Have you ever tried making wine at home?
Once upon a time, I don’t remember where I read something like this: “Making wine at home is a fascinating journey, transforming grapes into a complex and aromatic energy that keeps the secrets of nature and shares these secrets with those who are able to hear them.”
I recently moved into a house whose entire yard was planted with grapes. There were so many grapes that the first thing that came to my mind was: I want to make my own wine. And then I remembered the above-mentioned phrase. The thought that I would make wine at home and that nature would share its secrets with me finally haunted me.
I tried watching YouTube but didn’t find anything worth watching there. What struck me most was one video about “home winemaking.” The man filled a plastic barrel with grape juice bought somewhere and poured yeast and sugar into it. That’s it, your homemade wine is ready!
I realized that things wouldn’t work that way. For several days I read everything I could get my hands on about how to make wine at home without any professional tools and skills. A couple of times I had a timid thought “Is it really worth doing this?” but it quietly disappeared somewhere.
I have long known that the best way (for me) to learn something is to read textbooks and articles, and take notes. Well, I’m sharing them with you now.
Perhaps something came out crumpled and illegible but this is just a summary of my clumsy notes and does not pretend to be a scientific article.
Oh, and one more thing: winemakers, please do not read this!
So What Does the Process of Wine-Making Even Look Like?
From the vineyard to the cellar, each step in the winemaking process plays a crucial role in shaping the final product. Here I’ll tell you what I learned.
- Vineyard Management. Winemaking begins in the vineyard, where careful attention is given to cultivating healthy grapevines. Vineyard management involves tasks such as pruning, canopy management, irrigation, and pest control. Grape varieties are carefully selected based on the desired style of wine and the characteristics of the terroir, including soil composition, climate, and sun exposure. The quality of the grapes is fundamental to producing exceptional wines. So you can be sure that mistakes made when growing grapes cannot be fixed by any tricks in the subsequent stages of wine production.
- Harvesting. Harvest time is a critical decision for winemakers, as it determines the grapes’ ripeness and sugar levels. Grapes can be harvested manually or mechanically, depending on the vineyard and the desired level of precision. Grapes are typically harvested for still wines when their sugar levels, acidity, and flavor profiles are optimal. For sparkling wines, grapes may be harvested earlier to retain higher acidity. Actually, it’s magic. Experienced winemakers (although it would be more correct to say “wizards”) determine the degree of ripeness and the right moment for harvest simply by looking at the grapes. On harvest day they already know what the wine will be like.
- Crushing and Pressing. Once harvested, the grapes are transported to the winery and processed. For red wines, the grapes are usually destemmed and crushed, and then the mixture of juice, skins, seeds, and sometimes stems (depending on the winemaker’s preference) is fermented together. For white wines, the grapes are typically pressed, separating the juice from the skins and other solids before fermentation. This is the key difference between red and white wines: to get red wine, crushed grapes must lie for one to several weeks, giving up all their essence to the juice.
- Fermentation. Fermentation is a crucial step in winemaking, during which the grape juice is transformed into wine. Yeast consumes the sugars in the juice and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation can occur in stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or other fermentation vessels, depending on the winemaker’s desired style. Red wines undergo extended maceration, where the juice remains in contact with the grape skins for an extended period to extract color, tannins, and flavors.
- Aging and Maturation. After fermentation, the wine is aged to develop complexity and character. Aging can occur in various vessels, such as oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, and the duration varies depending on the style of wine. Oak barrels contribute flavors, aromas, and texture to the wine. Some wines undergo malolactic fermentation, a process that converts tart malic acid into softer lactic acid, contributing to a smoother mouthfeel. Malic acid is a dicarboxylic acid that is made by all living organisms and contributes to the sour taste of fruits. The word ‘malic’ is derived from the Latin ‘mālum’, meaning ‘apple’. Lactic acid is an organic acid that plays a crucial role in winemaking, particularly in the process of malolactic fermentation (MLF).
- Blending (if applicable). In some cases, winemakers choose to create blends by combining different batches of wine to achieve a desired flavor profile or consistency. Blending can occur within a single vintage or across multiple vintages. This step allows winemakers to showcase their creativity and create harmonious and balanced wines. For example, popular all over the world Bordeaux blend is the result of mixing Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
- Filtration and Clarification. Before bottling, wines are often filtered and clarified to remove any remaining solids, yeast, or sediment. This process ensures the wine’s stability and clarity, reducing the risk of spoilage or cloudiness in the bottle. Some winemakers choose to fine the wine using various agents to further clarify and refine it. Recently, natural wines have come into fashion. So, natural wine producers do not clarify wines. They don’t even filter them.
- Bottling and Aging. The final step in the winemaking process is bottling. The wine is transferred into bottles, sealed with corks or alternative closures, and labeled. Depending on the wine style, some wines may benefit from additional aging in the bottle to further develop complexity and integrate flavors before they are released to the market.
It was all about how real winemakers make real wines. Of course, winemaking techniques can vary depending on the winemaker’s preferences, grape variety, and desired style of wine. Each winemaker’s unique approach adds nuance and character to the final product.
How to Make Wine at Home?
Of course, we will talk about how to make wine from your grapes, and not from a bag of instant drink powder.
So, here are the basic steps of making wine from your homegrown grapes:
Harvesting: We only collect ripe grapes. This usually happens in early autumn. Let it be quite ripe, even slightly overripe. The worst thing that can happen is that your wine will not be dry, but semi-dry or semi-sweet. But in this case, you don’t have to experiment with yeast and add all sorts of chemical crap to the juice for fermentation. There is no need to wash the grapes! The skin of the berries is covered with pollen, which contains natural yeast.
Crush: Crush the grapes to release the juice. You can use a blender, a potato masher, or a special grape crusher. Just don’t crush grapes in the bath with your dirty feet! Of course, it can be fun to play medieval peasants, but you will have to drink this wine, and maybe even treat your friends!
Fermentation: Transfer crushed grapes (including skins) to a fermentation container, such as a food-grade plastic or glass container. If fermentation does not start on its own, you will still have to add wine yeast (you can buy it at any farm store). Cover with a cloth or lid with an air seal to allow gases to escape. Leave to ferment for about a week, stirring daily.
Pressing: After fermentation, use a wine press or sieve to separate the liquid (must) from the solid grape material (marc).
Transfer: pour your future wine into a clean container, leaving sediment at the bottom. Repeat this process several times over several months to clear the liquid.
Maturing: Store wine in a cool, dark place. The duration depends on the type of wine you are making. Red wines often require longer aging than white wines.
Bottling: Once your wine has aged to your liking, it’s time to bottle it. Use clean, sterilized bottles and stoppers or screw caps. How to sterilize? Just wash them with boiling water several times. Well, of course, all working surfaces in the room must be washed and treated with disinfectants.
Labeling: Create labels for bottles of homemade wine, indicating the type of wine, vintage, and any other relevant information. You can even draw something cool in neural networks and print stickers on a color printer, why not?
Enjoy: Let your homemade wine sit in the bottle for a few more months or years. You can open new bottles every month or every two months, marveling at how the taste of the same wine changes (hopefully for the better).
Well, it’s all a perfect picture. In fact, making wine at home can be a much more involved process, and you’ll need more than these basic steps.
Along the way, you’ll need to monitor temperature, acidity, and other factors. Yes, and while stirring the yeast in warm water, think about the fact that you are creating a new life, and you are now responsible for it. Avoid sudden temperature changes, this can kill your invisible pets!
Okay, let’s get serious.
What Else Do You Need to Know When Making Wine at Home?
Here you will find answers to some questions you may have.
How should I macerate the must to get very saturated wine?
- Select quality grapes: Start with high-quality red grapes. The grape variety and quality will significantly impact the final wine. Well, I can’t influence this: what has grown has grown…
- Crush the grapes and adjust pH and acidity: Test the pH and acidity of the must and make necessary adjustments. Most red wines benefit from a pH of around 3.4-3.6. To measure total acidity you will need a titration kit, which typically includes a burette, a known volume of a sodium hydroxide (NaOH) solution, and an indicator (e.g., phenolphthalein). Cool, yeah?
- Control temperature: Maintain a controlled temperature during maceration. For red wines, this is typically between 70-85°F (21-30°C).
- Choose maceration time: The duration of maceration depends on the style of wine you want. For a saturated, deeply colored wine, you can macerate for 1-2 weeks or even longer. I macerated for three weeks. A few months is even better if you have enough patience.
- Punch downs/pump overs: During maceration, regularly punch down the cap (skins, seeds, and pulp) into the must or perform pump-overs to ensure good contact between the juice and solids. This helps extract color, flavor, and tannins. Do this 3-5 times a day.
- Monitor fermentation: Keep an eye on the fermentation process. Depending on the sugar content of the must, you may need to inoculate with wine yeast to start fermentation.
- Pressing: After maceration, press the solids to extract the remaining juice. This juice is often referred to as “free-run” or “press-run.”
- Maturing, filtration, bottling: Well, there’s nothing new here.
The exact process may vary based on the type of grapes, your equipment, and the style of wine you want to produce. Again: it’s essential to maintain hygiene and cleanliness throughout the winemaking process to avoid spoilage or off-flavors.
How to measure if the fermentation process is good?
To measure if the fermentation process of your wine is progressing well, you can use several methods and tools to monitor its various parameters. Here are some key indicators to consider:
Hydrometer Reading: A hydrometer measures the specific gravity or sugar content of your wine. Take initial and subsequent readings to track the drop in specific gravity. A steady decline indicates that fermentation is converting sugars into alcohol.
Temperature: Monitor the temperature of the fermenting wine. Different yeast strains have ideal temperature ranges, and maintaining the correct temperature helps ensure a healthy fermentation. Sudden temperature fluctuations can stress the yeast.
Visual Observation: Regularly inspect the fermentation vessel. You should see bubbles rising through the wine, indicating the release of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation. Additionally, observe the color and clarity of the wine. Murky or off-colored wine can be a sign of issues.
Aroma: Smell the wine during fermentation. You should notice a pleasant, fruity aroma. Unusual or unpleasant odors, like sulfur or vinegar-like smells, can indicate fermentation problems.
Taste Testing: Periodically taste a small sample of the wine. Initially, it will be sweet, but as fermentation progresses, it should become drier. A balanced taste without off-flavors is a good sign.
pH and Acidity: Measure the pH and acidity levels of the wine. These values should remain within an acceptable range. Extreme pH changes can indicate issues with fermentation.
Bubbling Activity: The rate of bubbles in the airlock can give you an idea of the fermentation’s activity. It may start vigorous and slow down as fermentation nears completion.
Yeast Sediment: As fermentation progresses, yeast sediment will settle at the bottom of the vessel. This is normal. If fermentation stops prematurely, there may be less sediment.
Time: Follow the expected timeline for fermentation based on the type of wine and yeast strain you’re using. Patience is essential, as some fermentations can take several weeks or even months.
Chemical Tests: In advanced winemaking, you can perform chemical tests such as titratable acidity, malic acid levels, and volatile acidity to ensure the wine’s quality.
Each wine may have its unique fermentation characteristics, and some wines may ferment more slowly or quickly than others. Write everything down! It’s crucial to document your observations and measurements throughout the process to track any deviations or issues.
If you notice any signs of stuck fermentation or off-flavors, consider consulting with an experienced winemaker. Well, Google, ChatGPT, whatever else…
Can I mix fermented must with freshly crushed grapes? What would be the result?
Mixing fermented wine (must) with freshly crushed grapes is a winemaking technique known as “bleeding” or “saignée.” This process involves draining off a portion of the juice from a fermenting tank of red grapes and replacing it with freshly crushed grapes. The result can vary depending on several factors:
Color Intensity: One of the primary reasons for using this method is to increase the color intensity of the wine. The longer the juice remains in contact with the grape skins during fermentation, the deeper the color of the wine. By replacing some of the juice with fresh grapes, you can intensify the color of the remaining wine in the tank.
Flavor Concentration: Saignée can also impact the flavor concentration. The removed juice will typically have a lighter flavor profile compared to the juice in contact with the skins. By removing some of the juice and replacing it, you can increase the concentration of flavors in the wine.
Tannin Levels: The tannin levels in the wine can be affected. The juice in contact with the skins will extract tannins, so replacing it with fresh juice may result in a wine with slightly lower tannin levels.
Aroma and Complexity: Saignée can influence the aroma and complexity of the wine. It may lead to a more complex and layered wine profile due to the combination of juice from different stages of fermentation.
Alcohol Content: Depending on when you perform the saignée and the sugar content of the fresh grapes you add, it may impact the alcohol content of the wine.
Wine Style: The exact outcome will depend on the timing, proportions, and grape varieties involved. It can result in a wine with different characteristics than if you had allowed the original fermentation to proceed without interruption.
It’s worth noting that saignée is a technique often associated with rosé wine production, where a portion of the juice from red grape fermentation is bled off to create a rosé wine. However, it can also be used in the production of red wines to achieve specific flavor and color profiles.
What if I don’t have a wine grape variety? Can I make wine from table grapes?
Yes, you can make wine from table grape varieties, but it’s essential to understand that table grapes and wine grapes are distinct types of grapes. Table grapes are primarily cultivated for eating fresh, while wine grapes are specifically grown for winemaking due to their different characteristics. Table grapes will not make such great wine as wine grapes because they do not have the ratio of skin, seeds, and pulp needed for creating the right wine structure.
Therefore, if you decide to make wine at home from table grapes, consider the following:
Flavor Profile: Table grapes are often chosen for their sweetness and pleasant, fruity flavors when eaten fresh. While these grapes can be used to make wine, the resulting wine may have a different flavor profile compared to wines made from traditional wine grape varieties.
Acidity: Wine grapes typically have higher acidity levels, which are essential for balance and aging potential in wine. Table grapes may lack the acidity needed for well-balanced wine, so you may need to adjust the acidity during winemaking. It’s clear that you can’t (and won’t want to) do this yourself, so relax! It’s just a hobby, right?
Tannins: Red wine grape varieties used for winemaking contain tannins, which contribute to structure and aging ability. Table grapes may have lower tannin levels, which can affect the mouthfeel and aging potential of the wine.
Sugar Levels: Depending on the table grape variety, sugar levels can vary. High sugar content can result in a sweet wine, while lower sugar levels can lead to a drier wine. You can adjust the sugar content as needed. That is, as far as I understand, this parameter does not depend on whether the grapes are wine or table grapes.
Yield: Table grapes may have different yields compared to wine grapes. You may need more table grapes to produce the desired volume of wine. However, this is also not a problem: we make wine at home not because we want to save money.
Fermentation: The fermentation process for table grapes is similar to that for wine grapes. You’ll need to crush the grapes, ferment the juice with suitable wine yeast, monitor the fermentation process, and follow standard winemaking practices.
Thus, it is quite possible to make wine at home from table grapes and without professional equipment. Just don’t expect too bright a taste and a fantastic bouquet from it. However, making this wine can be a creative and enjoyable endeavor, allowing you to explore different flavors and styles.
But in general, winemaking is a labor-intensive and intricate process that requires not only a passion for the craft but also deep knowledge and honed skills. So, the next time you savor a glass of wine, take a moment to appreciate the artistry and dedication that went into creating that delightful drink.
Winemakers, are you still here?! Okay, you can laugh if you want!