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Wine Filling Processes and Maturation

by Staff Writer - B. Shaughnessy | February 09, 2012

Like any other product geared for consumer sales, wine is produced in many different forms and styles. Looking at the demographics of the wine market, one can see customers willing to invest in high priced wines while other customers are happy with inexpensive generic wines. Wineries produce wine within this entire range hoping to attract customers to their specific products. Due to this fact, the proper selection of wine packaging is important. Parameters for the selection of wine packaging include the quality of the wine as well as the market the wine is sold to.

With respect to the storage of wine, specific packaging mediums are reviewed in the article Wine Packaging 1--Preparation and Storage Mediums. Packaging mediums include the familiar glass bottle, bag-in-a-box containers, plastic bottles & aluminum cans. It is important to remember that along with the proper selection of the packaging medium, proper procedures and treatments must be utilized when loading the packaging medium with wine. Finally, it is also important to realize that the packaged wine must be stored under the proper conditions to allow maturation to occur.

As with any process found within winemaking, wineries have developed specific procedures for the loading or filling of packaging mediums. These procedures take into account the goal of storage longevity without negative changes, as well as any legislation concerning the packaging of wine. The procedures for loading packaging mediums include the periodic sterilization of the filling machinery as well as the monitoring of the microorganism population density of the wine. It is interesting to note that individuals within the wine industry often refer to the loading of the packaging mediums as sterile bottling. The use of the word sterile is misleading as not all microorganisms are removed from the wine. A more appropriate term for modern package medium loading would be aseptic bottling.

It is important to realize that wine packaging has not always been an exact science. Before humankind knew of microorganisms and their effect on wines, bottling was successfully performed on a regular basis. The main reason for this is that wine is naturally a self-clarifying liquid. Wine can also be bottled without filtration. Therefore the only prerequisite for bottling is that the fermentation has stopped and that a good sound cork is used. Wine bottled in this matter will cause any lingering yeasts to die out. The very nature of wine being alcohol will also prevent the growth of harmful organisms. Finally with the use of quality cork, oxygen will be removed resulting in acetobacter having no effect on the wine. It is interesting to note that some wines are still bottled using purely traditional methods.

With modern winemaking and modern wine tastes, technically advanced loading is required for packaging mediums. This can be seen in the production of sweet white wines. The sweet characteristic of certain white wines is due to residual sugar left over from when fermentation was prematurely stopped. In this example if any microorganisms are present during container loading, a second fermentation will occur. This second fermentation will ultimately ruin the wine.

Modern packaging medium loading techniques involve a cleansing stage for the wine filling equipment. This involves flushing the filler, the tanks holding the wine, the piping and the filters. The main purpose of this exercise is to remove any microorganisms that may have multiplied since the filling device was last used. The cleansing agent is usually hot water at a temperature of about 194deg F (90deg C). At this temperature the entire filling system is flushed for approximately 20 minutes. Other sterilizing agents such as steam can be used. In addition to steam, chemicals in the form of peracetic acid can also be used. Chlorine is no longer used within any sterilization procedures as chlorine can react with molds to produce the dreaded effects of cork taint.

With regards to the wine itself, two basic methods are available for removing microorganisms. One method is to kill the microorganisms by the use of heat in the form of pasteurization. The other method involves filtering the microorganisms out of the wine. Both pasteurization and filtration have their drawbacks. It is important to remember that without the use of one of the microorganism removal methods, bottled sweet white wines would run the risk of a second fermentation.

The use of pasteurization for removing microorganisms presents the vintner with several different options to choose from. Pasteurization can be applied in a low temperature known as thermotic bottling, in a medium temperature known as tunnel pasteurization or at a high temperature known as flash pasteurization. In thermotic bottling, a low level of heat is applied to the wine over a long period of time. With thermotic bottling the wine is heated to approximately 129deg F (54deg C) and then bottled. The wine is then put into storage where it is slowly cooled. Any microorganisms are effectively killed by the long exposure to the heat of the wine.

In tunnel pasteurization, wine is placed into the packaging medium while cold. The packaging medium is then heated to a mid-range temperature for about 15 minutes. This is accomplished by continually spraying the wine bottles with hot water. When the target temperature of approximately 179deg F (82deg C) has been reached and after 15 minutes at this temperature, the bottles are quickly cooled down to room temperature.

The last of the pasteurization techniques involves using high temperatures over a short period of time. This pasteurization technique is known as flash pasteurization and involves quickly heating the wine from 176deg F (80deg C) to 194deg F (90deg C). The wine is only held at the specified temperature for a few seconds. After this interval the wine is quickly brought back down to room temperature. It is important to note that the process of flash pasteurization takes place before wine bottling. This presents a potential problem because while the wine may be free from microorganisms after pasteurization, microorganisms may still be introduced during the process of container filling.

For wineries that do not wish to use the technique of pasteurization, it is possible to remove microorganisms by the use of filtering. The process of filtering utilizes a membrane that allows the wine and most of constituents to pass but traps any microorganisms. A concern of using filtration for the removal of microorganisms is that an overeager technician can use a membrane with too small a pore size. The end result in this scenario is disaster, as the membrane will strip the wine of its essential compounds. It is therefore important that the proper pore size be used when filtering out microorganisms.

There are some individuals who look upon the processes of pasteurization and filtration as doing more harm than good. This mindset is rooted in the fact that the application of heat speeds up chemical reactions within the wine while at the same time filtration can remove necessary particles from the wine. It is important to remember that not all wines require treatment for microorganisms. For the wines that do require treatment, the potential of a second fermentation far outweighs the arguments against pasteurization or filtering.

After the wine has been bottled it is important that subsequent storage parameters be followed. This mindset holds especially true for wines that are not made for immediate consumption. The main reason for this is the process of maturation. Maturation of wine is a process where small trace amounts of oxygen are introduced into the bottle through the cork. This small amount of oxygen results in the prevention of foul odors. In addition, positive chemical changes occur between the various constituents of the wine. In order to promote the advancement of maturation, it is important that wines be stored in a cool and dark cellar where they will not disturbed until their maturation cycle has come to an end.

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