The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
Few winemaking experiences beat the feeling of satisfaction found on opening a bottle of well chilled homemade sparkling wine and pouring it into tall champagne flutes and enjoying with friends.
Properly made homebrew champagne style sparkling wines are one of the ultimate extremes to take you winemaking hobby. Sparkling wines can be made in a very simple fashion, e.g. Simple sparkling Elderflower or you can "do it properly" and undertake the full champagne technique to make your champagne.
The first thing you need to do if you want to make successful sparkling wines at home is go and buy a book. Yes. Spend some money!. J. Restall and D. Hebbs' book Making Sparkling Wines contains everything you need to do to make Sparkling wines - it is the bible! I can't write even one tenth of the wisdom this fantastic book can impart.
The first step in making a decent Sparkling wine is to create a suitable base wine. A gallon of perfectly clear stable white table wine needs to be made and cleared in the normal fashion and then left to mature for at least 6 months. The wine should be on the overly crisp side of acidic and be completely fermented out - containing little or no residual sugar. The key is the strength. The base wine should be 10% alcohol at most - a lot less strong than our normal homebrew wine. The final qualification is that the base wine should have been made with EC1118 champagne yeast. No sulfite should be added to the wine after fermentation, although you should add some at the start.
The next step is to add some sugar to the base wine. Around 2 to 3 oz per gallon. Then mix in some actively fermenting champagne yeast starter and bottle in real champagne bottles. The more sugar you add, the fizzer the wine will be. However, increasing the pressure in the bottle increases the likelihood of the bottle exploding.
Only use proper heavy champagne bottles which have "Champagne" or "Method Traditional" on the label. Anything else will explode.
Insert some homebrew champagne stopper and wire down the tops. Leave the bottles in a warm place for a week and then go and hide them in the cellar, laying on their side for 1 year. I have a reason to suspect that most stoppers leak gas over a long period of time. Sometimes I rub the a dab of vegetable oil around the stopper before inserting it. I have most success with the hollow body stoppers during the bottle fermentation phase. These collect the yeast easily for the disgorging phase.
The longer the champagne lies on its side in a cool place, the better it gets.
The final stage is to get the yeast out of the bottom. See my page here on disgorging champagne. One good trick for topping up after disgorging is to mix still white wine with vodka: About 1 part vodka to 5 parts wine, and then carbonate it in a soda stream and chill before using to top up.
I strongly recommend leaving the champagne well alone without taking the yeast out for as long as possible. You should keep a stock of two or three disgorged bottles, but leave the bulk of your collection in contact with the lees. Strange reactions occur between the lees in the presence of the dissolved carbon dioxide that creates the unique flavour of champagne.
Getting hold of proper champagne bottles is difficult. You can't buy them from homebrew shops for legal reasons, so you have to scrounge them. My best method for collecting used champagne bottles is to leave an empty crate next to the local bottle bank over new year. Leave a sign asking politely that people leave their empty champaign bottles in the box for you to reuse. You'll get dozens. Once you've got rid of the labels and cleaned them, check each bottle carefully for scratches, chips or cracks, especially around the neck. Weigh each empty bottle and discard any that weigh less than about 800g.
NB This begging bowl approach works well for normal bottles - just pick out the decent bottles (heavy with a nice punt) and return any unwanted to the bottle bank. Obviously if you live in a rough area you might want to position your begging box in a more up market area!