Making wine from California grapes:
Making wine from winegrapes is a difficult undertaking if you are doing it correctly. Grapes are very sensitive to climate changes and change character from year to year. You can use your Grandfather’s recipe that is a basic homemade wine recipe that says something like 3 parts this and two parts that. BUT, you will create a very different wine every year with the same winemaking recipe. Some years will be good and some years awful. To create a consistent wine that you will be proud to serve takes time, patience and a little chemistry know-how.
There are many good books on the subject of making homemade wine that are hundreds of pages in length. Making good wine takes a mixture of art and science. This page is an attempt to teach you the only the very basic science and processes of winemaking. The art of blending flavors, processes and timing of each process is up to you.
This should be at least 30% larger than the size of your finished wine. Red wines need significantly more space than whites since they do their initial fermentation on the pulp and you will need space for the “cap” to rise.
It needs to be “food Grade” material. Buying trashcans from a hardware store will give your wine a plastic taste. The acidity and alcohol in the fermenting wine will melt standard plastics in a short period of time.
Do not confuse this with a wine press. This is a device to crush the grapes between two wheels and separate the stems from the grape pulp. These can be manual, motorized or just a plain crusher without a destemmer Or you can do it the old fashioned way and stomp the grapes with your feet. It is basically a hopper with two rollers set a half to a quarter inch apart. You do not want to pulverize the grapes, just crush them so the juice comes out.
After destemming and crushing the grapes, you need to press out the remaining juice from the pulp. There are many sizes and varieties of home wine presses ranging fro a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars. Do some research into which model is right for you.
These can be oak barrels, stainless steel tanks, plastic coated demi-jons or glass carboys (water bottles). Once again, these need to be FOOD GRADE. I like the six gallon glass carboys. They take up more floor space but, they afford me the opportunity to blend my wines and make more variety of wines every year. Best of all; I can lift them myself on racking day.
You will need to move your wine off the sediment a few times and also be able to fill bottles. For smaller batches, you can use a racking cane (rigid tube) and hose. For larger batches, you may want to invest in a motorized transfer pump. Make sure you are buying a pump designed for winemaking. Other pumps may have propellers that allow contact to non food grade lubricants and/or add too much oxygen to your wine.
A hydrometer can be used to take a sample of the juice/wine to test sugar content and potential alcohol in about 100ml of juice. A refractometer is a little more expensive but you can use the juice of a single grape to determine the sugar content.
Acid titration kit:
This is an inexpensive kit that will tell you what level of acid is in the grapes. Important to have the right PH for proper yeast growth during fermentation and a balanced taste in the finished wine
Making the wine:
Picking a style: The Art:
This is the part of winemaking where art and experience are the most helpful. You need to pick a style that suits your taste; be it soft and fruity like a merlot or chardonnay, or dry with chewy tannins like cabernet or sangiovese
Blending the grapes for proper balance will reduce the need for chemical titration. If your Chianti style is lacking acid, you might try adding a high acid grape like barbera or trebbiano If your cabernet is too tannic and dry, you might add a few parts merlot or vise versa. Wine grapes change from year to year and from region to region. This is why you need to do a sugar and acid test for every batch.
Preparing the grapes:
Once you have your grapes home and unloaded, you need to wash them. I like to unpack them by hand, removing the bad clusters, into a (sanitized) laundry basket, with holes drilled into the bottom and give them a good rinse with a hose. This helps remove the sulphites, leaves and other unwanted things.
If you have a crusher/destemmer, then move on to the next step. If you just have a crusher, then you will have to remove the grapes from the stems. A lot of tannin is extracted from the stems and can be overpowering and grassy if you crush with the stems attached. I like to destem into the hopper of the grape crusher so that I can squeeze the juice from the tiny clusters directly into the primary fermenter.
TIP: If you are blending white grapes with red; White grapes should not be left on the skins during maceration, nor should you reduce the ratio of skin to juice. You might want to crush and then press the white grapes separately or buy them after the red grapes are ready for pressing. Adding the white juice to the pressed red juice increases fermentation and reduces the oxygen absorbed during the pressing phase.
After the grapes are prepped, run them through the crusher and mix the must well with a large spoon or paddle. There are chemical differences from box to box, so you want to mix well for more accurate acid and sugar readings.
Titration: The Science:
Do an initial acid and sugar test. Use your hydrometer for sugar and acid test kit for total acidity(TA). Decide what needs to be done and in what order. If you need to “water back” your wine due to excessive sugar, you will be diluting your acid and PH. If you are diluting the TA you will be lowering the sugar.
Adjust the sugar/chaptalization: To raise it; add wine juice concentrate, sold in half liter bottles at 64 brix (64% sugar) This will raise the sugar by 1.7% per 5 gallons of must. Adding sucrose (table sugar) adds too many triglycerides and lends a “cidery” flavor to your wine. Blending different grapes to meet the 22 to 25% mark is best, but not always possible.”Watering back” the must is a very common practice. Most wine yeast is designed to die off at 12 to 14% alcohol. If your must is at 28% sugar, you will end up with a sweeter wine than you might want.
Adjust the acid: It is important to adjust your acidity so the yeast has the right environment to do it’s job. This also enhances the finished wine immensely Acid and PH are closely related but most of the time if the total acidity is right the PH will be tolerable enough for homewine making.
Acid blend is a 3:2:1 mixture of tartaric, malic and citric acid. There are some who do not believe in adding any citric acid, But I like the sharpness of flavor it brings to the party. A small amount of citric acid can “brighten” an otherwise “flabby” or “musty” wine. I have come to a compromise: I mix equal parts of tartaric acid with acid blend for raising my TA. One teaspoon of acid will raise TA by .1% in one U.S. gallon. Your target acid should be: .6 to .7% in red wines and .7 to .8% in whites
Blending method: You can raise or lower acidity by adding a different grape’s must. The simple way to figure out how much blending must you need can be found by using this simple equation where:
Sulphite, cool, rest
Add one half teaspoon of metabisulphite for every two boxes of grapes.
Mix in a bunch of sanitized, water-filled, frozen, gallon ziplock baggies.
This will keep the must cool and slow fermentation, so you can extend the time on the skins
Rest the must for 24 hours so the sulphite can “gas off”
Add Yeast: One packet per 2 boxes of winegrapes.
Day 2 to 12:
Maceration; Fermenting on the skins:
Twice a day you will need to “Press the cap” (pushing the grape pulp back into the juice) and replace the bags of ice, when needed
Pull back the cover to expose the grapes and press the grapes down with a sanitized pizza peel or an oar. Do this often, It will increase the flavor transfer from the skins to the wine. The skins is where the most of the flavor difference is between merlot and cabernet, so press the cap often.
Day 5 to 12:
Pressing the grapes:
When to press is a matter of taste. Wine will absorb more tannin and flavor the longer it sits on the skins. Color however will get darker every day up to about 7 days and then it will start getting lighter in color, but it will continue to gain tannins. I like to press when there is still at least 5% sugar left in the must so that the remaining fermentation will displace any extra oxygen acquired during the pressing operation.
My chianti recipe: 80% sangiovese, 15% trebbiano or barbera, 5% cabernet sauvignon (reserve). Crushing is done in the above manner and the cabernet is destemmed and packed into the freezer for a reserve. 80% of the must is fermented on the skins for 8 days, then the reserve grapes are added for an additional 3 -4 days for a little added color and flavor. The white grapes are done on pressing day.This of course is a general recipe that will change proportions from year to year, so that I may reduce the need for chemical titration.
Other general guidelines: Merlot; 4 - 5 days, Cabernet; 8 - 12 days, Nebbiola or Valdepena; 6 -7 days, Anything white 0 - 0 days.
Siphon as much juice as you can from the must. (Do not press the cap on pressing day) This is the extra virgin, most premium wine. I like to reserve a six gallon carboy worth for my private consumption.
Set your press up and spray it down with a sulphite solution to sanitize it. Attaching a sanitized plastic cloth from the bottom of the press to the bottom of the (sanitized) catching bucket will help reduce splashing and over oxidation. Fill the basket with the pulp and squeeze the remaining juice out of the pulp.
Excessive pressing will crush the seeds and stems, extracting a sour and bitter taste. Look at some labels of better wines in the store. You will see many of them stating “soft press” as a selling point. You are already getting your wine for pennies on the dollar, don’t “squeeze the nickel till the buffalo screams”.
Siphon the juice, carefully into it’s fermenter leaving about 3% headspace for foaming fermentation.
Try to fill a few gallon jugs for “topping off” after the next racking.
Day 40 to 60
Fermentation is complete! If you added yeast and have good conditions (temp, SO2, Acid, Ph), then your wine should be finished with alcoholic and malolactic fermentation. It’s time to rack and sulphite your wine for ageing. You need to remove your wine from the “gross lees” that is mostly dead yeast and grape particles that are decomposing and adding weird flavors to your wine, known as autolysis. (Google this word for more info)
Rack your wine ito its ageing container (barrel, carboy or demi-jon) and add one quarter teaspoon of potassium metabisulphite to each five gallons of wine. This will bring sulphite levels up to the required 100 parts per million (PPM). The use of a sulphite testing kit is recommended at this stage. This will kill off any remaining yeast and bacteria and prevent your wine from turning brown.
Oak chips are added at this stage. It will give the wine a barrel finish without the hassles of ageing in a barrel. It may also be helpful to add some new oak chips to an older barrel that has lost most of it flavor.
Top off your fermenters with the saved wine or a store bought wine. Adding a few cups of store bought wine will not change five plus gallons significantly, but try to buy a style close to what you are making. Reducing air space is now very important!
Ageing and bottling:
Age in a cool and stable environment until you need the fermenter or you cant stand to not drink it any longer. There is thermal protection in volume. If your wine room changes 10 degrees from morning to night, then a 750 ml bottle will change 10 degrees, a 50 gallon barrel might only change one degree.
Keep it topped off with wine to avoid too much airspace. No stealing! If you take a gallon out, you are adding a gallon’s worth of air. Just like a half bottle of wine, it will turn bad with a short amount of time.
You may want to rack it again after six months or so, to remove it from the sediment.
After bottling, let it rest for a few weeks to get over the “bottle shock”. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor.
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