat from an electric stove element will also serve to shrink the capsules on but again, be careful with a hot stove.

You should leave your wine bottles standing upright for at least the first 24 hours after corking. Remember the piston-and-cylinder analogy from above? The compressed air has to work its way out past the cork and it can only do that if the bottle is standing up. If you immediately turn the bottle on its side, the pressure will still be there but the wine will now be pushing against the cork and could force it out of the bottle. After at least 24 hours you should turn the bottles on their side for long term storage. This is when the wine against the cork will keep it moist and prevent leaks.

You may notice mould on top of some of your corks after a few months. This isn't necessarily a sign that your wine has leaked through. It could be that a small amount of wine stayed on top of the cork at bottling and has moldered there. Carefully wipe the top of the cork and the bottle neck with a clean damp cloth before extracting the cork and the wine should be fine.

How long will your wine keep? This is a tough question to answer as it depends on so many factors. As long as you keep it safely in a cool (60°F or lower), dark room with good care and attention to your bottling practices, your wine will last as long as the raw materials it was made from. Better quality ingredients usually mean a wine that will age longer.

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