Excerpted from Wild Fermentation…
Wines to be aged or stored for any length of time need to be bottled. Even before bottling, once vigorous fermentation slows, wines are often siphoned from the initial fermentation vessel into a clean one, leaving the sediment, or “lees”, behind. This process is called “racking”. The siphoning agitates and aerates the wine to help complete fermentation, and the removal of the sediment prevents it from imparting any undesirable flavor to the wine.
The contemporary wine aesthetic values a clear product. Commercial wines are full of strange clarifying agents, including egg whites, milk caseins, gelatin, and isinglass, an extract from the bladder of sturgeon (you don’t read about these because alcoholic beverages are not required to be labeled with ingredients like other food and drinks). ³ I personally have come to love yeasty sediment and appreciate the lees’ vitamin-richness (especially B vitamins). But don’t let me discourage you from racking your wine; it is much more beautiful that way, and its flavors more delicate. (Try using some of the nutritious yeasty sediment in salad dressings or wine dregs soup, featured later in this chapter.)
Winemaking supply shops sell siphoning tools, which consist of flexible plastic tubing attached to a few feet of hard plastic tubing. This hard tube goes into the carboy, to a point above the sediment, and is much easier to control than flexible tubing. In the absence of this specific tool, any flexible plastic tubing will do.
Before siphoning, set your carboy on a table or counter, and let it sit undisturbed for a few hours so any sediment that dispersed when you moved it has a chance to settle. Place another clean fermentation vessel on the floor or a lower surface. For this to work, gravitationally, the vessel you are filling needs to stay lower than the point you are siphoning from. Be sure to have a glass nearby, so you can enjoy a taste of your wine. When you are ready, remove the airlock from the carboy, and place the hard tube end of the siphon into the carboy, with the end in the wine but higher than the level of the sediment.
Hold it (or better yet, have a second person hold it) at that level as you siphon. Place your mouth on the exposed end of the hose, and suck until you taste your wine. Then place a clean finger over the end of the hose to hold the liquid in the siphon, bring it to the mouth of the clean carboy or jug, release your finger, and fill.
Place an airlock in the new carboy and leave it to continue to ferment. In general, ferment wines for at least six months to a year before bottling. If you bottle them before fermentation is complete, you run the risk of having corks pop out. Even if there is no visible bubbling or release of air after a few weeks, slow fermentation continues for months.
Meanwhile, save bottles from (corked, not screw-top) commercial wines for your bottling, or collect them at a local recycling center. When you are ready to bottle, clean them thoroughly with soap and hot water, using a flexible bottle brush, if necessary, to remove crud from the upper part of the bottle where the glass narrows. Rinse the bottles thoroughly; you don’t want soap residue in your wine. Thorough cleaning is generally sufficient, but some meticulous winemakers sterilize by steaming the bottles standing upside down in a big pot, covered, for about 10 minutes.
Set your carboy on a table or counter, arrange clean bottles nearby, on the floor or a lower surface, and siphon into the first bottle. As each bottle fills (not to the rim, but to about 2 inches/5 centimeters below it), use your finger, or fold the tube on itself, to create a vacuum as you move the siphon to the next bottle. Somewhere in there, fill up a glass to enjoy. Fill bottles until you are about to reach the yeasty sediment.
Once your wine is in bottles, you need to cork them. Traditional corks come from trees native to the Mediterranean; some winemakers prefer synthetic corks. Both are available at winemaking suppliers. Corks are fatter than the necks of the bottles, so you will need a corking tool to force them into the bottles. There are a number of cleverly designed contraptions for this, some as cheap as five dollars. Steam corks for a few minutes to sterilize and soften them.
Aging mellows the harshness of wines. Store wine in a cool dark place (such as a cellar). With traditional corks, leave bottles upright for a week or so until the corks fully expand and seal, then store bottles on their sides, so the wine keeps the corks moist and expanded. (This is not necessary with synthetic corks.) Mark your wines clearly so you can distinguish different vintages.