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Your First Foray into Wine Fermentation

Photo by Shutterstock/oneinchpunch

You’ve probably seen the advertisements; there are countless variants. A vintner gazes lovingly at an upraised glass of wine. Behind them is a lush, green vineyard with bunches of ripe grapes hanging on vines. Or perhaps the backdrop is a stack of French oak barrels. It all looks lavish.

A lot of commercial wine is positioned as a drink for sophisticated palates, so you may not know that making wine at home can actually be affordable. All you need is some reasonably priced equipment, ingredients, and a little patience. With modern wine kits, you can make respectable wines that are ready to drink in a few months, no vineyard or barrel room required.

There are numerous beer-brewing and winemaking shops across the U.S., and most have an online store. These shops will have everything you need to begin fermenting; you’ll simply need to decide the scale of your venture. Kits for making 6 gallons (23 liters) of wine are common. If you’re an ambitious winemaker with a little money to spend, you can buy more or larger fermenters and make more wine than one family could possibly drink. However, some prefer a smaller-scale start — one that requires less money upfront and less space devoted to the hobby. For those people, small-scale wine kits are just the thing.

I recently made wine with a small-scale kit, and I found it to be straightforward. The kit contained enough concentrated grape juice to make 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of pinot noir. It also contained almost all the required equipment, much of which could also be used if the winemaker later graduated to the 6-gallon scale. But, before I describe how to make wine with this kit, let me explain how commercial wine is created.

Commercial Wines

First, the basics: Wine is made from grapes. You can find nongrape fruit wines, especially in regions that grow a lot of fruit, but most wines on store shelves are made from various grape varieties only. These grapes are grown specifically to be made into wine; vintners don’t make wine from table grapes or grapes grown to become raisins.

Most wine grapes are members of the species Vitis vinifera, including all the most common wines — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, zinfandel, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, and pinot gris, for starters. Even if a wine is labeled with the name of a place, as French wines are, it most likely contains V. vinifera grapes. A few wines are made from other species of Vitis, and some wines are made from hybrid grapes, but, while these are growing in popularity, they’re still far less common.

Ripe wine grapes are harvested in the early morning, when it’s cool, and taken to a winery. Usually, they’re then fed into a machine called a “crusher de-stemmer.” The grapes are crushed to yield juice, and the stems are separated from the rest of the grape material. In the case of most red wines, the juice and grape skins are then directed to the fermenter together. In the case of most whites, however, the grape juice is separated from the skins.

The juice, or juice and skin mixture, is called the “wine must.” This unfermented wine is typically dosed with potassium metabisulfite or sodium metabisulfite to reduce the number of microorganisms it harbors and minimize oxidation. After a day, any free sulfur-containing molecules given off will evaporate, and the must can be inoculated with wine yeast. Wine yeast is most often a variety of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same species from which strains of brewer’s yeast are derived.

During fermentation, the wine yeast takes in the fructose and glucose from the grape juice and converts them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. In doing so, the yeast receives the energy it needs to live and reproduce. Because a diet of sugars alone isn’t healthy for the yeast, however, winemakers also frequently add yeast nutrients to the must. These supplements are especially useful for providing nitrogen to the yeast, although most include other building blocks as well.

In red wines, the skins macerate in the juice to deepen its color. Tannins from the grape skins are also extracted. After a primary fermentation of a couple of weeks, the wine is typically pressed off the skins and racked to oak barrels. While aging in the barrels, the wine picks up additional tannins from the wood, and — with the right kind of barrel — some desirable flavor compounds, such as a hint of vanilla. The skins of white wines are typically not macerated with the fermenting juice, and most whites aren’t barrel-aged. A clean, fruity flavor and aroma is thus achieved for these wines.

Commercial wines are almost always clarified, often by filtration or through the use of a fining agent. If the wine is sweet, it must be stabilized to prevent further fermentation. This is usually done through pasteurization, but it can also be accomplished by adding potassium sorbate, which interferes with the yeast’s ability to reproduce. Finally, most commercial wines are bottled prior to the arrival of the following season’s harvest.

Small-Scale Wine

With a small-scale wine kit, you won’t crush, de-stem, or press any grapes. Neither will you need to worry about yeast nutrients or wine tannins. All those things have been done for you, resulting in a bag of condensed wine must that’s ready to receive wine yeast. The juice is also sterile, so you won’t need to sanitize your must with an initial bisulfite addition.

Fermentation Time

Fermentation Type: Alcoholic

Primary Fermentation: 1 week

Secondary Fermentation: 2 weeks

Total Time: 1 month

Shelf Life: 1 year

Materials

  • Oxygen wash cleanser
  • Microfiber cleaning cloth
  • Sodium metabisulfite sanitizer
  • Little Big Mouth Bubbler glass primary fermenter
  • Condensed wine must
  • 18-inch plastic paddle
  • Herculometer hydrometer
  • Wine thief
  • Test jar
  • FermagraF° adhesive thermometers (2)
  • Lalvin EC-1118 wine yeast
  • Primary fermenter stopper
  • Primary fermenter airlock
  • 1-gallon glass secondary fermenter
  • Miniature auto-siphon and tubing
  • Secondary fermenter cap
  •  Secondary fermenter airlock
  • Potassium metabisulfite
  • Kieselsol
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Chitosan
  • Bottle filler and tubing
  • Corker and corks

The First Step

Photo by Chris Colby

The first step upon opening your wine kit will be to clean and sanitize your equipment thoroughly. This is the least glamorous aspect of winemaking, but one of the most important. You’ll want wine yeast to be the only microorganism growing in your must, so your equipment will need to be sanitary.

Photo by Chris Colby

Once your primary fermenter is ready, you’ll pour in the wine must. Then, rinse the bag with a couple of cups of warm water to get more of the juice into the fermenter. The wine must will be condensed, so even after this rinse, you’ll need to add a little more water to top up the contents to measure 1 gallon. (Some wine kits include flavorings, such as oak powder, that are added at this time.) Once all the additions have been made, stir your must with the plastic paddle to make sure the concentrated juice is fully dissolved.

Photo by Chris Colby

Measuring Density

Next, you’ll take a hydrometer reading. A hydrometer is an instrument that floats in liquid, and the degree to which it sinks into the liquid is a measure of that liquid’s density. Use the sanitized wine thief — a tube-shaped tool used to extract a portion of your liquid from its fermenter — to fill your hydrometer test jar until the hydrometer floats. Look at the hydrometer with your eye at liquid level, and record the number on the scale right at the interface of the liquid and the water.

Photo by Chris Colby

Adding Yeast

Next, you’ll add your yeast. This is as simple as opening the sachet and sprinkling the yeast on top of the must. Before you do this, though, check the temperature of the must — it should be between 72 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo by Chris Colby

Once you’ve added the yeast, just let it float on top of the wine. Close the fermenter, and affix the stopper and airlock. Add enough water to the airlock to lift the floating bubbler, and you’ll have just finished your first day of winemaking! Place the fermenter out of the light somewhere around 72 to 77 degrees, and wait a week. The whole process up to this point will take about 20 minutes.

Racking, Degassing, and Stabilizing … Oh, My!

Photo by Chris Colby

By the next day, you’ll see that the airlock is bubbling — a sign that fermentation has started and carbon dioxide is escaping the fermenter. After a week of fermentation, the rate of bubbling will decrease greatly, and your next active step will be to transfer — or “rack,” in winemaking lingo — the wine to a secondary fermenter. In my case, the secondary fermenter was a 1-gallon jug. The kit I used had an auto-siphon, a device that makes it easy to start a siphon. In a few minutes, the wine was transferred, and I’d placed the cap and airlock on the secondary fermenter. This step left most of the yeast sediment, called the “lees,” behind.

 

Photo by Chris Colby

After another two weeks, you’ll degas the wine, at which point the fermentation should be complete. Racking the wine back to the primary fermenter and stirring the wine vigorously will knock most of the carbon dioxide out of the solution. You’ll notice that the amount of yeast sediment is smaller compared with the first racking.

Photo by Chris Colby

You’ll add the pre-measured dose of potassium metabisulfite powder at this time to suppress contaminating microorganisms. Also, add the liquid sachet of kieselsol; this compound will help clarify the wine. Stir the wine three or four times a day for the next couple of days.

The final major steps before bottling are stabilization and clearing. At this point, you’ll add the pre-measured packets of potassium sorbate and chitosan. Potassium sorbate ensures that the inactive yeast can’t “wake up” and ferment any further. If this happened, your wine could become fizzy. The chitosan is a second fining agent that helps clear the wine.

The kit instructions recommend taking specific gravity readings when you rack to secondary fermentation, when you degas, and before you add the potassium sorbate and chitosan. Make sure the wine thief, test jar, and hydrometer are clean and sanitized if you plan to return the wine sample used for measurements back into the main fermentation.

Bottling

Four weeks after you began, it’ll be bottling time. One gallon of wine will fill five regular-sized (750-milliliter) wine bottles. Clean and sanitize your equipment, and rack the wine one last time to the secondary fermenter, leaving any lees behind. Then, rack the wine to your bottles, and cork them using the corker provided in your wine kit. You can also put the wine in beer bottles and cap them (which would additionally require caps and a capper).

For the first three days after bottling, store the bottles upright. This allows the cork to fully conform to the bottleneck, while pressure in the bottle equalizes. Then, move them to a cool, dry place. If you used natural corks to seal your bottles (see “The Convenience of Cork” at the end of this article to learn more about this material), they should be stored on their sides so the corks don’t dry out, shrink, or crack. The wine will be ready to drink immediately, and will remain in good shape for about a year. Plenty of time to make more batches!

 Advantages of Small-Batch Winemaking

One nice feature of winemaking kits is that they’re designed to be foolproof. But, of course, some people are going to fool with them. Sometimes, for example, people read about winemaking from grapes and notice a few differences compared with kits. They then try to apply what they’ve learned to their kit wines. Unless you’re willing to risk something going wrong, don’t do this. Kit winemaking differs from fresh-grape procedures for a reason: The different starting points for the wine — fresh grapes versus concentrated, prepared wine must — force changes in the downstream procedures. Additionally, wine kits are tested so the procedures give the best results for the average kit user. Changing the procedures without knowing how the kit was engineered is more likely to make the wine worse than better. So, for best results, follow the instructions.

Beyond Small-Scale Kits

If you like the wine you made, there are a variety of types of prepared wine must for small batches that you can attempt next. And, if you really like the wine you made, stepping up to 6-gallon wine kits is an option. Some 6-gallon kits follow almost exactly the same procedures as the small kits. Others are slightly — but only slightly — more complex. With a 6-gallon kit, you’ll get more wine for a comparable amount of effort.

The quality of kit wines has improved drastically since their introduction in the 1970s. They legitimately make good wine. As a kit winemaker, you can still hold your glass up and look at it contemplatively, just like a commercial winemaker would. And if you want to imagine a vineyard or a stack of barrels behind you, go ahead.


Chris Colby is the author of Home Brew Recipe Bible and Methods of Modern Homebrewing, and is a contributing editor for Beer and Wine Journal. He lives with his wife and their cats in Bastrop, Texas. Find him on Twitter @ColbyBrew.


The Convenience of Cork

Photo by Adobe Stock/GDM

Though less popular for modern table wines than they’ve been in the past, we can all recognize cork as a favorite bottle stopper in the wine industry, lending sophistication to any vintage. Even though corks likely only became the preferred bottle stops we know today after Pérignon chose them to seal his Champagne in the 1600s, cork has been in use for thousands of years. Both Horace in his Odes and Pliny in his Natural History recorded the use of corks for sealing vessels; ancient Greeks and Romans also used the substance as floats for fishing nets and sandals, and even as springy and insulated building material for their homes. 

Cork is a natural material derived from the bark of cork oak trees. It’s harvested from living trees after they’re at least 20 years old; over the years, the trees will grow new layers of cork, meaning one tree can be harvested from every decade throughout its life span — which in some cases is up to 200 years! The bark is then cured, treated, and manufactured into whatever’s needed, such as corks. Cork’s natural compressibility is due to its honeycomb-like cell structure, which helps it flex under pressure while providing a leakproof seal. The material is also moisture- and rot-resistant.

Photo by Shutterstock/oneinchpunch

Today, aluminum screw caps and plastic plugs are as popular as ever, and the convenience and low price of these bottle-stop options have reduced the need for cork, especially after consumer fear of “cork taint” and wine spoilage became an issue in the early 21st century. Luckily, because cork oak trees can offset carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the product can be harvested sustainably from living trees, corks may soon see a resurgence in consumer favor. Even the waste products from manufacturing can be repurposed; leftover cork can be turned into agglomerated cork, while cork powder can be used as factory fuel.

Corks are excellent choices for sealing wine made at home, although they require a specialty tool, called a “corker,” in order to be fit into a bottle. To use a corker, you’ll need to buy the right-sized corks, soak them in hot water or steam them, and then load them one by one in the corker. Hand corkers first compress the cork, and then press it into the bottle neck; floor corkers perform both steps in one smooth motion. Hand corkers can be found for roughly $20, while floor corkers can cost upward of $100. (Note that if you plan to use synthetic corks to seal your bottles, you’ll need a floor corker to do the job.) The ideal corker for you is entirely dependent on how many bottles you need sealed, and how quick and simple you want the process to be.

— Haley Casey

Everything you need to make top-notch, cellar-worthy wine at home is included in this Master Vintner Small Batch Wine Making Starter Kit! Combining essential equipment with exclusive techniques (from world-class winemaker Tim Vandergrift), you’ll be able to create a recipe you love in just four weeks! This kit includes recipes from grapes picked at world-class vineyards, the ingredients to yield 1 gallon of wine, and all the tools you’ll need to make it from beginning to end. All you need to do is choose one of the four delicious recipes and have the patience to let it ferment to perfection.

This item is available at our store or by calling 800-978-7464. Mention promo code MFRPAKZ5. Item #9538-9541.

Published on May 18, 2020

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