There is just one overriding rule when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing: You must do it. Methods differ, and it’s fine — even desirable — to experiment to find the techniques that work best for you. But great wine starts with clean and sanitary equipment. That’s the bottom line.
Cleaning and sanitizing are important because wild yeast and bacteria are all around us. They are in the air, on the kitchen counter, and on your winemaking equipment.
It is neither possible nor necessary to remove every last bacteria or wild yeast cell that might spoil wine. However, it is important to remove as many of them as possible to prevent some of the off-flavors that they produce when they get into wine and begin to grow.
Many sanitizing solutions do not always work well as cleansers, and many cleansers do not sanitize adequately. Be sure that you are using the right product for the job.
The first step in the process is ensuring that the equipment is clean. All new equipment should always be cleaned prior to sanitizing. It should also be cleaned after each use. Simply rinsing out equipment after use does not always remove all of the organic material. If you don’t clean your equipment after using it, you will likely find mold growing in it the next time you pull it out to make a batch of wine.
Plastic primary fermenters and the most susceptible. Mold and bacteria can get into scratches in the plastic that are virtually impossible to clean. Be sure to use only clean, non-abrasive cloth or sponges for cleaning plastic fermenters. Let the cleanser do the work for you so that abrasive pads will not be necessary.
Chlorine, commonly available as bleach, is an effective cleaner. When mixed with water it becomes a caustic solution that is effective at breaking down organic compounds. Using one tablespoon per gallon (15 mL per 3.8 L) of room-temperature water is usually adequate for most cleaning applications. A 20- to 30-minute soak is usually adequate. However, longer contact for more stubborn deposits makes scrubbing easier.
Stronger solutions can be used. The stronger the solution the harder it is to rinse clean. Rinse well with hot water after using chlorine. No bleach aroma should be left. Use only regular chlorine bleach; scented bleaches leave residues that will not rinse clean and might come thorough in the flavor of the wine.
Two commercial products, B-brite and Straight-A, are effective cleansers that remove organic compounds through the use of precarbonates. Use one tablespoon per gallon of warm water, then let stand until organic residues are removed. Little or no scrubbing should be necessary, although a little elbow grease might be required for stubborn stains. Rinse thoroughly with hot water.
Household detergents are effective cleansers; after all, they get your dishes clean. However, they should be used with caution because many of them contain perfumes that can be absorbed into plastic fermenters and come through in the flavor of the wine. Some detergents that contain phosphates rinse more easily than those without. Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a very effective detergent for cleaning organic deposits, but it should not be left to sit for more than an hour because it can leave mineral deposits. Use one tablespoon per gallon.
Sodium hydroxide, commonly available as lye, is the main caustic ingredient in oven cleaner and drain cleaners. It is very effective in removing organic deposits. Some winemakers who use the 15.5-gallon (59 L) stainless beer kegs as fermenters or storage containers use lye as a cleaner because they are unable to scrub the inside of the keg.
One tablespoon of lye per keg filled with water for 30 minutes generally removes all organic material. Follow this by rinsing thoroughly. Then refill the keg with water and one tablespoon of citric acid, as a neutralizer, for 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly with warm water. Use extreme caution when working with lye; it easily can burn your skin.
Once the equipment is clean, it must be sanitized prior to use. Many winemakers confuse sanitizing with sterilizing. It is almost impossible for most home winemakers to sterilize their equipment. Applying heat is the only true way to sterilize your equipment. Enough heat applied for enough time kills bacteria. For most winemakers this technique not only is difficult but also not necessary.
Chlorine is the least expensive and most widely available sanitizer available for home winemakers. Because bleach can also be used as a cleaner, it is particularly convenient. But chlorine reacts rapidly with organic deposits, and when it does it can no longer act as a sanitizer. That is why the equipment must first be cleaned prior to sanitizing. If bleach is used for both steps, two separate applications are required. To sanitize, use one tablespoon per gallon of water. Equipment should be soaked for a minimum of 10 minutes at this concentration. Equipment should then be rinsed or drip-dried to eliminate any residual chorine.
Iodophor is a very effective sanitizer, although it tends to stain almost everything. Iodophors are sold as a concentrate and are diluted to a working strength. Directions on the container’s label explain how to mix to come up with a working solution. BTF iodophor is mixed at one tablespoon per five gallons (19 L) of warm water. One advantage of the iodophor sanitizers is that at the correct working strength they have a faint brown color. When the color fades, the solution is no longer an effective sanitizer. Soak equipment for 10 minutes for an effective sanitation.
Sodium metabisulphite and potassium metabisulphite are both widely used by home winemakers as sanitizers. They act to inhibit bacteria and wild yeast. When combined with water, they release sulfur dioxide, a powerful antiseptic. For sanitizing equipment mix one ounce of bisulfate in one gallon of water, then store the solution in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid.
When the solution is needed for sanitizing, pour a little into the piece of equipment to be sanitized and swirl it around. Be sure all surfaces are coated, then drain the solution back into your storage container. Drain your equipment well, but leave the bisulfate rinse in place. When you can no longer detect an odor to the solution, make a new solution. For sanitizing bottles, a sulfite injector makes the process much easier. Simply pour a little solution into the injector and spray some into each bottle, then drain well.
It is best not to use barrels that have become moldy inside. If barrels are to be used, a new one is a good investment. A new barrel should be cleaned before using. Use two ounces of soda ash, sal soda, or sodium carbonate for each three gallons of water. Now fill the barrel half full with water as hot as you can get it. Then add the soda ash that has previously been dissolved in a little hot water. Shake or roll the barrel until the solution is well mixed. Now finish filling with water as hot as you can get it.
Bung the barrel tight and roll it around to agitate it. Roll the barrel several times during a 12-hour period. Then empty it and rinse several times until all the solution has been washed out. A length of clean chain put into the barrel at the start of your cleaning operation will help considerably in cleaning the barrel by working as an abrasive. Tie the ends of the chain together to prevent knots from forming.
Always wash the outside of the barrel with a stiff brush using the soda solution. Do this before cleaning the inside and before using the barrel if it has not been used for a while.
Your barrel should now be ready to use. If you are not going to use the barrel for a few days or are storing it for a long period of time, be sure to sanitize the barrel prior to use.
To sanitize your barrel, fill it half full of water. Dissolve the proper amount of sodium bisulphite in a little water and pour it in the barrel. Then dissolve the proper amount of citric acid in a little water and pour it into the barrel. Now bung up the barrel and mix well by shaking or rolling the barrel. Finish filling the barrel with water and bung tightly. Check the water in the barrel from time to time, completely filling it each time.
When you’re ready to use the barrel, rinse it out, then fill it again with fresh water and leave it overnight. Rinse out the barrel again, and it is ready to use.
Use one-half pound of citric acid and one pound (0.45 kg) of sodium bisulphite for each 50 gallons (190 L) of barrel capacity. Do not use less than the stated amounts.
Another method for sanitizing barrels uses sulfur wicks. After cleaning and draining the barrel, burn half a sulfur wick per 50-gallon barrel capacity and the same ratio for smaller barrels once a month until you’re ready to use your barrel. Tie the sulfur wicks securely to fine wire, light them, and lower them into the barrel, then bung tight. The bung will hold the wire. When you are ready to use the barrel, rinse it thoroughly and use within a few hours.
These are only a few methods for cleaning and sanitizing that are available to the home winemaker. They by no means comprise a complete list of every product or method. So experiment to find a method that works well for you and gets the job done.