A little bit of amateur wine-making history: a lo-o-ng time ago, nobody gave sterilisation a second thought. That was before the scientific wine-making movement kicked in, in the 60s and 70s. The idea was to rescue amateur wine-making from the traditional hit-and-miss world of country wines and establish it as a scientific pursuit. All very laudable, you may say and, as a scientist myself, I'd be the first to agree.

Spearheading this movement were three worthy gentlemen: Bryan Acton and Peter Duncan, co-authors of 'Progressive Winemaking' and John R Mitchell, author of 'Scientific Winemaking'. Anyone intent on mastering the craft today couldn't do better than obtain these old titles (still available from Amazon) and work through them. My ancient copies have all but disintegrated through overuse.

But, they were writing for different times and conditions. Quality fruit juices were not readily available and true 'food grade' plastics were still over the horizon. The amateur had to work with heavy glass demijohns and carboys, bored corks, cotton wool, wooden spatulas, muslin filters, rubber tubing. In these conditions, sterilisation was vital. It still is, but it is easier now.

Meanwhile, something else has changed since the 70s. There has been a movement against additives, preservatives, anti-oxidants, chemical agents in general. People now favour organic, natural, unprocessed. Again this is laudable though it can be taken too far. Personally, I advocate sterilising the equipment when required but I prefer not to sterilise ingredients for the simple reason that, with proper care and handling, it shouldn't be necessary.

It's worth remembering that alcohol is itself a sterilant. From earliest times people have known that beer and wine are safer to drink than water (in moderation, obviously!) because the alcohol presents a hostile environment to harmful microorganisms. This is why, instead of chemically sterilising fruit before adding yeast, it's better to add the fresh fruit to a vigorously fermenting starter made with pasteurised juice from the supermarket. (Pasteurising is sterilising with heat, no chemicals).

To sterilise equipment, boiling water is effective for stainless steel but is risky for glassware. Sodium metabisulphite solution (a sulphur dioxide sterilant) is usually the winemaker's first choice but is not readily available in ex-pat land. In which case, a good alternative that is universally available is Milton tablets. These are chlorine based. Make up the solution as per the supplied directions. The method is then total immersion for 20 minutes. After immersion, rinse the equipment in cool boiled water to get rid of any residual chlorine smell.

Finally, corks. Avoid them like the plague (or corona-virus, whichever comes first to mind). More fine wine has been spoilt through the centuries through defective, over-porous or infected corks than any other cause. It is still true that the best bottle closure for long-term ageing of a fine wine is a high quality cork, but:
  1. You are not making fine wine for long ageing.
  2. Top quality corks are not going to find their way to supermarket shelves in Doha.
  3. The True and Proper Vessel for Ex-pat Plonk is the screw-cap Lucosade bottle!

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