Whether the grapes come from the local vineyard or your own backyard, you can make impressive grape wines with remarkable flavor, body and character – tremendous wines that are worthy of recognition by friends and family.
And what's more, you can create these bottles of wine for a fraction of what they would cost you at the store, and if the grapes are just sitting in your backyard, waiting to be picked, then that's a heck of a deal. So, go right ahead and dive into the interesting and rewarding hobby of home wine making. By doing so you will be joining the thousands of happy people who make and enjoy their own wines with pride.
A very good book on the subject of wine making with grapes is From Vines To Wines. Not only does this book cover wine making, but it also covers the vineyard aspect as well. For a clearer understanding of grape wine making this is the book to get.
For the purpose of wine making you can classify grapes into three distinct groups:
Native Wild Grapes (Vitis Muscadinia):
These are grapes such as Muscadine (Scuppernong), Fox and Frost grape. They are extremely sharp tasting due to their high acid content and have a strong assertive to pungent flavor and aroma. They are also lower in sugar than most other grapes. This class of grape can be distinguished from others by the fact they do not grow in clusters, but rather, as separate berries on their own stem.
Native Wine Grapes (Vitis Lambrusca):
These are grapes such as Concord, Catawba, Niagara and Delaware. They are indigenous to the North American continent. While their flavor and aroma are not excessive like that of the wild grapes, their acidity level can be a little on the high side making the juice slightly sharp tasting. Their sugar level is also much higher than that of wild grapes.
European Wine Grapes (Vitis Vinifera):
These are grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Chardonnay and many others that were brought over from Europe. Hybrid grapes such as Reliance, Foch, Chambourcin and Vignoles are also considered to be in this group. Only on occasion are these grapes too sharp or acidic in flavor and their sugar content is generally higher than that of native wine grapes and much higher than that of wild grapes.
It's All About the Grape
How you go about making wine from grapes depends on the class of grape you are going to use. Some grapes will require only a little dilution with water to get its sharp acidic or pungent flavor under control. Others will require none at all. Then there are some that may require as much as three gallons of water for every 5 gallons of wine. Such is the case with many wild grapes. Not only does the high acid level of the wild grapes require dilution, but their excessive, strong flavor demands it as well.
Sugar may need to be added to the juice in some cases. Sugar is what the wine yeast ferments to make alcohol. When the fermentation is done the sugar is gone. When there is not enough sugar for the yeast, there will not be enough alcohol in the wine. Certainly in the case of wild grapes, sugar will be in short supply and marginally so with some native wine grapes. These grapes typically do not contain much sugar. Sugar will need to be added to these mixes, but in the case of European wine grapes only rarely is sugar needed.
The real point here is that making grape wine is not necessarily about following a wine recipe, but rather, going through a procedure of adjustments based on the juice that is at hand. The situation can vary dramatically based on the grape, so to apply a single recipe to all grapes or even a class of grape is not practical.
Getting the Right Mix of Grapes
Now the question comes: how do we know when water and/or sugar needs to be added to a juice, and if so, how much do we need to add? This question is really not that hard to answer. For measuring and controlling acidity you can use an Acid Testing Kit and for measuring and controlling sugar levels you can use a wine hydrometer. Both come with complete directions and are relatively easy to use.
Acid Level Adjustment for Grape Wine
You would start by taking an acid level reading of the juice to determine where you are at. If the acid level is found to be twice as high as needed, then you would add equal amounts of water to cut the acid level in half. If the acid level is only 10 percent too high you would then only need to add 10 percent water. The acid test kit directions include recommended acid levels for different types of wine. For more information about controlling your wine's acidity see the article Getting A Handle On Wine Acidity.
Sugar Level Adjustment
Once the acidity level is correct you then will want to check the sugar level and adjust it if necessary. The wine hydrometer has a Potential Alcohol scale which tells you how much alcohol can be made with the sugars that are currently in the juice. You will want to shoot for a potential alcohol level somewhere between 9 and 13 percent. Almost always the European wine grapes will provide enough sugar naturally. The native wine grapes will usually need a little sugar and the wild grapes will need significant amounts of sugar. For more information about using a wine hydrometer see the article Getting To Know Your Hydrometer.
Processing the Grapes
Now that you understand a little about the adjustments that may need to be made to the juice, it's time to go through the actual processing of the grapes. In general red grapes are handled differently than white grapes. Red grapes are destemmed, crushed and fermented with the skin and pulp for several days and then later pressed in a wine press. White grapes on the other hand are crushed with the stems left on and then pressed immediately. The skin and pulp does not become a part of the fermentation with white grapes.
Destemming & Crushing Grapes
How you go about destemming and crushing depends on the amount of grapes you will be dealing with. When making wine from wild grapes you may only be dealing with 20 to 40 pounds to end up with 5 gallons of wine. When making wine with European wine grapes the amount is more in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 pound for 5 gallons. And if you plan on doing 50 or 100 gallons you are then looking at 600 to 1600 pounds to process. The smaller amounts can obviously be destemmed and crushed by hand, but when you get into larger amounts you may want to consider getting a crusher/destemmer combination or possibly just a crusher if you are only dealing with whites.
As stated earlier, red grapes are pressed after a few days of fermentation whereas white grapes are pressed prior to fermentation. The size of wine press you purchase, again, is determined by the size of the job at hand. A small table-top press is sufficient for handling 50 or 100 pounds of grapes. It can press about 15 pounds at a time. For larger jobs you will want to consider a larger press like the R-25 ratchet press.
Preparing Grapes for Fermentation
Once the grapes have been destemmed, crushed, and pressed as needed and the acidity and sugar levels have been checked and adjusted as necessary it is then time to prepare the mix for fermentation. At this point the mix--which we can now call a "must"--should be in an open fermentation vessel of some type. You will then want to add to the must the following ingredients:
Add at the rate of 1 teaspoon per gallon. This is not yeast, but rather, an energy source for the yeast which will be added later.
Add at the rate of 1/8 teaspoon per gallon. This is used to aid in the clarification of the wine, and in the case of red wines, to help break down the pulp so more flavor can be extracted.
Add at the rate of 1/16 teaspoon per gallon or 1/4 teaspoon for every 4 gallons. This is used to sterilize the must, to kill all the wild molds, wild bacteria and wild yeast that come with the fresh grapes. Over a 24 hour period the Potassium Bisulfite will sterilize the juice and then dissipate into the air. Only cover the fermentation vessel with a light towel during the waiting period.
Yeast can then be added after waiting 24 hours. If the wine yeast is added before the Potassium Bisulfite leaves, it will kill the yeast as well. Just sprinkle the wine yeast onto the surface of the must at a rate of 1 package for every 5 gallons.
It is important that during the 24 hour waiting period – before the wine yeast is added – that the fermentation vessel is only covered with a light towel, maybe an old t-shirt. This is to make sure that the Potassium Bisulfite which needs to escape and leave the vessel is not trapped by a lid or a heavy covering of some kind. You want something over the juice to keep gnats and fruit flies from getting in it, but you want the sulfites to be able to escape into the air.
Fermenting Wine Must
Usually within 12 hours of adding the wine yeast (sometimes 24) you will see the fermentation activity begin by way of small patchy areas of foam on the surface of the wine must. These patches will progress into a layer of foam that can get as high as 4 or 5 inches thick over the next 2 to 3 days.
During this time, the primary fermentation vessel should be covered only with a thin cloth towel. It is important that the fermentation be able to breath during these first few days of fermentation. You will also want to stir the must on a daily basis with a stirring paddle so as to break up any dried formation of solids that may rise to the top.
Around the 5th or 6th day of fermentation you will want to transfer ("rack") the must into a clean fermentation vessel leaving any pulp and sediment behind. If you are making red wine you will want to press the pulp at this time to extract all of the juice and then discard the pulp. If you are making white wine you will simply transfer the wine to the new fermenter.
A thin cloth towel should no longer be used, but instead an air-lock should be attached to the new vessel. The air-lock is used to allow fermentation gases to escape from the fermentation vessel without letting anything bad back into the must. You can use the same type of fermentation vessel that you used for the primary fermentation just as long as an air-lock is attached to it. Some winemakers prefer to use a carboy or similar type container as their secondary fermenter.
During the secondary fermentation the wine yeast will be finishing up its activity and the solids will start settling out. After the fermentation has completely stopped and you have verified with the hydrometer that the fermentation has completed, you will want to add another dose of Potassium Bisulfite to help preserve the wine's flavor and color while it is finishing its clearing process.
The clearing process can take a couple of weeks or a couple of months. It varies from one batch to the next. You will want to rack the wine off the sediment every month or so while you are waiting. As an option you can speed up the clarification process by treating the wine with a fining agent after the fermentation has completed. For a more detailed look at what is really going on during the fermentation read the article Fermentation 101.
Bottling Your Wine
Once the wine has completely cleared and you have verified with a hydrometer that the fermentation is complete, it is time to bottle.
You may want to filter your wine before bottling. Doing so will add an additional polish to the wine's already clear appearance. Wine filters come in different sizes based on the amount of wine you are filtering and how fast you want to filter.
Bottling your wine is a fairly straight forward process. It is simply a matter of siphoning the wine into the wine bottles and then corking them. You will need wine bottles, wine corks and a wine bottle corker. You may also want wine bottle labels and decorative bottle neck capsules. For more information about this take a look at our wine bottling collection.
Additional Wine Making Info
Here are a few articles on our web site that may be of interest to you. They are more specific articles that involve the area of wine making from grapes.