Basic Wine Making Skills For The Novice Vintner

Learn the basics of wine making. Description of equipment needed and how to set up primary and secondary fermentation and bottling.

Making wine at home has become so popular in the past 10 years that it is now possible to purchase everything you need to create an outstanding product. While it is true that a few people have always made small quantities of drinkable wine at home, they were always at the mercy of chance. Forced to use bread yeast spread on slabs of bread or relying on the presence of friendly wild yeast plants the outcome was never certain and could seldom be duplicated.

Today, with a few phone calls or an hour or two surfing the Web, it is possible to find multiple sources for equipment, ingredients, and fine strains of yeast. Many medium-sized cities have shops that specialize in home-brewing and winemaking supplies. No longer is it necessary to court wild yeast of uncertain pedigree to ferment your fruit. A budding vintner can now choose from seven or eight different yeast strains, available in both dry and liquid form. Yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme, oak chips, corks, even bottles, are never more than a few days away on a UPS truck.


Once you decide to make a batch wine, you will need to invest in some equipment. If you are already making beer, you may already have everything you need. If this will be your first adventure in making fermented beverages you need to buy a basic kit from a home-brew supplier. The basic kit should include a 6.8-gallon bucket with lid for primary fermentation, a 3-piece fermentation lock, a 5-gallon glass carboy for secondary fermentation, a drilled stopper to fit, some lengths of vinyl tubing for transferring wine from fermentor to fermentor to bottles, a thermometer, corks, a corker, and wine bottles. This is all you need to get started. If you really want to know the alcohol content of your product a hygrometer is necessary, if this is not important to you, don't bother.


Wine can be made from anything that will ferment. Fruits, vegetables, honey, even dandelions will do the trick. However, for your first project, stick to something reliable. Berries, grapes, peaches, cherries, or plums are all good choices for the beginner.

Start out with 12 pounds of fruit, either one kind or a combination of flavors you like. Remove the pits from peaches, cherries or plums, pick out any leaves or stems, and freeze the fruit. Freezing makes it unnecessary to crush the fruit as freezing ruptures the cell membranes, allowing the juice to flow freely.

Begin by sterilizing your primary fermentation vessel (the plastic bucket) and lock with a solution of ¼ cup chlorine bleach to 5 gallons water. Rinse thoroughly and add the thawed fruit. Bring four gallons of good quality water to the boil and add 8 pounds of sugar. It is ok to use regular granulated sugar, but corn sugar (get it when you buy your yeast) will producer a nicer flavor. Boil until the sugar is dissolved then pour over the thawed fruit in the fermentor. This step pasteurizes the fruit, killing all the wild yeasts. Cover with the lid and allow to cool down to 90º F. When the mixture is cool, add the yeast, ½ teaspoon pectic enzyme, and 1 teaspoon yeast nutrient. Press the lid down tight and insert the fermentation lock in the small hole provided. Fill the lock about half full of water, put the second piece in place and snap down the lid.

Place the bucket in a cool, dark place and go about your business. Check back the next day and there should be evidence of fermentation - bubbles escaping from the lock. This can be exciting, watch it until you are bored then go away and leave it alone again for two weeks. You can check back periodically but there is really nothing to do except sniff the aroma escaping in each little bubble and dream of later imbibing.


At the end of the second week it is time to siphon your new wine into the secondary fermentation vessel, the glass carboy. Sterilize the carboy, siphon hose, fermentation lock, and drilled stopper in more bleach solution. Rinse very well. Being VERY careful not to jiggle the contents of the first vessel, put it higher than the carboy - on a counter top or table - and gently remove the lid. Siphon the wine into the carboy, being careful not to suck up the dead yeast cells in the bottom of the bucket. At the same time try not to splash the wine into the carboy. It is not a good idea to add oxygen at this stage, it will spoil the flavor.

When all the wine is transferred, insert the stopper and fermentation lock and place your carboy in the cool dark place. Check the progress of the wine every few days or weeks. You will notice that it is becoming clear and a layer of sediment will be growing on the bottom of the carboy. Once the wine is clear, a matter of weeks or months, it is time to bottle. Remember, the clearer your wine is before it is bottled the fewer dregs will be in the bottle later.


You should have about 4 gallons of wine. Wash and sterilize enough bottles to hold your treasure. Use the bleach solution or run the bottles through the hot cycle on the dishwasher. Siphon the wine into the bottles, leaving about two inches of space for the cork. Soak your corks in tap water while you are filling the bottles. This will make them easier to insert and will clean them adequately. Following the instructions for your corker, cork all the bottles. Put the bottles away in the cool, dark place to age. Try to forget about them for at least six months.


Design some colorful labels with your print-shop program and print them out on self-adhesive labels. Be sure to put the bottling date on each bottle and always do this. Affix the labels to the wine bottles. Record your recipe and the exact type of yeast you used for later reference. You may want to duplicate the recipe later on. This activity will distract you from the aging wine.

If you are possessed of no self-control whatsoever, go ahead and open a bottle after the second week. It will be wine, and it should taste pretty good. You may notice a slightly raw flavor from the fresh alcohol. This will disappear over time, as the wine develops in the bottle, the flavors will mellow and meld. By the time the wine is six months old, it should be getting pretty smooth and should improve for another six months. Not a lot of wines continue to improve after a year. This is especially true of home-made fruit wines. Plan on drinking it all within six to eight months of its first birthday.


"Good quality water" means either well water or spring water. If neither is available, you can use tap water but it will be necessary to allow the chlorine to dissipate first. Letting water stand over night and boiling for 10 to 15 minutes should do it. If you can taste the chlorine in your water it will affect the flavor of the wine. Water purchased from machines in supermarkets comes from the same source as your municipal tap water. Don't buy this thinking it will be chlorine-free.

The yeast you choose for your wine goes a long way in determining the character of the finished product. Different strains will produce different degrees of sweetness and fruitiness. As a beginner, your best option will be to go with a liquid Chablis or Pasteur Champagne yeast. Follow the directions on the package for making a starter. This will require that you start a few days before you want to use the yeast. Making a starter will give you a large quantity of live yeast cells and a better fermentation.

Chablis liquid yeast will work very nicely with any combination of fruits. You will end up with a slightly sweet and fruity wine. If you are using all grapes, you may want to use the Pasteur Champagne yeast strain. This yeast will produce a drier wine. It also has high flocculating characteristics, which will help your wine clear more quickly. Don't be afraid to ask questions when buying yeast. Tell the shop owner what kind of fruit you will be using and they may have some good suggestions for a yeast strain.

For non-grape fruit mixtures, you can add ¼ teaspoon of Tartaric Acid to give your wine more astringency or "bite." This is not necessary if your are using any grapes in the mixture as the tannic acid comes from grape seeds and skins. Depending on how acidic (sour) your fruit is, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of Acid Blend to adjust the acid level. Fruit that is too sub-acid will make a bland wine.

Pectic Enzyme is used to eliminate the hazing effect caused by the natural pectin present in most fruits. You don't have to use it, but you may not get a clear beverage if you don't. This will not affect the flavor, but a great deal of the enjoyment of wine has to do with its esthetic appeal - cloudy wine looks nasty in an elegant crystal goblet. Apples and oranges contain lots of natural pectin. Any mixture using these fruits will be cloudy if you do not use Pectic Enzyme in your recipe. This is an inexpensive ingredient and it never hurts to add ½ a teaspoon to the fruit in your primary fermentation vessel.

There are many other special ingredients for altering the character and flavor notes of your wine. As you develop expertise as a vintner, you will learn how and when to use oak chips or add different types of acid to change the flavor notes. There are several other strains of yeast available to amateur vintners that will greatly expand your cellar potential. Above all, never be afraid to experiment. Humans have been fermenting stuff into alcoholic beverages for thousands of years, it is not brain surgery. Always keep careful notes of what you do when winging a recipe. There is nothing more frustrating than producing an exquisite wine and being unable to remember exactly how you did it a year later.

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