Maturing Home Made Wines
There is no doubt that maturing is the final phase in the production of quality wines. And, alas, it is true that a multitude of amateur wine-makers never let their wines prove themselves. Many of them think: ‘This wine tastes all right as it is, I can’t see it improving all that much. So here goes.’ And, hey presto, it has gone almost before the next batch is in the fermenting vessel. But if they would put away even one bottle and taste it in a year or two, how they would kick themselves for drinking the rest so young.
Such vast differences are found between young and old wines that it is not unrealistic to liken young wines to boisterous, ill-mannered children and old wines to gentle old folk with loveable dispositions. Despite this, young wines are often quite good and worth drinking as they are, but they improve gradually over a couple of years. Generally young wines are quite rough and sharp to the palate with nothing really to recommend them other than promise of better things to come. Some, in fact, are so ‘disappointing’ that I have known people to think that they have gone wrong in one way or another.
When, years ago, we formed a wine-making circle in the area in which I live, one member actually brought a gallon along to ask my opinion. It had ceased fermenting a few weeks earlier. It was quite brilliant, but was rough and lacked bouquet. Although the flavour was not as good as it should have been for the type of wine, I knew that all it needed was a couple of years to settle down. I could not really find fault with such young wine. When I told this member to keep it for a couple of years because it would improve beyond all recognition he, like most disbelieving beginners, simply would not be conviced. He would have none of it, thinking as many do that I was just kidding him. Honestly, I often wonder whether people like that want to learn or not.
Anyway, he told me that he wanted the jar for another batch and, if I liked it, I could take it and let him have the jar at the next meeting. This I did because I knew it was useless to argue with one who had already made up his mind. It was about two years later when I took along a bottle as my sample for the evening. The member who gave me that gallon was there as usual. When his turn came to taste my wine he went into raptures over it, even offering to buy a couple of bottles for Christmas if I had them to spare. I had to confess that I had only five bottles because he had given me a gallon! He was dumbfounded.
All young wines must be given time to develop, except perhaps the very driest, which rarely improve after a year unless they are very rough. Others really ought to be given two years at least. I realize that this is a very long time for those anxious to drink their wines because they have nothing to drink for two or three years from the time they start out. The easiest way out of this problem is to make a large amount of suitable varieties and, while some can be drunk young, the larger part of each batch can be allowed to mature. In this way, although you will be drinking immature and therefore inferior wines, you will at least have something while the rest is improving.
How to store the maturing wines is a matter not very easily solved because most amateurs rarely make sufficient of the one sort to fill a barrel. But those who do make amounts of 25 and 50 ltr (5 and 10 gall) really ought to consider storing them in 22 ½ or 45 ltr (4 ½ or 9 gall) barrels.
It is during storage in wooden containers of this sort that oxygen percolates through the pores of the wood in very tiny beneficial amounts to cause much desired oxidation. This, it must be understood, is certainly different to the over-oxidation that can take place when the whole of the wine is exposed to air, say, when filtering.
When in barrels, chemical changes and reactions are constantly taking place. Some run with each other, or concurrently, -while others depend on the one before, and therefore run consecutively. All that takes place is very far from being understood. But we do know that maturing really means the marrying, or shall we call it the interweaving, of the many constituents that go to make up a wine.
Flavours are improved by chemical action, while esters develop to produce a bouquet. But these processes would be interrupted and the result hindered if unnecessary racking or other disturbances were allowed. Therefore, wines put away in bulk should not be disturbed — not even moved from one place to another — if it is at all possible to avoid doing so.
Time is the important factor because maturing should always be slow. In fact, you are unlikely to be able to hurry it. Deciding just when a wine is mature is probably the hardest part of wine-making. And I doubt whether anybody could hope to decide for you when wines have matured sufficiently in bulk to be bottled to finish maturing. This is something peculiar to each wine, probably because each contains a varying amount of chemical matter and other con-
stituents which have to undergo certain changes. Therefore, a wine containing more of each constituent will doubtless take longer to mature than a wine containing less. Certainly, with the minute amount of oxygen percolating through the pores of the wood, these changes take place more quickly than when the wine is stored in stone or glass jars when the oxygen can percolate only through the bung.
This is not to say that maturing is too quick when storing in barrels or that it is too slow when storing in jars. If slow maturing is best, then it would seem that jars, with only the bung to let oxygen through, would be ideal. But this is not so. Rather too little oxygen can get in through the bung.
The fact is that wood is best for maturing not only from the point of view of oxygen ingress but also for another reason. The wine absorbs beneficial substances from the wood, while the wood in turn absorbs a certain amount of harshness or perhaps tartness from the wine. Do not, however, think that wood will absorb too much of some constituent because it will not.
Even so, there comes a time when the wine should not be left in the wood any longer, simply because there is a risk of over-oxidation. This is the time when the wine has reached the point where sufficient oxidation has taken place and when the wine should be bottled to finish maturing. In the bottle important changes continue to take place. As I have mentioned these are not fully understood, which is the professsional way of saying that the process is still a complete mystery. When wines are bottled and sealed, further oxidation cannot take place, and the further chemical action, reaction and interaction, and the marrying of constituents can go on without risk of over-oxidation.
It is not possible for anybody to lay down hard and fast rules, or for that matter even hazard a guess as to when sufficient oxidation has taken place. Only the person who made the wine can judge, and he can only do this by tasting.
Tasting at this stage should show that the wine has mellowed and become much smoother and more wholesome. In fact, there should be a very noticeable change in the quality compared with that when the wine was first stored. And here it must rest with the individual as to when sufficient maturing in wood has taken place. Lighter wines usually mature more quickly than the heavier sorts. But neither develops much in the way of aroma or bouquet while in the wood, so do not expect this. As a rough guide, wines should be mellowed in wood for a year and then allowed to mature in bottle for a further year.
In bottle chemical action and reaction continue. Even though this is not fully understood, it is reasonable to suppose that chemical interaction is responsible for the changes which produce aromatic volatile esters which add remarkably to-the aroma and bouquet of the wine. It is doubtful whether this would happen in the presence of oxygen, and it is therefore while stored in bottle that greater changes take place. But whether the changes would take place successfully if wines were not allowed a mellowing period in the wood is another matter. It seems to me that, for the best results, the success of the improvement in bottle depends very much on the effectiveness of the period in the wood.
But what of those who cannot use wooden containers for the early stage? Jars and ordinary bungs must be used and, as we have seen, the area of the bung allows for very little percolation of oxygen. This means that under these circumstances the first stage of maturing is likely to take a good deal longer than is desired. I think that this must be the reason for those jars of our grandparents’ day that had bung-holes 7.5-10 cm (3-4 in) in diameter. These would certainly be more advantageous from the maturing point of view when jars must be used. Today most jars have bung-holes hardly more than 4 cm (1 ½ in) in diameter. So be it, we have to use them.
A certain amount of aeration could be effected by lifting the bung and replacing this with a firm knob of cotton wool for a few minutes every three months or so. If this is tried, the area around the bung and the bung itself must be well washed with sterilizing solution prior to removal. And, although jars of wine are usually stored in inaccessible places, it is best to do this without moving the jar, no matter how difficult this might be. I say this because I am convinced that one of the most important factors concerning successful maturing is non-disturbance.