What to do with all those empty champagne bottles

champagneWhether it is from Christmas, New Year, a Harvest Dinner or from a massive Family Gathering, left over empty champagne bottles are the foundation of the home wine maker’s craft. One of the most important safety issues of winemaking is having a sterile bottle in which to store the efforts of the previous months and a solid champagne bottle will also ensure the contents will not explode in your face and possibly pierce your eyes with glass. I have about three hundred champagne bottles that have been collected over the years. Each one has been meticulously cleaned and polished and each one is stored, either full or empty, in its own little place in the cellar. To me, the presentation of wine is just as relevant as the wine itself. A shiny bright bottle of chilled two-year-old rhubarb rose, with a classy label and a professional looking cork cover, has an aura of respectability and value as it waits, poised, to be opened. Rather than being regarded as a short trip to a stupefied state, the contents of a bottle of wine, lovingly covered with a handmade statement of care and effort, achieves its true value.

Making wine is a great test of your patience and tenacity as one batch will be divine and the next a complete disaster. The hard part is getting started and having the willingness to allow yourself at least three years before you can say, “I make my own wines!”. Once this threshold has been crossed, churning out all of your alcoholic needs is a mere formality just as the task of rolling the vegetable garden over for each season is.

I am not an expert wine maker. I consider myself a very lazy one. I have a couple of basic recipes that require the minimum of ingredients and the simplest of preparation and, if the fruit or vegetable doesn’t produce a decent beverage using this system, then I don’t attempt it again. Over the years I have developed my favourites and the range I make satisfies my requirements for most meals or occasions. I stick with these knowing I can extend an imbibing hospitality at any time of the day or year.

Wine making can seem a complicated affair especially as you read your way through all of the books in your local library, but the best way to develop your skills is to befriend an established home wine maker. Most wine makers love a new convert and most will be very happy to guide you through the pitfalls. Winemaking is a ‘circle-of-life’ craft. The person who teaches you knows that one day you will teach someone else. The following is a general outline of how I would produce a year’s supply of plum wine using my basic wine recipe. The quantities have been calculated for two gallons and is a good amount for the beginner to start with. I make at least ten gallons of plum wine every year and, surprise surprise, it seems to disappear from the cellar as quickly as I make it!

The wine making process has three distinct phases and you will need to gather a few things together before you start your journey. The first phase is the initial extracting of the fruit flavours and juices and this is called ‘musting’. The second phase, called ‘fermentation’, is where the juice extracted in the first phase is converted to an alcoholic beverage and the final phase is when the results of the two previous phases are left to mature and, finally, be bottled.

I gather my plums and freeze them until I have the required amount of fruit to start the must. You don’t have to freeze your fruit but it does help it break down more quickly during the must. I use a 20-litre food quality bucket, with a very tight fitting lid, as a musting bin. I can buy these buckets, second hand, from a local mayonnaise manufacturer at a very reasonable price and, once cleaned and sterilised with boiling water, they are excellent for a variety of uses. Never cross-use your wine making buckets though. The musting bin should remain the musting bin and the fermenting bin should never be used for anything else. It would be great to have a fermenter for each type of wine you make but this, really, is pure decadence. For two gallons of plum wine I use a minimum of eight pounds of fruit and I never hesitate to use more if I have it. I chop or crush the fruit up, pile it into the musting bin and pour in enough boiling water to cover the fruit. When the must has cooled down I add a crushed Camden tablet to minimise bacterial infections, and then the lid is put on tightly.

For the next week or so I give the must a thoroughly good stir a couple of times a day to prevent mould from forming on the top. Putting a large dinner plate on top of any fruit floating above the water level will also help to keep unwanted bacteria down. A major hazard at this time is fruit fly drowning in the must and spoiling it. I always cover the lid of the bin with a large towel to help prevent this. The musting phase is actually quite disgusting as the oozy mess of mush turns oozier and sometimes develops an evil smell with accompanying bubbles. Don’t despair ... this is good.

For the fermenting stage you will need to have purchased the added ingredients and to have your fermenting barrel sterilised and ready. I use a 20-litre ex-food container again but with a fermenter cork (‘bubble-thingy ’ I call it) stuck in the lid of the bin and with a tap screwed into the side at the bottom. I purchase both of these items at a local brewing suppliers shop. The owner of this particular shop is a sweetie and cuts the holes in the barrel and fits the tap and fermenter cork for me. If you can’t access suitable, cheap, containers a brewers shop will supply you with barrels etc ready to use.

Once the must looks good and mushy you need to strain the juice into the fermenting barrel and having a friend to help is ideal. I make a ‘sock’ out of boiled muslin cloth, dangle this into the bin and pour the must into it squeezing as much juice as possible through the muslin before discarding the pulp into the pig bucket. Add all of the other ingredients (which can be purchased at the grocery store or the brewers’ shop) and give it a vigorous swish around with a long handled spoon which has had boiling water poured over it. Top the barrel up with cold, boiled water and add the prepared yeast. Now, the yeast can be a bit tricky to prepare but I have never had a failure with the little sachets of wine yeast you can get at the brewers’ shop. I half fill a warmed mug with slightly higher than blood temperature water, add a teaspoon of sugar, sprinkle the yeast on top (don’t stir) and leave it for about fifteen minutes. It should froth up and spread across the mug. When it has, give it a stir, add it to the juice in the fermenting bin and put the lid on the bin tightly.

The next tricky bit is installing the cork with the ‘bubble-thingy’ in it. I crush a Camden tablet, spoon it into the opening at the top of the bubble-thingy and then dribble enough water in to give a water level of about half way. You will find the bits of Camden tablet will end up at the bottom of the tube and will keep things clean and sterile. I very carefully push the cork into the hole in the lid with a twisting movement to prevent any of the ‘camdened’ water being ‘burped’ back into the juice. I cover the whole barrel with a large, plastic rubbish bag and then wait with my fingers crossed for it to ‘take-off’. Hopefully, within a day, the yeast will be starting to gobble up the sugar and to convert it into alcohol. This is a fascinating stage, and one which evokes a great deal of satisfaction as the fermenting barrel builds up pressure and chats away to you.

After a while (sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months) the wine will go quiet and, when the water level in the bubble-thingy has been constantly level for a week or two, it is time to ‘rack’ it. I lift the wine barrel up onto the kitchen bench (after I have removed the bubble-thingy), let it settle for a couple of hours (with the lid covered with a towel to prevent fruit flies getting in), and then I empty the wine, via the tap, into the musting bin which has, of course, been sterilised with boiling water. There will be a lot of mucky stuff at the bottom of the fermenting barrel - try not to pour this into the musting bin. Once empty, rinse the fermenting bin out, sterilise it with some boiling water, tip the wine back into it, fit a freshly prepared bubble-thingy into the lid and leave it to ‘take-off’ again. You may have to repeat the ‘racking’ process several times before you reach the point where it is fermented right out. Some people prefer a sweeter wine to a drier wine and will put the whole barrel into the fridge to kill the yeast when it has reached the taste level they like. I like a dry wine and, therefore, leave it to finish completely. By doing this, I end up having a choice of serving a richly flavoured and quite alcoholic tipple for a pre or after dinner drink or, by using lemonade to shandy it down, having a refreshing cooler which prevents the guests from falling over too quickly!

When the wine has fermented right out I store the barrel out in the laundry, where it is cooler, for a few months. Every now and then something reminds me I should have a session bottling and this is a fun part because, of course, you need to do some consumer testing. Very carefully, so as not disturb the ‘camdened’ water in the bubble-thingy, dribble some wine out of the tap into a wine glass and toss it out - it will have the tap dregs in it. Do this again, but this time hold the glass up to the light and see if the wine is clear. If it isn’t, leave it alone for another month or two.

If the wine is clear, stick your finger in it and have a lick. Smell it. Swirl it around the glass and watch how it slides back down the sides (a slow slide equals a high alcohol content). Discuss its merits with the friends who have come to help you make a decision. If you are brave enough, drink a little. Repeat the consumer testing process again etc. etc! Do remember though - you are tasting a raw wine and only experience will tell whether it will be a mediocre, good or fabulous wine twelve months after bottling.

By now, if you have got to this point in your wine making career, you will be great friends with either another winemaker or the owner of the brewers’ shop and they will advise you on how best to bottle your efforts.

Labelling can be a simple affair of purchasing a peel-and-stick type or a not so simple affair printed off your computer and glued on with wallpaper paste. There is a range of cork coverings available to finish the product off and the only thing left to do is to store your bottles in cellar type conditions and wait another twelve months or so before opening your first bottle.

As a time-frame guideline, I have just begun enjoying the start of thirty-seven bottles of Feijoa Wine that was musted in June 1999, stored out in the laundry in January 2000 and bottled in March 2001. Last year I musted four gallons of Elderberry in March. It was stored in June and bottled in March of this year. I intend opening a bottle at New Year for the next two years and I think it will probably be nearing its best for the New Year Celebrations in 2004. If I am right, this particular batch of wine will become my ‘top shelf’ wine for that year.

What ever happens on your journey to becoming a wine maker, don’t be discouraged by mistakes and disasters. You will have them but, if your pig is like my Mrs Pig, not all will be lost. And if all else fails you can always turn the not-so-good-wine into vinegar and pickle your onions with it.

BASIC WINE RECIPE

For two gallons (10 litres):

  • 8 pound of fruit - crushed, covered in boiling water
  • When cool, add one crushed Camden tablet.
  • Leave to MUST for at least a week.
  • Smash it about every day to make sure no mould sets on top.
  • Strain the juice into a fermenting bin and add:
  • Four and a half pound of sugar
  • Two teaspoons of citric acid
  • One teaspoon of tartaric acid
  • Two teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • Half a teaspoon of grape tannin
  • One sachet of Monpeliair Yeast (or similar)
  • Fit an airlock and cross your fingers.
Enjoy! Althea from Middelmost.

 

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