"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime".

You've probably heard this many times before. It's a Chinese proverb that quickly drives home the value of learning, and it's a proverb that can be applied to wine making as well.

Learning How to Fish, uhh, Make Wine

This article is about teaching you "how to fish"-- not literally, but in the proverbial sense. This article is about teaching you how to develop your own wine recipes as opposed to continually having to search for a wine recipe every time you have some available fruit or maybe just an idea for a wine you'd like to make.

All wine recipes have the same specific, key elements to them. What we are going to do here is define and dissect these necessary pieces, one-by-one, so that you can gain a better understanding of the role each part plays within the recipe. Then we are going to put them back together, one-by-one, so that you can see more clearly how all the pieces work together to create a coherent recipe.

By having a more intimate understanding of these different, vital aspects of a wine recipe--then yes--you to will be able to create your own wine recipe--anytime you have a notion. What a liberating thought!

Now, I have to warn you, this article is rather lengthy, but I think you will discover it is well worth a read. After all it is the recipe that is the centerpiece--the plan--for any batch of wine you will ever make.

The Pieces of the Wine Making Puzzle

There are 6 distinct pieces of a wine recipe puzzle. We will go through them one at a time. They are as follows:

1. The Produce:

This refers to the fruit, vegetables, herbs or whatever it is that is being used to make the wine. It could be grapes, blackberries, rhubarb, or even dandelions. It could also be a concentrated juice such as our SunCal or European Select brands among others. This is the major flavor component of any wine; this is the heart of the recipe; this is what gives the wine its identity, its body, its character.

2. The Sugars:

This is the food that supports a fermentation. Without sugar there is no fermentation; without a fermentation there is no alcohol.

All of the sugars necessary to produce the normal range of alcohol (9%-13%) can often come from the produce itself, such is normally the case when fermenting many types of grapes. Or conversely, all of the necessary sugars may need to be provided separately, such as the case with dandelion and other herbs--these produces provide no sugar of their own. And, certainly there are situations where some sugars come from the produce, but more still needs to be added as a supplement. This is the most common scenario with country style, fruit wines.

3. The Water:

Water is often added to a wine recipe to dilute the flavor of certain produces that are too strong or have acid levels that are too high. Extreme examples of these types of fruits would be, elderberry, gooseberries and blackberries. And, there are some fruits that have enough water in them naturally. Their flavors are not too strong and their acid level is not too high. Examples of these types of fruits would be wine grapes and apples. While one may elect to add water with these types of fruits to lighten the body, it may not be necessary to do so.

4. The Nutrients:

Yeast has nutritional needs just like any other living thing. Proper nutrition is vital to having a vigorous fermentation. Some nutrients are obviously supplied by the produce itself, but in almost all situations the amount or type of nutrients made available by these produces are not sufficient or appropriate for the yeast to perform to their maximum capabilities. So, we add nutritional supplements such as Yeast Nutrient, Yeast Energizer, and others.

5. The Acid:

Acidity does play a nutritional role in a fermentation in the sense that if the acid level of a must is severely low, the rate and quality of the fermentation will suffer. But, acidity plays other parts in the wine making process as well.

Acidity helps to keep the wine stable. If the acid level is too low then micro-organisms such as molds and bacteria will have a better opportunity to flourish. But, if the acid level is brought up to a proper range then the risk of these little nasties taking the wine over is greatly reduced.

Acidity also plays a direct role in the flavor of the wine. If not enough acid is in the wine recipe then the wine will simply taste flat/lifeless/flabby; too much acid and the wine tastes sharp/sour/bitter.

Quite often a must will be too low in acid, particularly if water has been added to it to dilute its flavor. In such cases we will need to add Acid Blend and possibly Wine Tannin (tannic acid).

6. The Yeast:

All the above pieces sets the environment. And, the wine yeast is what does the work within that environment. It is yeast that is turning the sugar into alcohol. Having the right kind of yeast is important. Bread yeast won't cut it; beer yeast won't cut it. You need a yeast that has been cultivated from wine and has been bred for wine. Simple as that.

And, in fact there are several choices you have among wine yeast. Each has its own, slightly different way in which it affects the wine's resulting character, such is the case with our Red Star and Lalvin brands of wine yeast.

NOTE: There are other ingredients that may be necessary throughout the winemaking process such as Pectic Enzyme, Campden Tablets and Potassium Sorbate, but these ingredients are not reliant upon the recipe itself. These are ingredients that are used in the same way regardless of what kind of wine you are making. So, we will not consider these ingredients as part of the recipe but rather consider them as part of the wine making process. We will talk a little more about them later.

Putting the Pieces Together

When it comes to bringing all these elements together, it's about about one thing--balance. It is about putting them all together in the proper proportions so that the alcohol level, flavor, body and character all come together to produce a wine to your liking. But where do we start?

Step 1: Start With the Produce

In all cases we need to start with the produce. We have to start at the heart of the recipe. Produces come in an endless number of varieties. Some are more naturally suited for making wine than others in terms of the nutrients, flavor astringency and sugars they naturally bring to the table. Others need to be brought into balance.

Here's an example of what I mean. If you drink the juice from freshly squeezed wine grapes it will taste fairly pleasant. It will be sweet and flavorful; it wouldn't be too sour or bitter. But, if you drink the straight juice of freshly squeezed elderberries, I doubt you could even swallow it. The flavor would be too strong; the acidity would be very sharp, almost to the point of being bitter. Yet, we can make wine from elderberries just the same as we do wine grapes. We do so by bringing them into balance with other wine making ingredients.

When you make wine from wine grapes you typically use 100 percent juice--no water added. When you make wine from blackberries, elderberries, and many other stronger-flavored fruits with higher acid, you must dilute the juice with water. Exactly how much water is up for debate, but what is not debatable is the need for dilution to some degree with such fruit.

Here is a basic list of fruits and the typical amount normally used in a 5 gallon batch of wine. Realize that the amount of fruit can vary some based on personal taste or the variety being used, but getting too far out of line with these numbers can only get you into trouble.

  • 70-80 pounds Wine grapes, Apples
  • 40-60 pounds Table Grapes
  • 30-40 pounds Muscadine, Scuppernong
  • 20-40 pounds Pears
  • 20-30 pounds Wild Grapes
  • 15-20 pounds Blackberries, Blueberries, Strawberries
  • 10-20 pounds Apricots, Watermelon, Rhubarb, Honey
  • 8 -12 pounds Raisins, Potatoes, Prickly Pear
  • .5-1.5 pounds Ginger Root, Dandelions, Woodruff Herb

This list was not intended to be complete, but rather give a wide variety of produces and the amounts needed to make 5 gallons of wine. If the produce you want to make wine from is not on the list, then compare the produce with similar ones on the list to come up with a reasonable amount.

As a side note, the produce will need to be either chopped, crushes, bruised, pitted or ground depending on the type you are dealing with.

Step 2: Add the Sugar and Water

The water is simple. Add enough to equal the batch to 5 gallons. In some cases this will mean no water at all; in other cases it will mean nearly 5 gallons.

Once the water has been added you will need to determine if any sugar is required in this recipe. The way to determine if sugar is required is by testing the must with a hydrometer. The hydrometer has a scale on it that is called "Potential Alcohol." It is simply a scale of percentages--usually from 0 to 20--that tells you how much alcohol can be made with the sugars that are currently in the must.

For example, if you put the hydrometer in the must and get a reading of 5 percent, this means that the must currently has enough sugars to produce 5 percent worth of alcohol.

Once you know where you are at, the next step is to figure out where you want to be. To take our previous example further, if you know that you are currently at a potential alcohol level of 5 percent and want to be at 12 percent then you need to add dissolved sugar into the must until the hydrometer reads 12 on the Potential Alcohol scale.

NOTE: To help you out, as a general rule-of-thumb, for every pound of sugar you add to a 5 gallon batch you will increase the potential alcohol level by 1 percent. This is not exact, but very close and will save you a lot of time in making this adjustment.

It is recommended that you do not shoot for alcohol levels higher than 13 percent. Quite often wine yeast will not to be able to achieve these higher alcohol levels. The result being a massive amount of left-over sugar in the finished wine making it too sweet for any ones taste.

It is also recommended that you shoot for alcohol levels higher than 9 percent as levels lower than this may fail to inhibit the growth of molds and other micro-organisms in the wine while it is being stored.

Step 3: Adjusting Acidity

As mentioned earlier, having the proper amount of acid plays several roles in the flavor and stability of the wine. There are two types of ingredients that you may need to deal with when adjusting acidity, the first being Acid Blend. This is the ingredient that controls how flat or sharp the wine will taste.

To determine if any Acid Blend is needed in your wine recipe you will need a Titration Kit. This is a kit that will allow you to test the current acid level of the wine. And, by reading the directions it will also tell you how much Acid Blend to add to get your wine to a proper level. All the information you will need comes with the Titration Kit.

Once you have made any necessary adjustments with the Acid Blend you will want to consider if adding Tannin, or Tannic Acid, to the wine is necessary. Tannin increases the acidity level just as Acid Blend, making the wine more stable, but Tannin affects the wine's flavor in a different, more subtle way.

Tannin brings out a zesty flavor in the wine; more of a puckering, tangy type of flavor. It is the backbone of the acidic flavors. Wines short in tannin will have lifeless, flabby character to them. Too much and the wine will be bitter and astringent.

Knowing exactly how much Tannin to add is more of a question of taste than science. I would suggest to you that the best way to know if you want to add Tannin to a wine is to experiment with a small sample of the must first, and go by taste. If you are not comfortable with this you can use the info below to help you as a guide.

  • 1/4 to 1/2 Teaspoon Per Gallon: Flowers, vegetables, grain, bananas, honey, gooseberries, strawberries, pineapple, rhubarb.
  • 1/8 to 1/4 Teaspoon Per Gallon: Grapes, apple skins (most varieties), blackberries, cherries, loganberries, raspberries, currants, sultanas.
  • None to 1/8 Teaspoon Per Gallon: Elderberries, crab apples, oak leaves, tea, grape stems, apricots, blackcurrants, plums, grapefruit, oranges, peaches, pears, figs, raisins, sloes.
  • Also, please realize that Tannic Acid is in any fruit. It is primarily in the skin and stems of the fruit. So, it stands to reason that the more fruit you use the less Tannin you will need.

Step 4: Selecting the Yeast

The main consideration with selecting a wine yeast is its flavor and aromatic characteristics. While subtle, yeast does effect the character of a wine. Some produce a more fruity aroma; while others bring out the deeper, more complex characters of a wine.

If you are not sure which wine yeast to use then I would suggest that you use "Montrachet" yeast by Red Star. It is considered a very strong fermenting yeast with a neutral character.

Other Ingredients to Consider

Pectic Enzyme

This should be used in any recipe that has pulp. It helps to break down the fiber of the fruit, allowing you to extract more flavor during the fermentation. It also helps to make sure that your wine does not end up with a pectin haze. This is a problem that can occur with fruits that have a high amount of pectin in them.

When using Pectic Enzyme it is best to add it as early in the process as possible. For example, at the same time the fruit is being crushed. Just follow the directions that are listed on the package that it came in.

Campden Tablets

This should be added to any must 24 hours before the yeast is added. It sterilizes the must, getting rid of any mold, bacteria or wild yeast that may have came with the fruit.

Campden Tablets should also be added to the wine just before bottling. This is to help the wine to keep better while in storage.

Potassium Sorbate

This is needed only if you intend to sweeten the wine just before bottling. It is added at the same time the sugar is added. Potassium Sorbate stops the yeast from starting up a fermentation again with the new sugars.

As a Final Note:

Take notes! If you go through these steps you will have a batch of wine. If you go through these steps and take notes, you will have a batch of wine and a wine recipe that you will be able to use in the future.