Getting the Most from your Wine Kit
Like most homebrewers, I rapidly developed a fascination with all things fermentation and extract related. I jumped into mead, vanilla extract, and root beer almost immediately. I've also tried my hand at wine. My first attempt, I bought a few pounds of grapes from the store (not wine grapes), smashed them, soaked them in water, and poured yeast in. The experience was humbling, to say the least. Where did I go wrong? I didn't attempt wine again for several years, primarily because of the cost of most wine kits. I didn't want to spend that much money on a product that might not turn out. Now, I have 30 bottles from my first batch aging in the closet and another six gallons sitting in a carboy on my kitchen table, bulk aging. This article is all about getting the most out of your wine kit to ensure a solid product.
1. Get the Right Kit
Right off the bat, you need to make sure you're getting a kit you will enjoy. If you like Merlot, don't get a Moscato kit because it is a couple dollars cheaper (which it usually won't be). It's worth the extra money to invest in a product you will enjoy. Personally, I got the Vinter's Reserve Merlot kit. I like full bodied, dark red wines. Dry and sweet. Usually dry, with some nice oak character, but this Merlot sounded pretty appealing to me so I went for it. My second batch was a Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Vinter's Reserve.
2.Use the Right Equipment, and Clean (and Sanitize!) It
So what is the right equipment? First off, I would ditch the plastic fermenter. Your wine is going to be aging for a long time, and plastic has a higher oxygen exchange rate than glass. There's also always the possibility that your bucket has absorbed some flavors from other fermentations, and can impart those flavors on the wine. Overall, I'd stick with glass for the wine process. Most kits will get you a 6 gallon yield, and since you will be transferring the wine to a secondary (to bulk age long term without the risk of autolysis), you'll want there to be as little headspace as possible. So you'll want a 6 gallon glass fermenter. Now that you know how you're making and storing your wine, make sure you're cleaning and sanitizing everything. Carboy, spoons, hydrometer, the works. This is just good practice. Get all of the grime and dirt away, then sanitize. You'll provide a better environment for the yeast (the bacteria you want) to thrive without any infections or off-flavors.
3. Use Good Water
If your water tastes bad, your wine will probably taste bad. Being such a critical element of the final product, you should be paying attention to the type of water you're using when you make your wine. Keep in mind, we are talking about kits here, not wine in general. For our purposes, all of our sugars and such are coming from the extract, so we only need to worry about clean, minimal water that has just enough nutrients to keep the yeast happy and thriving. For this reason, spring water is a great choice, the kind you can find in bulk at the grocery store. It has minerals still, but no chlorine or iron flavors. It's fairly minimal, and is a great place to start.
4. Focus on your Yeast
If you're good to your yeast, your yeast will be good to you, and the old maxim that "Brewer's make wort, yeast makes beer" also holds true for wine. Yeast is your friend. Find out what temperatures the yeast performs well in and be prepared to control your fermentation temperatures. Make sure you have enough yeast to pitch by using a yeast pitching calculator. In my Merlot batch, I decided to use Red Star Pasteur Red. I'm not sure what the kit came with, but this sounded like the yeast I wanted to use and I grabbed two packets. It had high reviews from other vinters, so I was eager to try it. Settle on a yeast, and treat it well.
5. Be Patient
Take your time. The instructions may say you're ready to bottle and drink in 48 days, but don't believe it. You can sample when you bottle, I do every time, but be prepared to let the bottles age over time. Start setting up your pipeline, because it may take a while. Don't let this discourage you! Sampling the wine over time and noting its changes is one of the best experiences in winemaking. You'll learn to love it, and to keep yourself busy with more batches or other forms of brewing!