Make Wine at Home

I’m not really much of a gambling man (unless you count owning a small business). If I were a gambler, though, I’d have a sucker bet to offer anyone foolish enough to take the bait.

During this year’s grape harvest in September and October, home winemakers will be frantically racing in and out of my shop, The Beverage People, in Santa Rosa, Calif. They’ll be buying yeast, acids, and cleaners and either buying or renting larger items such as  crushers, presses, and pumps.

That’s not the bet. The bet is that at least once during the season one of our homebrewing customers will find his interest aroused by all the activity. When he elbows his way to the counter, he’ll ask someone on our staff his version of the following question: “How much harder is it to make wine than to make beer?”

I can’t think of a year when this question hasn’t been asked more than once. Usually it happens several times over, and if I’m the one they ask, they’re always shocked by my response. Beer is much harder to make than wine.

It’s true. There aren’t very many harmful organisms that can thrive in a 12 percent alcohol solution with a pH between 3 and 3.5. On the other hand, beer, with a pH well over 4 and often only 4 or 5 percent (or so) alcohol, is much less stable.

This being so, it’s obvious that beermakers have to be especially rigorous in their sanitation procedures to ensure success. Winemakers routinely get away with shortcuts that would leave serious homebrewers aghast.

All this is not to say winemakers are careless, but there is no homebrewing equivalent to a bunch of people crushing grapes. Boxes and boxes of grapes are poured into the rollers of a stemmer/crusher to break the grape skins and free some of the juice. As the crushed grapes and juice drop down into the bucket below, a series of rotating paddles whisks the large stems (along with most of the extraneous leaves and some of the bees and spiders present) out the end of the stemming device and away from the wine-to-be, which is now called “must.” Also, there is no winemaking equivalent to a homebrewer toiling over a boiling pot of wort, balancing the specialty grain mix and timing hop additions.

Testing the Grapes

As soon as the grapes have been crushed (at the supply shop or with a rented or purchased crusher/stem remover), the must is subjected to two simple but very important tests to determine the sugar and acid levels.  Alcohol and low pH (acidity) are the two main components that give wine relative stability. Under ideal conditions nature does it all for you, and nothing needs to be added. Of course home winemakers can add either sugar or acid to make up for deficiencies.

Homebrewers will be familiar with the test for sugar. It’s the same hydrometer (saccharometer) test they do with beer. The only difference is that most homebrewers refer to the specific gravity scale, whereas most winemakers use a different scale of sugar measurement, known as the brix or balling scale. Most hydrometers purchased at home winemaking and brewing-supply shops include both scales.

The test for acid will be new to many brewers. It’s a test for total acidity (TA) rather than pH. Without getting too technical, one could say that testing for TA measures a wine’s tartness. On the other hand pH gives a more reliable measurement of the actual stability of a wine (or juice). In most cases there will be a relationship between tartness and stability, so the simpler TA test can be used. Theoretically, you can have a discrepancy between pH and TA if an unstable acid (such as vinegar) is contributing a significant amount of tartness, but that’s very unlikely if sound winemaking procedures are being followed. There are advantages to knowing both TA and pH, but in most situations TA will suffice.

The TA test is essentially the first procedure you probably saw demonstrated in your high school chemistry lab. It’s a simple titration, in which you take a measured sample of an acid solution (the juice or wine), add a few drops of color indicator, and begin slowly adding measured amounts of an alkaline solution. When the sample is neutralized, a color change takes place. The amount of alkali it took to neutralize the sample tells you how much acid there was to neutralize. A number of relatively inexpensive acid- testing kits are on the market.

A Pinch of Sulfite

If your tests show that more sugar or acid is needed, it is best to add them at this point. Then the must is “sulfited” to retard the wild yeast present on the grape skins. Retarding wild yeast allows you to add the right strain of yeast to get the effects you’re looking for in a particular wine.

Sulfite, usually added in the form of Campden tablets, produces the same spoilage-retarding gas you’d get by burning sulfur in your barrels or other wine containers. Sulfur burning is a practice that dates at least to the Romans. Sulfiting the wine directly, rather than burning sulfur in containers, allows you to measure the amount of gas more exactly. The gas is quite volatile, and after delivering a quick “hit” to the must, much of the sulfite gas disperses within a few hours.

Besides its volatility two things make sulfite work particularly well at removing wild yeast. First, true wine yeast strains are relatively sulfur tolerant compared with many other micro-organisms. That allows a winemaker to weaken the competition with sulfite, giving his yeast a head start. Second is its function as an antioxidant.

What happens next is determined by whether you’re making a red wine or a white.

Color Coordination

In the case of red wine, the crushed grapes can be left in food-grade plastic buckets. Yeast is added, and the wine is allowed to ferment “on the skins” for at least four or five days (until good color is obtained) and perhaps all the way to the end of fermentation, which usually takes one to two weeks.

When fermentation begins the skins will rise to the top, forming a solid layer called a “cap.” You need to punch them back down into the fermenting wine twice a day. You may use your hands to punch the cap. A clean two-by-four works well also.

Once you decide your wine has had enough skin time, press the grapes to free any juice still trapped in the skins. The wine is set aside to finish fermentation and begin the aging process, either in barrels or in glass and stainless steel closed containers under a fermentation lock. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is racked (pumped or siphoned away from the sediment). This process is repeated a month later and several more times before the wine is ready to be bottled. Small amounts of sulfite are added at each racking.

At some point the wine is fined by adding a clarifying agent. These agents combine with tiny particles and facilitate settling. The most common agent used by home winemakers is a proprietary product called Sparkolloid, though a number of others may be used. Some winemakers go on to filter their wines, but that is optional.

With red wines bottling normally takes place nearly a full year after the grapes are crushed. You usually allow the wine to remain in bulk storage until you need the fermentation and storage containers for the coming year’s wine. People who have both the room and the storage capacity will often let the wine stay in storage for a second year before bottling.

White Wines

White wines are treated a little differently. First, the grapes are pressed prior to fermentation, and from then on you only work with the juice or wine itself. The juice is allowed to stand for a day, and then the clear juice is racked away from the sludge that settles to the bottom.

The juice is collected in oak, glass, or stainless steel closed containers filled no more than three-quarters full. Yeast is added, and fermentation is allowed to proceed under a fermentation lock. It is particularly important for white wines to be fermented under cool conditions. If the temperature can be kept under 70º F during fermentation, the wine’s aromatic qualities will be significantly improved.

Aging, racking, and fining take place pretty much the same way for white wines as for reds but with some exceptions.

First, most of the lighter, fruitier white wines are ready to be bottled in spring.

Second, white wines are much more sensitive to oxidation than red wines, and that requires some additional care in processing. A little splashing during the racking of a red wine is not likely to do any harm. With white wines, however, all splashing should be avoided. Hoses must always extend to the bottom of the container being filled. If pumping, you should select a pump that will cause the least possible aeration of the wine.

Bottling Time

At bottling time the wine is carefully removed from the settlings one last time and moved to a container that will serve as a bottling tank. The wine is given one last dose of sulfite. Also, if you feel a wine requires sweetening, that can be done to taste now using a simple sugar syrup (two parts household sugar boiled with one part water).

If sweetening a wine, you need to make sure it doesn’t referment in the bottle. That is accomplished by adding sulfite to weaken any remaining yeast and also using a yeast killer (potassium sorbate) to finish the job.

The wine is then siphoned into the bottles using a filler that extends to the bottom of the bottle so there will be as little splashing as possible. When the bottles are filled, put in the corks.

Corking wine bottles requires a special tool. The seal on a wine bottle is created by a cork that is too big to go in the bottle neck. The corking tool compresses the cork to make it fit and simultaneously pushes it into place.

The reason for using a compressed cork is to keep all the wine from leaking out when the bottle is stored on its side. The reason for storing the bottle on its side is to keep the cork moist, which helps keep the wine sound in storage.

Some wines will be ready to consume within three months of bottling. Others would be best left alone for another year or so. Lay the bottles in your cellar, and sample one now and again. You’ll know when it’s ready to serve.

Wine grapes are now being grown in a number of states. In other states California grapes are shipped in at harvest time. If a major city near you has a large Italian or Portuguese community, try asking around.

Another option is making wine from frozen grapes. Brehm Vineyards, a company in Albany, Calif., freezes and ships premium must (reds) and juice (whites). Wines made from good-quality frozen grapes can be outstanding.

Wine’s romantic imagery — not to mention its sacramental significance — tends to make it seem more mysterious than it needs to be. Making wine is not something we need to fear. It’s actually fun, especially when you get a group of people together, and just as with beer, learning to make wine can teach us more about wine than can be learned any other way.

How to Make (Red) Wine

Step by Step

1. Crush and de-stem grapes.
2. Test the must for sugar content. Correct if needed.
3. Test the must for acidity. Correct as needed.
4. Sulfite the must according to the condition of the grapes.
5. Add yeast.
6. Stir the must twice a day until fermentation begins.
7. Punch the skins down into the liquid twice a day during fermentation.
8. Inoculate with malolactic bacteria halfway through fermentation.
9. Press out the wine after the desired color has been reached.
10. At the end of fermentation, rack the wine from the lees, and store in a topped up container.
11. Repeat step 10 a month later, and at least three or four more times throughout the year.
12. During one of the rackings, fine with a clarifying agent.
13. Shortly before the next grape harvest in September or October, siphon into bottles and cork them.
14. Store in a cool place until ready to serve.

For white wine, press the wine (step 9) after step 4 and discard the skins. The juice stands for a day and is then racked away from the lees. Skip step 7. Bottling (step 13) can take place as early as March.

Issue: September 1997