26 July 2021

Topping up – glass marbles

I've already described four options for topping up a new wine for storage and maturing. There's a rather ingenious alternative available for anyone who really doesn't want to add anything to the new wine. Glass marbles! After transferring the wine from the fermenter to the storage jar, simply drop in a few glass marbles until the surface level reaches the bottom of the neck of the jar. Of course you should sterilise the marbles first. Glass is completely inert and will not impart any off flavours to the wine. In fact the marbles will have no effect at all, except the desired one of raising the surface level. And of course, they can be used over and over again.

glass marbles – sterilise before use

25 July 2021

Topping up for quality

 At the end of fermentation, the wine should be separated from the lees (sediment) and stored in a fresh vessel. If you are working with 5-litre bottles, typically, between sedimentation and volume loss, you will be able to transfer about 4½ litres, leaving a ½-litre air space above the wine. This is too much air and would impair the final quality if you simply sealed the bottle for storage. Fortunately, there are several options for topping up, some better than others, but the choice is yours:

  1. Water. This is the simplest approach but of course it dilutes the wine, reducing alcohol by volume, acidity, tannin content, intensity of colour, flavour and aroma, and body. This sounds bad but some wines can benefit from judicious dilution.
  2. Wine. Topping up new wine with wine from an earlier brew is often the best answer. Obviously, the added wine must be sound. Normally it should be of similar style to new wine, though judicious corrective blending is possible, for example, to increase acidity if the new wine is lacking in that department.
  3. Spirits. White wines can be topped up with a neutral spirit like vodka. Red wines can benefit from an addition of brandy. This is an expensive option to be used in exceptional cases only. For example, a white wine at 13% with residual sweetness can be fortified to 15% to preserve the remaining sugar against further fermentation, producing a strong desert-style wine. Only consider this option for wines that are showing early signs of high quality, and be prepared for a long aging process.
  4. Diluted spirits. For a table wine that is already the strength you want, e.g. 12%, you can top up with a 12% ABV vodka/water mix. This still dilutes all of the wine's characteristics just as water does, but it preserves the alcohol content.
In summary, Option 2 is usually the best option. Option 1 is cheap and cheerful, Option 4 is good for lighter wines, and Option 3 is for specialised purposes only.

You'll note there is no fruit juice option. Anything that adds sugar at the top-up stage is to be avoided as it is asking for trouble – flying corks, burst bottles, permanent hazes... Don't go there.

21 July 2021

Making wine from rhubarb

Rhubarb is strange stuff. Technically it's a vegetable but it's usually cooked with piles of sugar and served as a fruit. Why does this work with rhubarb and not with, say, spinach or broccoli? Because, unlike most vegetables, rhubarb is high in acid. We enjoy fruits for their balance of sweet and sour, sugar and acid. Only, there's a catch. The acids in real fruits are malic, citric and tartaric. Rhubarb contains mainly oxalic acid which is poisonous. Fortunately, the highest concentration of oxalic acid in rhubarb is in the leaves. The stalks are perfectly safe to eat, raw or cooked, in normal quantities. This should come as no surprise. We've been eating the stuff for centuries. 

Ingredients for 5 litres:

  • 2kg rhubarb stalks (no leaves!)
  • 2 large ripe bananas
  • 1 litre supermarket apple juice (no preservatives!)
  • 800 grams granulated sugar
  • Cold water, to 5 litres total


Prepare a yeast starter using a small quantity of chopped rhubarb, some apple juice and some dried wine yeast. Leave it overnight.
Chop the rhubarb into wee bits.
Chop the bananas into slices without peeling them.
Put all the fruit, juice and half the sugar into the fermenting bin
Add water enough to cover/float the fruit.
Add the yeast starter and ferment on the pulp for three days
Strain into a 5-litre fermenting vessel
Add the rest of the sugar in water
Ferment to dryness, etc. . .


Because of the bananas, this wine will froth up impressively. Don't be in a hurry to fill the fermenting jar before it has calmed down. Why add bananas? To achieve better balance. Rhubarb is high acid low sugar, bananas are high sugar low acid. They also add body. Rhubarb alone would be 'thin'.

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