by Dave Salaba
We often receive this question from our customers. Like many things in life, when you get into the subject, it’s not as simple as it sounds; it depends on a number of important considerations. For example, do you prefer a young, easy drinking wine, in the style of a French Nouveau, or do you prefer a wine that is more complex, with richer flavors, one that is smoother and fuller in the mouth? Are you able, like most professional wineries, to store your wine from several months to a year, enabling oak barrels or other oak additives to work their magic? Do you have the patience to craft, rather than just make, your wine? Have you made sure that your juice has fermented to complete dryness? If it’s a red or a selected white made from fresh juice, has it completed malolactic fermentation so that residual yeast or other microorganisms are not going to come to life after you have bottled the wine? These are but a few of the many things you need to consider when attempting to answer the question, “When should I bottle my wine?” At Keystone we are prepared to help guide you through the process, and help take some of the mystery out of the subject.

I made some red wine from fresh juice. When should I bottle it?

First, double check with a hydrometer reading to ensure that there is no residual sugar (spoilage organisms love residual sugar) and that it has fermented to dryness. Next, you will want to properly sulfite the wine to ensure that it will stay healthy and sound by adding 1/4 teaspoon potassium metabisulfite to each 5 gallons of finished wine. At this point you are faced with a decision. Do you want to start drinking the wine within the next three months (as soon as it has cleared), or wait until it has aged a bit more?

If the answer is sooner, rather than later, we suggest that you divide your wine into various-sized portions. Here’s why: Any vessel that contains wine must always be kept full in order to prevent oxidation and keep spoilage organisms out. By dividing five gallons of wine into several smaller containers (such as a 3-gallon carboy, a 1-gallon jug, and two 1/2-gallon bottles), you will be able to keep the larger containers full while providing yourself with small containers of wine for consumption.

If, on the other hand, your decision is to let the wine develop additional complexity and a smoother, fuller taste, you will take a very different path which can take up to a year, but will result in a different, elegant style of wine. After the primary fermentation, skip the addition of sulfite step mentioned above and, in a storage space that is at least 64°F, add a malolactic bacteria culture (which Keystone carries) to your new wine. This reduces the amount of malic acid (which is a tart acid found in all red wines and many white wines) while providing softness and complexity. This process takes about three to four weeks and will generate a small amount of carbon dioxide, so you’ll need to use a water lock (airlock) on the carboy. Most well-made wines around the world undergo malolactic fermentation because almost all red wines (and some whites) will benefit from it. Should your wine be any different? We think not!

Malolactic fermentation completion can be confirmed by a simple test, which the staff at Keystone will be happy to help you with. Once malolactic fermentation is complete, you are ready to rack off your wine one last time into a clean, sanitized container and add 1/4 teaspoon of metabisulfite to each five gallons and make your final decision about your new wine: Oak or no oak? This decision is purely a personal one, but more information is available below.

After quietly aging your wine for several more months (depending on your patience and willpower, for thirst is a dangerous thing!) you are ready to bottle your wine into clean, sanitized bottles. As professional wineries do, the bottled wine ought to be laid away for at least 3 months before drinking.

We should mention that there are alternate methods that many traditional winemakers follow which depart from the above techniques. These methods allow “natural” yeasts (yeasts that are carried on the surface of the grapes) to initiate the fermentation rather than adding a commercial wine yeast. Experienced winemakers point out that while this method can produce a satisfactory wine, there is also the chance that the wine may not ferment completely because “natural” yeasts have a low tolerance (around 8-10%) to alcohol, and thus may die before they are able to ferment the wine to dryness, often leaving behind significant amounts of residual sugar.

Additionally, keep in mind that any residual sugar in bottled wine is an invitation for trouble. Stray yeast cells that remain in the wine can start to re-ferment later, when the weather is warmer, causing the corks to pop or bottles to explode. If the bottles remain corked, the wine may be “fizzy”(carbon dioxide in the wine–considered a serious fault) or cloudy. In addition to unwanted yeast activity, relying on natural yeast alone can result in malolactic fermentation occurring somewhere down the road (usually in the bottle), causing further grief for the winemaker.

However, we are quick to point out that many traditional winemakers have been making wine for years with no apparent trouble. We mention the difficulty related to natural yeasts only because we receive many phone calls about “exploding bottles” and “cloudy stuff  floating in my bottled wine” during the winemaking season. Our advice to those traditional winemakers who want to avoid these problems is to keep the new wine in a carboy until early summer when the season’s warmth will encourage any re-fermentation to take place before bottling.

I make wines from Brew King (Winexpert) and RJ Spagnols box kits. When should I bottle them?

The simple answer is not before the instructions tell you it’s OK to bottle the wine. Additional aging is fine as long the wine is racked into a clean carboy and topped up to the neck of the carboy. We believe that most kit wines improve with additional aging, provided that you have added adequate sulfites. Manufacturers’ instructions generally indicate that wine aging for more than six months should receive an extra 1/4 teaspoon of potassium metabisulphite to protect the wine while aging. Keystone never recommends subjecting a kit wine to malolactic fermentation. The kits have already been processed to eliminate the need for this step. Malolactic fermentation is solely for fresh juice and fresh grape wines.

If all this sounds like a headache, you may well ask yourself, Is this worth it? Well, we at Keystone think so, and we are committed to helping our customers proudly make fine wines. Keystone customers, as well as our staff, have produced wines and beers that have won many gold and silver medals at competitions around the country. We believe that you can, too.