Back to Ask the Brewmaster.
Though Culver City Homebrewing Supply (CCHB) has several books on the subject for sale, here is an overview of the wine making process as I do it. While I may be one of the premier wine makers in Pacific Gravity please keep this in context; this is akin to me being the mayor of a town with a population of 8 ;-). All kidding aside, I have been very pleased with my results including the very first batch I made in 1996.
Relax, the whole process is much easier than making beer; there is no mashing, boiling or cooling, but the entire process takes much longer. It is possible to make good wines at home, but the quality of your output is not completely under your control, as much has to do with the qualities of the grapes that are used. However, lack of diligence can make your good work go bad. But all this said, if you make good beer at home, you should be able to make good wine as well.
The basic wine making process is as follows:
1) Buy & crush wine grapes
2) Pitch yeast and conduct primary fermentation (1 –3 weeks)
3) Press the juice off the skins
4) Secondary & Tertiary Fermentations (from 6 months – 1 ½ years)
Of course it isn’t quite this easy, there are plenty of little steps along the way, which I will outline later.
It takes about 100 pounds of grapes to make between 5 and 7 gallons of wine. Count on 5, but be prepared for up to 7; the amount you get will depend on how juicy the grapes are, how efficient your pressing goes, and how frequently you rack. You will get approximately 5 x 750 ml bottles (the “normal size”) of wine per gallon. A “case” of wine is usually 12 x 750 ml bottles.
Fine Wines in the US are typically named after the specific variety (varietal) of grape used to make the wine (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot), but in Europe it is more typical for them to be named after the Appellation (region) where the vineyard/winery is located (i.e. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, and Rioja).
Wines named after a region are typically of similar style and similar profile (i.e. Chianti is usually a dry red wine), but are often a blend of different grape varietals. However some regions like Rioja produce both Red and White varieties under the Rioja moniker. Although Chianti is typically red, it often contains a small percentage of white grape varieties. Usually there are definitive rules that wine makers who make these styles must adhere to in order to use the appellation.
Wines named after a grape varietal can also contain blends of different varietals, but the preponderance of grapes (75%, according to California Law) must be of the primary variety in order for it to be considered a varietal, otherwise it typically is called a “table wine”, “red wine”, or similar. It is not unusual for a Cabernet Sauvignon to have a small percentage of Merlot added to “soften” it and for a Merlot to have a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon added to “spice” it up.
Assuming this is your first batch of wine, and that you have basic equipment such as carboys and racking canes in your brewing equipment here is a sample budget to make 5 –7 gallons (25 – 35 bottles) of wine. All figures are rounded to the nearest dollar.
100 pounds of grapes @ $1.00/ pound $100
2 Dry Wine Yeast Packages @ $1.00 ea $ 2
20 Gallon Plastic Fermenter & Lid $ 25
Malo-Lactic Culture $ 6
35 bottles @ $1.25 $ 44
recycle & reuse your own bottles
35 wine corks @ $0.15 $ 5
3 ounces of oak chips @ $1.00/ ounce $ 3
miscellaneous $ 5
No, this isn’t cheap, but it is fun, and fairly impressive to others. Of course you can cut down on the expense by making less wine, and using as much equipment as you have on hand.
Grape quality will affect your wine more than any other factor. You can’t turn bad grapes into good wine, but unfortunately the opposite is true! Get the best grapes that you can find; proceed with diligence from here. Your grapes should be free of mold, mildew and other disease. Look them over well prior to starting the process. Grapes should be processed quickly after receipt to avoid spoilage, and are best handled when cool.
When you order your grapes, you should decide whether you want to conduct your fermentation with a controlled yeast culture or with the yeasts & organisms that live naturally on the grapes. Both are valid approaches used by professional vintners, though using a controlled culture gives you a more predictable result.
If you chose to ferment the grapes with their naturally occurring “wild” yeasts, be warned that not all wild yeasts have the strength to ferment wines to dryness. Also, it is quite possible that the wild yeasts are co-existing with some unpleasant bacteria with them, which could cause certain faults in your wine. This “natural” method can work very well, but it is considered riskier.
If you chose to use a controlled culture, you need to decide on which type of culture to use, and whether to use a liquid or dry culture; good results can occur with both. The same yeast culture is often available from several different suppliers, but they are usually marketed under different names and can be available either dry or as liquid cultures. Please check the yeast data & brochures at your supply store in order to guide your selection based upon the profile you are seeking.
If a controlled culture is chosen, it is recommended that you prepare a yeast starter from unsulfited grape juice a few days prior to the grapes arrival. This will ensure that you have a large amount of yeast cells, which are healthy and active. This will help the fermentation to proceed smoothly, helping you to avoid some fermentation related flaws. The most important thing is to follow the yeast manufacturer’s instructions diligently.
Grapes naturally contain a variety of acids, including malic, lactic, tartaric and some citric. Tartaric is the most desirable, malic the least. By using a malo-lactic culture, you can convert the undesirable, harsher malic acids into the more desirable, softer lactic acid. Malo-Lactic Fermentation mellows harsh young wines, and reduces total acidity.
These cultures are commonly available, and also benefit from the use of a “starter” made from unsulfited grape juice. The most important thing is to follow the culture manufacturer’s instructions diligently.
You will need multiple vessels for conducting fermentation. Secondary fermentation is best performed in glass carboys and jugs. Primary fermentation is best conducted in large plastic or stainless steel vessels. 20-gallon food grade plastic containers work very well for fermenting up to 125 pounds of grapes.
Most likely your grapes will arrive whole, in clusters, and on the stems; usually there will also be a fair number of leaves attached as well. The grape skins must be broken to release as much juice as possible; this greatly enhances fermentation. Crushing can be performed the traditional way (stomping on them with your feet), but a more pragmatic and efficient approach is to use a grape-crushing machine. Either method can be messy, so wear clothes that you don’t mind getting splattered. The combination of crushed grapes, the juice, the stems, leaves, and seeds is called the “Must”.
While you are crushing the grapes, keep a look out for moldy and rotten fruit; these should be discarded prior to making it into your must. Raisins can also be discarded, but many winemakers like to leave them in as they provide additional body. The grapes are better when crushed cool rather than warm, if possible.
Some crushing machines also have a de-stemmer, which will separate the majority of stems and leaves from the rest of the must. If not, the crushed grapes can be removed from the stems by hand. This is rather tedious, but it is usually worthwhile. Some winemakers leave the stems in the must, but most do not. It is a function of personal taste and philosophy, which is also affected by how long you intend to leave the must on the skins. The longer you intend to ferment on the skins, the more desirable de-stemming is.
While de-stemming isn’t absolutely necessary, most wine makers believe it makes a cleaner tasting wine, citing that leaving the majority of stems in during fermentation increases tannins and promotes off flavors.
After the grapes are crushed, you should check the sugar and acid levels. If you need to de-stem by hand, you should perform these tests prior to de-stemming.
First, pull as clean a sample of liquid as possible and measure the brix (bailing) with your hydrometer. Most triple scale hydrometers have brix/bailing scales along with Potential Alcohol and Specific Gravity. 24 degrees brix = a specific gravity of about 1098, yielding a potential alcohol level of 13 percent. 0 degree brix = a specific gravity of 1000.
The must should measure between 22 and 24 brix. If your reading is low, you can add sugar to raise the brix level. One cup of sugar per gallon of expected juice will raise the must by 3.25 brix. Assume 5 - 6 gallons of juice for 100 lbs. of grapes.
If your reading is high, you should add water. Otherwise you risk extremely sweet wine, spoilage, and stuck fermentation. The formula to determine the amount of water to add is:
% of change in brix desired x gallons of must
For example: if you have a brix of 28 in 6 gallons of juice and your goal is a brix of 24, you will need to dilute with .86 gallons of water. (4% x 6)/28=.86
The water you add must be acidified to the same level as the grapes to keep everything even!
A pH reading should be taken; the pH of the must should range between 3.2 and 3.6. Next, if possible, test total acidity; this requires an acid testing kit. Total acid should be between .65 and 1.0%. Total acid routinely drops during fermentation and cold stabilization; malo-lactic fermentation will lower it further. If it is too low, you can add tartaric acid. Finished red wines should have a total acid range of around .60%.
Adjustments to total acid will also affect pH and vice-versa, so one needs to be careful; overall pH is more important than total acidity for purposes of proper aging of the finished wine. Making proper well-balanced acidity & pH adjustments can be rather complicated; I refer you to the book “Home Winemaking Step by Step”, by Jon Iverson for a detailed presentation on several methods and techniques.
After making any adjustments to the must, you may want to add a measured amount of pectic enzyme, which will promote the breaking down of the grape skins, assisting fermentation, and easing the extraction of color.
Finally, if you have decided to ferment using a controlled yeast culture, sulfites should be added to the must. This can be accomplished by adding 5 crushed campden tablet per 100 lbs. of grapes, or by using an equivalent amount of liquid or powdered potassium metabisulfite solution. This should neutralize wild yeasts and bacteria, and will also act as a preservative and anti-oxidant.
If you sulfited the must, you should wait 12 - 24 hours prior to pitching your yeast. This will allow sulfite levels to degrade to a level safe enough for your yeast culture to survive.
Your must is now ready to be fermented.
Many people claim that sulfites cause them to have headaches and other ill effects. However, recent scientific studies show no causal relationship here. The scientists believe that a different chemical compound present in red wines causes the headaches, and cite that moderate amounts of sulfites are safe for most people. Those with asthma problems should be cautious though.
Sulfites provide a few basic effects, which are necessary in order to help produce clean tasting wines that will age properly. Sulfites prevent wild yeasts and bacteria from conducting the fermentation due to them taking hold of the must prior to the controlled culture. They also protect the wine from oxidation, enabling the wine to be transferred and aged without the risk of tasting stale or flat.
There are several methods of performing primary fermentation. This is the most common method; common variations will be presented later.
Place your fermenter in an area where the temperature is likely to remain reasonably stable. Red wines like warm temperatures. The must needs to remain warmer than 65 degrees throughout primary fermentation; this helps to extract color and tannins from the skin. However too much heat can lead to a stuck fermentation.
Pitch your yeast culture on top of the must, trying to spread it around as much as possible. DO NOT STIR IT IN! Add yeast nutrients. Within 24hours, you should witness the start of primary fermentation. Once this is noticed, stir the must in order to blend in all of the yeast. If no fermentation occurs after 48 hours, pitch in another yeast culture.
Once primary fermentation begins, it will escalate to a fervent level fairly rapidly, and will be conducted over the course of the next few days, up to 1 week. During this time it will readily push up a "cap" of grape skins and seeds. You will need to “punch down” this cap into the must at least 2 or 3 times per day, for as long as it continues to rise. This will prevent things from drying-up, molding, and rotting away. Furthermore, this adds flavor, color, and body to your wine; most of the character in your wine will come from the skins, so it is essential to punch them down! You may use a heavy duty spoon or paddle, but don’t be afraid to use your hands, just make sure they are clean and free of soap and residues. Periodically add yeast nutrients to keep things moving smoothly.
Primary fermentation will produce a good deal of heat within the must; cap temperature at mid ferment should reach between 85 and 95 degrees. This is essential to extracting out the benefits of the skins. If the temperature exceeds this, punch down the cap more often to help dissipate the heat.
At all times except when punching down the cap, keep the fermenter covered with a lid that allows gas to escape. This will help keep some of the fruit flies that invariably come with the grapes at bay, while also helping guard against infection. Infection is not much of a concern due to the volume of alcohol and CO2 produced, but it is possible. Be very wary of acetic acid cultures, which can quickly turn your wine into vinegar.
WARNING: A substantial amount of CO2 will be put off, be careful when bending over into your fermenter, between the CO2 and the alcohol vapors, you can easily get woozy fairly quickly. Over the coming days and weeks, the cap will raise less and shall not require as much punching down.
After 1 or 2 days of fermentation, pitch in your malo-lactic culture if desired.
Fermentation levels should start to decline after a few days. At this point (and usually no longer than 1 week) after fermentation begins, your brix readings should be at or near 0. At this point the fermented must/young wine will be ready to “Pressed Off” the skins, even if the must still appears to be actively fermenting.
Cold Maceration involves chilling the must down to 45 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 or 5 days prior to warming it up and pitching your yeast. This helps extract color and softer water-soluble tannins prior to extracting the harsher alcohol soluble ones. Fermentation proceeds as normal, except that pressing occurs earlier, when brix is between 10 and 0 degrees.
Extended Maceration involves leaving the fermented must on the skins for up to 3 weeks to maximize extraction of tannins and phenols. If timed properly, the cap will fall into the still wine, and the overall tannin affect despite the fact that the harsher alcohol soluble tannins are present. With this technique timing is everything; one day the tannins will be very harsh, the next day they might be notably softer (like the wine was well aged), then they will start to become harsh again a few days later … so it important to press the wine off the skins as soon as the wine softens. If this technique is used, it is important to keep a blanket of CO2 over the wine to prevent oxidation and acetification!
Carbonic Maceration is a technique most often used with white wines, though it works well with some red varietals. Instead of crushing the grapes and pitching yeast into the must, the grapes are left whole and natural enzymes conduct the fermentation over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, though crushing 10% of the grapes will help accelerate the process. The fermented grapes are then pressed whole. Since the grapes are not sulfited, it is imperative to place them in an airtight container with an airlock, and blanket them in CO2 to prevent spoilage. Wines made with this technique are generally low in acidity and very fruity and dark in color.
Pressing the young wine will separate the liquid from the solids. This should be conducted in a proper wine press, though with small amounts of grapes, can be accomplished by placing the solids in cheese cloth and by wringing it out to extract as much liquid as possible.
If using a wine press, set-up the press and have several sanitized vessels on hand to collect the wine; buckets and pots tend to work best. After everything is set, scoop out the must and pour it carefully into the press to avoid spilling or splashing. The murky free flowing liquid will immediately start draining into your collection vessels.
When the press is reasonably full, press down on the grapes by hand using the blocks. This should start the wine flowing from the skins, and will allow you to place more must into the basket. Once the basket is reasonably full, start to press using the blocks, ratchet and handle. This should be done in stages. Crank on the handle until the wine starts flowing freely, stop for a moment to allow the wine to flow freely for a while, when it slows, resume cranking. This sequence should be repeated many times. The harder you crank, the more liquid will be extracted, but you will also release additional tannins.
Eventually you will encounter significant resistance, and liquid will cease to flow. At this point, reverse the pawls on the press, and back the ratchet off, remove the blocks, and disassemble the basket. What is left should be a nice “grape cake”, which will be mostly dry … but not entirely.
If desired, break up the cake and place it back into your fermenter. Fluff it up, and repeat the pressing process. You will be amazed at how much more liquid you can extract. This occurs because the force of the press is not equally applied. This process can be repeated several times, but the returns will diminish and more tannin will be extracted.
When you are done, clean-up, spray the press and blocks with clean water and wipe off any remaining grape skins/seeds. What to do with all the leftover skins, etc.? Please see below.
Some people like to collect and age the free flow wine separately from the pressed wine, as the pressed wine is usually more tannic, and not as clear. In this manner, 2 different wines will be made from the same batch. If one decides to age these separately, portions could always be blended back in at another time.
Immediately pour your wine via a funnel & strainer from the collection vessels into your carboy(s) and jugs. If the wine is still actively fermenting, leave enough head space for fermentation to continue. If the wine is not actively fermenting, top up the carboys as much as possible, this is important to avoid oxidation, which will darken your wine and will add unpleasant flavor compounds.
If you collect 6 gallons of wine, it is best to use a 5-gallon carboy and jugs or bottles for the rest rather than using a 6-gallon carboy. The reason is that you need to keep your carboys “topped-up” (to the narrow part of the neck, no more than ½ inch from the bottom of the stopper. Over time you will lose wine due to removing sediment and evaporation. Your overflow will be used to replace this, keeping everything nicely topped-up.
From now on, you must keep air away from your wine to avoid oxidation.
Fix air locks, and place the carboys in an area with a consistent temperature. If a malo-lactic culture was added, the temperature must remain above 65 degrees, in order to ensure that this fermentation will complete. The carboys should be protected from the light by covering them with a paper bag or wrapping them in towels.
Don’t worry about how pink the wine looks, and about dragging along much of the solids (the lees) with the liquid. Over the next few days/weeks, most of the solids will settle out to the bottom naturally. If this doesn’t occur an appropriate fining solution may be added.
24 – 48 hours after pressing, rack the wine off their lees into a clean and sanitized carboy, and top up with additional wine. Repeat the racking process if or when another layer of sediment exceeding ½ inch forms on the bottom of your fermenter. This will reduce the chances of ill effects forming (Hydrogen Sulfide and Mercaptans), potentially ruining your wine.
Compost them, throw them out, or use them again to make a second (false) wine or Pyment (mead made with grapes). You can usually re-use your skins 2 or 3 times, and still get many fine attributes out of them. There are plenty of recipes on-line and in commonly available mead and winemaking books.
To make 5 gallons of false wine, follow the instructions on any wine grape concentrate or aseptic juice kit. You can add other fruits if desired. By fermenting these kits on your used skins, you will create a much more complex profile than if you were to use the kit alone.
To make 5 gallons of Pyment, add about 1 gallon of honey to the skins, and enough water to make 5 gallons. You can also add grape concentrate or other fruits if desired.
The skins will have enough yeast to start fermentation again, almost immediately. Repeat the process, as you did in your first wine. These wines often tend to be a bit thin (particularly if a concentrate is used), and are best thought of as table wines rather than fine wines. The addition of raisins or chopped bananas will add some body. An advantage to these wines is that they are usually ready to drink in less than 1 year.
Your false wines and Pyments should be started immediately after you are done with your pressing, so as to avoid mold, rotting fruit and other infections. If you chose not to use the skins again, please ask around to see if anyone would like them. If not, the skins (et al) make excellent compost material and can be placed in the city “green bins”. Some animals might enjoy them as feed, especially considering there may be some residual alcohol present ;-).
Your wine should remain in carboys or oak barrels for the next 6 - 18 months, but should be racked every 2 –3 months, leaving the sediment behind. This helps to further clarify the wine. Fining agents can also be added during this time. Immediately prior to each racking, you need to decide whether to add additional sulfites or not for sanitation and anti-oxidation purposes. After each racking, and periodically along the way (due to evaporation) you will need to top up your carboy (it should be kept full, near the top of the neck, with only a minimal amount of airspace. Use the wine in your spill over jugs/jars for this, or you can add some purchased wine of your choice. If you need to purchase wine, quality counts; choose one of similar variety and profile, if possible.
After your secondary fermentation is concluded (you decide when, but patience will pay off with better results), you need to decide whether to add Oak chips (or beans, or staves) or to run the wine through an oak barrel or not. Oak adds complexity, flavors, and tannins to your wine, but isn’t appropriate to all styles or tastes. Oak chips are commonly available in both American (Mid-West) and French varieties; Hungarian, Czech, and Oregon Oak may also be available.
Generally American Oak offers a strong wood aroma and flavors, while French Oak adds more subtle wood tones along with a bit of earthiness, and is considered more sophisticated. Hungarian and Czech Oak are similar to French. A combination of varieties can create an interesting synergistic effect.
For oak chips and beans, the technique which works best is to have your wine exposed to a little bit of oak (1 – 3 ounces) for a long period of time (several months). If you decide to add oak, check your wine often, taste it to decide when you have enough. The oak aroma and flavor in your finished wine will diminish somewhat over time, but be careful not to over oak your wine, as this is hard to strip.
Prior to adding the oak chips to your wine, boil them in water or steam them for a few minutes to sanitize them, and to season them. This will strip them of some tannin and other compounds, which will slow down the rate at which oak attributes are assimilated by the wine; this is a good thing! Adding a bit of acid blend to the boil will also help to “sweeten” them.
After racking a few times, you might choose the option to filter the wine, in preparation for bottling. Filtering will further clarify your wine and will reduce bottle sediment, but could also remove some desired elements.
If you choose not to filter, you still can achieve clarity via racking, patience, and fining agents if so desired.
At some point you will want to bottle your wine, but try to wait at least 6 months after pressing. If you can wait longer, your patience should be rewarded.
Fine Red wines are typically bottled in green or brown colored glass bottles. There are 2 major shapes. There is the shouldered Claret (as used in most Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties) and the Burgundy style, which features a tapered neck and body. There is no right answer to which to use, but I prefer Clarets due to their wide spread availability and how easily they stack on my rack. I also like to bottle at least one clear bottle (to periodically check color and clarity), as well as a few splits (375 ml bottles) and small beer bottles (with crown caps) which get used for cooking, samplers and tasters). Keep in mind that the smaller bottles age faster than the larger ones.
Wine bottles, corks, labels and bottle foils should be available at your local supply store. There is no rule that says you must use wine bottles. Beer bottles with crown caps work equally well, though lack a bit of panache. Used bottles can often be found free of charge at recycling centers or from bars & restaurants, though if you use these, you will need to remove the labels and all residues in addition to killing any mold and mildew.
If you choose corks, buy the highest quality corks you can find. Poor quality corks are just not worth the effort; your wine will not age properly, and you may have problems extracting them from your bottles. Both natural and synthetic corks work well. Standard wine bottles use #9 corks; look for lengths between 1.5 and 2.0 inches. If you have access to one, a floor corker is much easier to use than a hand held unit.
Sanitize your bottles (figure 5 – 6 regular wine bottles per gallon), and rack your wine into a bottling bucket and prepare to bottle. Briefly soak your corks in a sulfite solution. In addition to sanitizing them, this will ease their insertion.
This is your last chance for additives and adjustments. If you desire to sweeten your wine, add regular table sugar and a stabilizing compound to prevent renewed fermentation, or you could use a non-fermentable sugar like lactose instead.
Fill your bottles (as you would when you bottle beer) to allow only a small space below the inserted cork (you’ll have to judge by sight). Let the bottles remain upright for 3 days in order to ensure that the cork expands to a proper seal, then lay the bottles on their sides for long term storage.
Now is the time to exhibit patience; ideally you should wait at least a year from bottling prior to serving your wine. This is where using splits and tasters come in handy, as curiosity will probably get the best of you. .
Your wine will be initially ready for serving in about a year, but flavors should improve and balance out over the next few years, before they could start going down hill. Temperature consistency (preferably cool) and protection from UV light sources is key to properly storing/aging wine.
When you decide to serve the wine it is best to plan ahead. Up righting a laid down bottle a few days in advance will allow most sediment to settle to the bottom of the bottle. Tradition dictates that it is best to open the bottle from 15 minutes to 1 hour prior to pouring in order to let the wine “breathe”. Because there will be sediment on the bottom or sides, decanting into another vessel leaving behind the sediment is a wise option which also hastens the breathing period.
Serve the wine at “cellar temperatures” in appropriate red wine glasses. This isn’t beer, so don’t fill the glasses to the top. The glass should only be filled to between ¼ and 1/3 full. For the full snob effect, check the wine for clarity, swirl the wine in the glass and sniff for aromas prior to drinking. Enjoy! Your patience and efforts should be amply rewarded.
While this is a long-term project, the results are definitely rewarding and fun. I highly recommend giving it a try at least once.
If you have any questions you wish to ask, or if you need some advice or feedback along the way, I am happy to provide you with whatever assistance I can.