For some wine lovers -- also known as oenophiles -- it's not enough to simply experience all the varied vintages that the world has to offer. Instead, they study the agricultural, chemical and artistic skills that go into turning a few hillside vines into arguably the most revered beverage known to man.
Making wine is ultimately a simple chemical process, using the natural process of fermentation to turn fruit juice into alcohol. Yet while any backyard vintner can turn grapes into booze, only a few can craft a truly good bottle of wine. The process is part lab experiment, part culinary art. Given the time it takes for even professional wineries to master their craft, the process often seems nothing short of alchemy.
As long as you realize you're probably not going to set the wine world on fire with your results, making wine at home can be a rewarding experience. In addition to learning more about the journey between vineyard and glass, home winemaking can provide you with some excellent holiday gift-giving options.
But don't just run with the first wine kit or Internet recipe. In this article, we'll look at a few crucial winemaking tips for new vintners.
Use Clean Equipment
In the worlds of myth and legend, the Roman god of wine Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks) oversaw more than his share of wild feasts and parties. Wine was consumed by the bowlful, laughter reigned and satyrs danced about with the drunken revelers.
Based in these accounts, Bacchus probably left quite a wreck in his wake. Yet, if he was at all up to the beverage he championed, he should have recognized the importance of cleanliness. Winemaking is a delicate process, requiring the careful sterilization of any jugs and hoses that will encounter the wine or juice.
Most home wine kits and recipes suggest using a potassium metabisulphite solution to sterilize the equipment, followed by a rinse of cold water before use. The reason for these measures goes beyond mere germ precautions. Fermentation is a precise biological process in which yeast changes sugar into alcohol. Bacteria or chemical contamination can disrupt this process, resulting in wines that only a sink drain can drink.
If you've spent much time in the kitchen, you probably know that while cooking is an art, baking tends to be more of a science. A number of chemical reactions take place inside the oven and, with the wrong proportions or a little deviation in cooking time, you can wind up with rather liquid pies and deflated soufflés.
Making wine is no different. It's very important to stick to the directions supplied in your winemaking kit or recipe, especially if you're a beginner. A quick Internet search will yield a long list of ingredients that home winemakers can add to tweak their wine: enzymes, nutrients and a host of chemicals. However, throwing everything in won't guarantee better results. In fact, too much uninformed tinkering is a great way to produce a thoroughly undrinkable vintage.
As with most endeavors, there will be time enough for innovation later on once you have the basics down. In addition, the more you do to your wine, the better it is that you understand the science behind what you're doing. As the old saying goes, you have to learn how to crawl before you learn how to walk.
Start with Concentrate
The exact directions for a good, homemade bottle of wine vary among the different kits and recipes out there, but many sources heavily emphasize keeping the process simple for beginners. The less complicated the journey, the more likely you are to reach a satisfactory (and drinkable) destination.
The winemaking process centers on fermenting fruit juice. While the prospect of crushing your own grapes may seem more romantic, it brings with it a greater risk of introducing undesired microorganisms through bruised or partially rotten fruit. To simplify this process, you can use grape juice or concentrate. Both of these products are available in forms specially designed for home winemaking efforts.
Concentrates are the best option for first-time winemakers. A variety are available and can be purchased year-round, unlike some winemaking juices. The principle behind the product is much like the concentrate you find at the grocery store. It's simply juice that's been boiled to remove a high percentage of the water. The downside to concentrate is that it's often made from lower quality juices and, as with using juices, you might have to use additives to make up for the lack of grape skins.
Test, Taste and Don't Lose Hope
When attempting to turn a lump of frozen concentrate into a fine bottle of red, it pays to follow directions. Yet while your winemaking efforts need to stay within certain chemical parameters, it doesn't mean you have to check your taste buds and reasoning at the door.
You may be required to perform acidity tests during winemaking, in addition to using a hydrometer to determine how much sugar is left in the juice. Plus, there's nothing wrong with actually tasting the juice as it progresses through the process. Just make sure to use a sanitized wine thief, a kind of large medicine dropper for snagging a sample from the carboy, the container in which the fermentation takes place. In addition to providing you with a more palpable sense of what's going on throughout the process, it can give you an idea of how much sugar has yet to ferment.
Patience is also an excellent tool for first-time winemakers. As with all first-time efforts, there's always a chance that you won't get the results you dreamed about. If your wine's bouquet is a tad violent or you're tempted to name it after one of the rivers in hell, you can always learn from the experience and try again next time. Plus, just because your instructions state that the wine will be ready to drink in six weeks, doesn't mean it won't benefit from a longer wait. Let it sit a little longer and taste along the way.
Know Your Additives
In turning fruit, juice or concentrate into your own basement-brewed merlot, you'll need the help of yeast and sugar. While these basic elements can yield a perfectly drinkable carboy of wine, many prefer to throw in a number of other ingredients to improve the color, odor and flavor.
Fining agents such as bentonite, gelatin and egg whites can help clarify the wine. Potassium metabisulfite helps by adding antioxidants and killing bacteria. Other additive mixtures help make up for the lack of grape skins in concentrate and juice, providing pigments and flavor.
However, as with everything else in the winemaking process, make sure you use the correct proportions. Some first-time winemakers also mistakenly use sodium metabisulfite instead of potassium metabisulfite, resulting in a very salty-tasting wine.
With these winemaking tips in mind, you're one step closer to enjoying that first glass of merlot or whatever you choose to brew.
Explore the links on the next page and learn even more about how to love wine.
How much does the shape of your wineglass really affect the taste of your favorite pinot noir? Probably more than you realize.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "5 Do's and 5 Don'ts." WineMaker Magazine. November 2006. (Feb. 18, 2009)http://www.winemakermag.com/stories/wizard/article/22-5-dos-and-5-donts-wine-wizard
- "Common Wine and Beer Fining." Brewery Lane. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.brewerylane.com/finings.html
- "How To Use A Hydrometer In Winemaking." Grape Stompers. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.grapestompers.com/articles/hydrometer_use.htm
- Keller, Jack. "Advanced Winemaking Basics." Nov. 2, 2000. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/concentr.asp
- "Making Wine -- An Overview." Pressed For Wine. 2005. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.pressedforwine.com/process/winemaking-process.shtml
- Parks, Betsy. "25 Winemaking Tips." WineMaker Magazine. July 2007. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.winemakermag.com/stories/article/indices/42-winemaking-tips/21-25-winemaking-tips
- "Wine Ingredients." Northern Brewer. 2008. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.northernbrewer.com/wine-ingredients.html
- "Winemaking Instructions." Kamil Juices. 2001. (Feb. 12, 2009)http://www.kamiljuices.com/winemaking.html