Saturday, January 8, 2011

Home Winemaking (Kits, WinExpert & You!)

( a Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc fermenting, May 2010 )

You don’t have to spend much time in the world of home and amateur winemaking to come upon a debate about kit versus grape winemaking. The conversation is often fierce and heated, and if you don’t have a thick skin you might get pissed off with some of the feedback freely offered.

Just a bit of quick background for those unfamiliar with making your own wine at home. Wine can be made from grapes and many other fruits (both fresh and from juice), usually with the mere addition of sugar, acid, water, and of course yeast. Traditional grape based winemaking involves the crushing and pressing of grapes before vinification. Along the way quite a few smart companies have gotten into the business of packaging pressed grape juice along with all the necessary adjuncts and instructions for folks who don’t want, or don’t have the means to process grapes. This product has made home winemaking accessible for a great many people.

The debate is whether using kits (and juice and fruit is often lumped in) is really winemaking. Of course it is in the strictest sense. My fresh strawberry wine is made using similar steps, and I pick and process the fruit myself. Kit winemakers generally don’t have to worry about testing and balancing for acid and sugar levels, and are able complete wines more quickly since the volume of solid matter (grape skins, etc) is much lower, thus requiring less clearing time. There are several things that you do learn whether you make wine from grapes or a kit that do qualify you as a winemaker. With time and experience this knowledge can even help you become a very good winemaker!
  • Sanitation – keeping your equipment and work areas clean is key
  • How fermentation is monitored and what the process looks like
  • The development of your senses of sight, smell and taste that guide the progress of your wines
  • Siphoning/racking of wine between containers
  • The use of oak and how aging affects wines
  • Bottling,corking and finishing
So for me the debate is bullshit. I’ll dump my competition medals (for wines, meads and ciders) on the table in front of fierce opposition and ask if the judges were wrong all 28 times! My recipe for award winning strawberry wine was posted last year and has been used by several of my winemaking friends since. Mine is still better!

I don’t exclusively make wines from kits, but the majority of them had been from kits, juice or fresh fruit up until 2010. My first batches of wine from Chilean grapes are still aging and I have high expectations for them. These wines took more effort, required me to purchase new equipment and will take much longer to be ready for enjoyment. Thankfully I am not averse to making wine from our sources and have many other wines available to drink while I wait!
( Chilean grapes forming a cap on the top of fermenting juice, May 2010 )

The process for making wine from a kit is pretty straightforward. There are lot of bullets below, but read on and you will see that is not a technical exercise; and much like cooking.
  • Kits come with a bag of juice. The higher quality kits come with more juice which means less water will be used to create target 6 gallons you will start fermenting with.
  • Generally you will mix warm water with an additive called bentonite (derived from clay) that will help your wine to clear later on. The juice is then added, and water is used to fill the bucket up to the 6 gallon mark. Home brewing buckets have a marked scale on them making this very easy to determine.
  • Stirring to mix the juice and water is the big effort here, and you want to get that right. The fermentation will begin and proceed better with a well mixed base.
  • At this point you need to add some science to the process and take a gravity reading. A simple device called a hydrometer is used to determine the amount of sugar in the solution. This measurement will be used several times to monitor the progress of the fermentation.
  • Some red wines will come with packages of oak which are generally added now, before pitching the yeast. Mixing in fine powdered oak products is a cruel instruction as they don’t get water logged that easy!
  • Yeast is provided as a dry packet much like you might buy at the store for bread making. Some kits recommend you rehydrate the yeast, others have you pitch it into the bucket dry. Following the instructions is important for beginners. (I wrote about some yeast re-hydration and nutrition techniques that I added to my process in 2010 when I started my Chilean wines.)
  • You will wait 1-2 days for the fermentation to start. The tops of homebrew buckets are provided with gaskets to affix an airlock to. The outgassing of CO2 once fermentation begins will be obvious in the airlock.
  • The hydrometer is used to measure the fermentation looking to get to a secondary stage where the fermenting must (that is the proper name) is transferred to a glass carboy to complete its fermentation. The instructions will give you the gravity target you are monitoring for. Some or all of the thick sediment at the bottom of the bucket is left behind during the siphoning process.
  • Fermentation continues and once again the hydrometer is used to determine when it is finished.
  • At this point additions of potassium meta-bisulphite, potassium sorbate and a clearing agent are made. The fermentation will cease and the wine will clear over several weeks.
  • Once the wine is clear it can be siphoned into a bucket affixed with a spigot for bottling.
  • Clear and stable wine is bottled and corked resulting in what you recognize from commercial bottles you buy. You can make or buy labels and foil tops to finish or dress your bottles of wine.
  • The wine needs to be aged for a minimum of a month to allow the wine to adjust to the bottle.White wines generally are best left to aged for at least 3 months and red wines will require 6 months or more before they begin to drink well. Red wines will often benefit from additional age, but that depends on the variety and how well the wine was made.
And now you have made 30 bottles of wine. I have shared this process with several friends who now enjoy doing this at home for themselves. Having a “house wine” is pretty cool!

( strawberry wine, secondary fermenation - July 2009 )

WinExpert is my favorite manufacturer of wine kits for home winemakers. The selection offered is quite varied in both types and quality. I have never been disappointed with a wine I have made from a WinExpert kit. It is fair to say however that some have been better than others. They are constantly coming out with new styles and travelling the world to source the best possible juices to put in their products.

Their kits come complete with everything you need, including instructions to get even the most novice winemaker going. An added bonus is that their Technical Manager, Tim Vandergrift, is very active in online forums for winemakers. His knowledge of winemaking and the WinExpert product line is an asset for anyone who dips into this hobby. I met Tim at the WineMaker Magazine Conference in May of 2010 and his energy and passion for winemaking was obvious. Ask a question and you’ll get a solid answer you can run with. Offer him a glass of wine and you’ll get a chance to spend time with a great guy.

Check out my recap of the conference from last year. We have already signed up to go to the 2011 conference in Santa Barbara, CA.

By now you might think I am shilling for WinExpert, but alas no, I am saying these things because my experience has been that good. The company has a program that rewards competition entrants for their wins using WinExpert products. In each of the last three years I have won two free kits each year. This has been a wonderful add-on to the competition wins and has helped me add new types of wine to my homemade lineup. They get the advertising bump and I get free wine. Works for me!

Last week I happened upon the website for The Unreserved, a new online community for winemakers and wine & food lovers. And guess what? WinExpert is behind the site. Clearly they are trying to bring together members of their customer base, and wine lovers at large, to connect and share their passions. Jackpot! I signed up right away and posted a few of my recent blog entries for folks to check out. I also sent messages to several of the community management staff about the site and how I could help it grow. The feedback has been extremely positive and clearly my experience with my blog over the last year is going to payoff big here. And much to my surprise, I didn’t read the whole page on the community benefits before signing up, I was notified that a reward for the most popular post each month in the form of a free wine kit had my name on it. I signed up and posted 3 days before the end of the year and I had the two most popular posts for December. Thank you WinExpert!

Making wine at home isn’t for everyone. Hopefully I have shared some insight on the process that at least makes it less mysterious and potentially approachable. There are several home brewing stores in New England who have all the equipment and ingredients, including kits from WinExpert, that you will need to try this at home. And don’t forget, I’m here to ask questions of. Believe me when I say that I still have a lot to learn, and that helping others to make their own wine is one of the best ways to ferment (awesome play on words) my skills!




Tastemonials said...

I hope my husband doesn't read this! He's made one batch of beer and wants to make wines as well. We have no space!!!!!

Lisa | Authentic Suburban Gourmet said...

What an interesting post. We did recieve one of those wine making kits a few years ago and yet to actually do anything with it. It is on my list to make wine someday. Thank you for the inspiration!

Loren said...

Awesome outline. I tend to agree with you on the great debate. You source our materials from somewhere, you figure out the best way to handle them (usually by talking with people with experience) then you give it a try and learn from your experience. We have access to some good grapes of certain varieties around our neck of the woods, but the window is limited and the sources fickle. If I wrap up a batch and want to make another and it's January, a kit is really the only option.

I'm looking at trying a red in a few weeks, maybe a Syrah. I'll be sure to check out WineExpert. Any suggestions?

Jason Phelps said...

@Tastemonials - it definitely takes up space. Luckily I have lots of it. My wife still picks on me though...

@Lisa - the work involved is definitely worth it. Just like cooking, you do have to pay attention to it.

@Loren - sent you a Tweet. WinExpert has an awesome Syrah/Mourvedre kit. Made it twice.


Gretchen said...

@Tastemonials Let him go ahead and make the wine. It smells so much better than beer makng.