Basic Winemaking Equipment
Here’s everything you need to make your first one-gallon batch of wine from fresh grapes. You can find this equipment at any well-stocked homebrewing or home winemaking supply store.
- Large nylon straining bag (boil bag)
- Food-grade pail with lid
- (2 to 4 gallons)
- Acid titration kit
- Clear, flexible half-inch diameter plastic tubing
- Two one-gallon glass jugs
- Fermentation lock and bung
- Five 750-ml wine bottles
- Hand corker
Nothing feels as satisfying and authentic as making your first batch of wine from fresh grapes. And there’s no better time to try it than September, when grapes all over the country are ripening in commercial vineyards and backyard gardens.
There are many kinds of grapes to choose from, depending on where you live. Vitis vinifera is the classic choice for flavor, varietal character and historic authenticity. This famous wine-grape family includes such renowned varieties as Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the United States, v. vinifera grapes thrive in California and the Pacific North-west, but they also grow in micro-climates ranging from New York to the Great Lakes and beyond. If you can’t find v. vinifera grapes, hybrids and Vitis labrusca grapes may grow near your home.
You can also order grapes through some winemaking shops or from a vineyard that ships fresh fruit. Wild Rose Vineyards in Lodi, California recently launched a direct-mail program for home winemakers. A 45-pound box of grapes costs about $50, including shipping (call 877-339-0102).
Whatever grapes you use, the basic techniques, equipment and ingredients are the same. Here’s an overview explaining some key steps we’ll take along the way.
Inspecting the Fruit
Make sure your grapes are ripe by squishing up a double handful, straining the juice and measuring the sugar level with a hydrometer, a handy device you can buy at a supply shop. The sugar density should be around 24° Brix (1.098 SG) and the fruit should taste sweet and slightly tart. The grapes must be clean, sound and relatively free of insects and other debris. Remove the stems; they could make your wine bitter.
Keeping it Clean
Winemaking demands a sanitary environment. Wash all of your equipment thoroughly with hot water, boiling what you can. Arm yourself with a strong sulfite solution for rinsing any equipment that comes in contact with your wine (add 3 tablespoons of sulfite powder to a gallon of water and mix together well).
Adjusting the Juice
Adjusting the juice or “must” of your wine is critical. Acid content is measured with a simple titration kit; you can buy one at a supply shop.
The ideal acid level to shoot for is 6 to 7 grams per liter for dry reds and 6.5 to 7.5 grams per liter for dry whites.
Here’s an example: If your must measures 5.5 grams per liter, then you need to add 1 gram per liter of tartaric acid to bring it up to 6.5 g/L. Since 0.2642 gallons equals 1 liter, 1 g/L is equivalent to adding 3.8 grams of tartaric acid to your one-gallon batch. Add this powder in 1/8-teaspoon intervals until the desired acidity is reached.
You also need to monitor the sugar level with your hydrometer. The must should be about 22° Brix for both reds and whites. To bring the concentration up, make a sugar syrup by dissolving one cup sugar into 1/3 cup of water. Bring to a boil in a saucepan and immediately remove from heat. Cool before adding to must in small amounts, one tablespoon at a time, until desired degrees Brix and specific gravity is reached. To lower the sugar level, simply dilute your must or juice with water.
The temperature of your must can also be adjusted to provide the perfect environment for yeast cells. Warming up the juice gently is an easy way to bring it to pitching temperature without damaging the quality of the wine. Fermentation can sometimes reach into the 80° to 90° F range, though the 70° F range is about standard.
If your grapes are cold, use this unorthodox but quick trick: Heat up a small portion of the juice in the microwave, mix it back into the
fermentation pail and re-test the temperature. An electric blanket wrapped around the fermentation pail also works, but takes longer. For cooling, add a re-usable ice pack to your pail and stir it around for a few minutes. Pitch the yeast when the temperature reaches 70° to 75° F for reds and 55° to 65° F for whites.
Racking the Wine
As in homebrewing, racking means transferring the fermenting wine away from the sediment. Insert a clear, half-inch plastic hose into the fermenter and siphon the clear wine into another sanitized jug. Then top it off and fit with a sanitized bung and fermentation lock. This is a delicate operation and it’s important to go slowly. Avoid stirring up the sediment, but don’t lose your siphon suction.
Bottling the Batch
Bottling seems like a complex process, but it’s really not. To bottle your wine, you simply siphon your finished product into the bottles (leaving about 2 inches of headspace under the rim), insert a cork into the hand corker, position the bottle under the corker and pull the lever. It’s wise to buy some extra corks and practice with an empty bottle before you do it for real.
Wine bottles can be purchased at home winemaking stores, or you can wash and recycle your own. Supply stores also rent hand-corkers and sell corks. You should only buy corks that are tightly sealed in plastic bags because exposure to dust, air and microbes can spoil your wine. Corks can be sterilized just before bottling, with hot water and a teaspoon of sulfite crystals.
A one-gallon batch will yield about five 750-ml bottles of wine. If the fifth bottle isn’t quite full, then either drink that bottle or use smaller bottles to keep the wine. It’s key to have full containers.
Now you’re ready to make your first batch of fresh-grape wine. Below you’ll find step-by-step recipes for a dry red table wine and a dry white table wine. Both recipes have similar steps and techniques, with one important difference. Red wines are fermented with the grape skins, seeds and pulp in the pail; the solids are pressed after fermentation. White wines are pressed before fermentation, so only the juice remains.
Dry Red Table Wine
- 18 lbs. ripe red grapes
- 1 campden tablet or 1 tsp sulfite crystals
- Tartaric acid, if necessary
- Table sugar, if necessary
- 1 packet wine yeast (like Prise de Mousse or Montrachet)
- Harvest grapes once they have reached 22 percent sugar (that’s 22° Brix or 1.0982 SG).
- Sanitize all equipment. Place the grape clusters into the nylon straining bag and deposit the bag into the bottom of the pail. Use clean hands or a sanitized tool like a potato masher, to firmly crush the grapes inside the bag. Crush the campden tablet (or measure out 1 teaspoon of sulfite crystals) and sprinkle over the must in the bag.
- Measure the temperature of the must. It should be between 70° and 75 ° F. Take a sample of the juice and measure the acid with your titration kit. If it’s not between 0.60 to 0.7 grams per liter then adjust with tartaric acid.
- Check the degrees Brix or specific gravity of the must. If it isn’t around 22° Brix (1.0982 SG), add a little bit of sugar dissolved in water.
- Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm (80° to 90° F) water and let stand until bubbly (approximately 10 minutes). When it’s bubbling, pour yeast solution on must inside the nylon bag. Agitate bag up and down a few times to mix yeast. Cover pail with cheesecloth, set in a warm (65° to 75° F) area and check that fermentation has begun in at least 24 hours. Monitor fermentation and temperature regularly. Keep the skins under the juice at all times and mix twice daily.
- Once the must has reached “dryness” (0.5° Brix or 0.998 SG), lift the nylon straining bag out of the pail and squeeze any remaining liquid into the pail.
- Cover the pail loosely and let the wine settle for 24 hours. Rack off the sediment into a sanitized one-gallon jug, topping up with a little dry red wine to fill the container. Fit with a sanitized bung and fermentation lock. Keep the container topped with grape juice or any dry red wine of a similar style. After 10 days, rack the wine into another sanitized one-gallon jug. Top up with wine again.
- After six months, siphon the clarified wine into clean, sanitized bottles and cork.
- Store bottles in cool, dark place. Wait at least six months before drinking.
Dry White Table Wine
- 18 lbs. ripe white grapes
- 1 campden tablet or 1 tsp.sulfite crystals
- Tartaric acid, if necessary
- Table sugar, if necessary
- 1 packet wine yeast (like Champagne or Montrachet)
- Harvest grapes once they have reached 22 percent sugar (that’s 22 degrees Brix or 1.0982 SG). Inspect and remove any moldy clusters, insects, leaves or stems.
- Place grapes into the nylon straining bag and put into the bottom of the pail. Using very clean hands or a sanitized tool like a potato masher, firmly crush up the grapes inside the bag.
- Crush the campden tablet (or measure out one teaspoon of sulfite crystals) and sprinkle over the crushed fruit in the bag. Cover pail and bag with cheesecloth and let sit for one hour.
- Lift the nylon straining bag out of the pail. Wring to extract as much juice as possible. You should have about one gallon of juice in the pail.
- Measure the temperature of the juice. It should be between 55° to 65° F. Adjust temperature as necessary. Take a sample of the juice and measure the acid level. If it’s not between 0.65 to 0.75 g/L then adjust with tartaric acid.
- Check the degrees Brix or specific gravity of the juice. If it isn’t around 22° Brix (1.0982 SG) then adjust accordingly.
- Dissolve the packet of yeast in 1/2-cup warm (80° to 90° F) water and let stand until bubbly. When it’s bubbling, pour yeast solution into the juice. Cover pail with cheesecloth, set in a cool (55° to 65° F) area and check that fermentation has begun in at least 24 hours. Monitor fermentation progression and temperature at least once daily.
- Once the must reaches “dryness” (at least 0.5 degrees Brix or 0.998 SG), move pail to a cool place (below 65 ° F if possible), cover the pail loosely and let the settle for 24 hours. Rack the wine off the sediment into a sanitized one-gallon jug, topping up with dry white wine. Fit with a sanitized bung and fermentation lock. Keep the container topped with white wine. For the sake of sanitation, be sure the fermentation lock always has sulfite solution in it. After 10 days, rack the wine into another sanitized one-gallon jug. Top up with wine. (For ideal white wine fermentation temperatures, store in cool cellar or temperature-controlled refrigerator).
- After three months, siphon the clarified wine off the sediment and into clean, sanitized bottles and cork with hand-corker.
- Store in cool, dark place. Wait three months before drinking.
Alison Crowe is a professional enologist at the Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California and a graduate of the University of California at Davis.