Ask Wine Wizard

Bottle Selection For Sparkling Wine

TroubleShooting

Marcello Pecchenino — Reno, Nevada asks,
Q

I have always wondered why you cannot make sparkling wine in a regular wine bottle. Beer bottles are the same thickness as a wine bottle and they don’t explode. I was wondering, to deal with the exploding issue, whether you could make a lighter or less sparkling wine with less CO2 and alter the room in the neck by not filling it so much to accommodate the extra gas?

A

Ah, the Wiz has visions of broken bottles in your future and it’s a prognostication I wouldn’t like to see become reality. Let’s just say my Fermentation Magic 8 Ball says, “See that sign? Don’t go there!”

It’s never a good idea to try to make sparkling wine in regular wine bottles or even regular beer bottles, because neither vessel is designed to take the pressure of around 9,500-10,000 ppm CO2 that most sparkling wines carry.

Though certainly smaller and tougher than wine bottles, which helps them withstand the 4,000-6,000 ppm CO2 produced by beer, beer bottles just aren’t made thick enough. Many mead recipes (really a honey wine) and higher-gravity beer recipes actually suggest that they be bottled in sparkling wine bottles in order to not pose an explosion danger. Sparkling wine bottles are built much thicker, have a deep punt for structural integrity and have a lip for a crown cap or wire cage over the cork, though you may bottle sparkling wine, cider, mead etc. with just a crown cap.

That being said, a normal wine bottle can withstand some pressure. In fact, I just bottled my 2012 Napa Sauvignon Blanc with a purposeful 700 ppm of dissolved CO2, which is juuuust below tasting threshold for many people. That level is just enough to give the wine a little “lift” but not too much so that consumers will be aware of any “tiny bubbles” in their glass. I never like to bottle a wine with more than 1,000 ppm CO2 because at those levels I start to worry about corks pushing, especially if the wine warms up at all. I’ve known friends to bottle wines under screw caps with up to 1,300 ppm CO2, but if you use them, make sure to check with the maker of the cap so you know the upper limit of safe CO2 levels for closure integrity.

Dissolved CO2 levels are one of the many parameters that winemakers can tinker with going into bottling, and one that might interest you, especially if you plan on making wines that fizz. It’s especially critical to measure dissolved CO2 if you are making something extremely fizzy, like mead or sparkling wine; you want to make sure the bottles you’re planning on using will be up to the task. The easiest way to measure dissolved CO2 in a wine is to use a “carbodoseur” (about $200 at well-stocked wine lab supply houses), which is a funny term for what essentially looks like a glass measuring cylinder with a pipet sticking out of it. You physically agitate the wine, which off-gasses dissolved CO2, and “extra” wine shoots out of the little pipet. Then you compare the volume of wine to a little calibration chart and it gives you an estimate of the CO2 in the wine. It’s not 100% accurate, and you do have to correct for temperature (colder wine holds on to CO2 better), but it’s a great off the cuff way to find out if your beverage can take “beer bottle” glass or if you really should spend the money on sparkling wine bottles. Keep in mind, also, that trying to save money by re-using sparkling wine bottles multiple times is potentially problematic. Micro-cracks and weaknesses in the glass can develop over time, making the risk of an explosion increase every time you do so.

You can certainly try to use less “priming sugar” (to use a beer brewer’s term) in a sparkling wine or mead recipe to achieve a light sparkle as opposed to the full bore 10,000 ppm CO2 associated with the most fizzy bubblies. A rule of thumb from good ol’ Louis Pasteur is 100 grams of cane sugar yields about 50 grams of carbon dioxide gas, so measure carefully for your volume. Rather than leave more headspace, which, even if you’re gassing bottles, can contribute to oxygen pickup and oxidation, I would just use the strongest bottle you think you might need, just to be safe rather than sorry.

Response by Alison Crowe.