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Introduction to Wine - Making Grape Wines

Wine is an alcoholic beverage whose fermentables come from grapes. Not grocery store grapes (known as table grapes), but from wine making varieties not sold in supermarkets. This is because wine grapes aren’t really good for eating. Wine grapes are, smaller, more pungent, and have thicker chewy skins. Eating them just isn’t pleasant, and if you can’t eat it, ferment it (not always a good idea)! Many wines get their names from the variety of grapes they came from. Here are a few varieties of grapes that may ring a bell. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz / Syrah. There are hundreds, and wine is made from one or several blends of grape varieties.

Getting Started: Equipment and Kit Selection

To get started making your own wine, the first thing you'll need is equipment. The best way to go about collecting the needed equipment is to buy a wine equipment kit, which has everything you need to get started (minus the grape juice). If you already have homebrewing experience, you may have some of the things you need already and don't need an equipment kit. In that case, here's a list of individual items. 

  • Carboy or bucket - To hold fermenting and aging wines.
  • Airlock and bung - This allows CO2 produced by fermentation to escape while sealing the wine from the outside world.
  • Hydrometer - These measure if your batch is still fermenting and let you calculate ABV.
  • Auto-siphon and/or Siphon tubing - Allows the transfer of liquid without disturbing the yeast and fruit sediment.
  • Bottles and Bottling equipment - Wine can be bottled in wine or beer bottles, you’ll need a capper and beer bottles (with new, non-used crown caps), or a corker and wine bottles (with new, non-used corks). *Note: Do not store carbonating liquids in wine bottles. They will explode. Standard wine bottles are not meant to contain the force created by carbonating.
  • Sanitizer - Using sanitizer greatly reduces the risk of infections and ruined batches. This is especially important as wines age for long periods of time and may continue aging in the bottle for several years.

That is a basic list of what you’ll need, but it covers all your bases and you can add more equipment later.

Making Your First Wines:

Making your Must: Must is the term used to describe the unfermented solution that you add yeast to in order to make wine. There are several ways of acquiring grape juice depending on your location, available cash flow, or DIY attitude. Buying a Wine Recipe “Kit”: The majority of wine kits range in price from $65 to $140. These are typically the option available to everyone, as most online homebrew stores carry them. They will contain all the grape juice you need for 5 gallons of wine and may or may not contain the grape skins, yeast, tannin, and acid additions based on the kit. \

The cheaper kits tend to be lesser in quality and may call for you to add additional sugar. While this isn’t necessarily bad, plain sugar ferments to alcohol, but adds no additional flavor to your final product. Acquiring juice / grapes directly: If you buy grapes directly from a nearby winery, (yes just ask, they might sell you some), you’ll need a fruit press in addition to the other equipment listed. You can also purchase grape concentrates in cans. The cans are typically the cheapest way to go and are hit or miss. If you make a kit from the canned concentrate and find the flavor lacking, double up on the cans for next go around. This route does not include any additional ingredients like the ones in the kits listed above. Once you have your juice, yeast, and additives from a kit or otherwise, you are ready to begin.

    1. Sanitize all of your equipment. Anything coming in contact with your wine should be sanitized. This includes any mixing spoons and fermenter.
    2. Add water or sugar if needed, and take a gravity reading. Depending on your kit, you may be asked to add tannins or acids at this point.
    3. Add 1 campden tab per gallon to your must and wait 24 hours. Camden tabs (or potassium metabisulfite) act to inhibit wild yeast already living in the must, and serve as an antioxidant. Wait 24 hours before adding yeast (or you’ll inhibit your yeast pitch as well). Now is a good time to get a gravity reading.
    4. After the 24 hours, pitch your yeast. Give fermentation about 4 weeks.

*If you are adding grape skins or fruit parts to your wine, stir the fruit floating on the surface back in until you have healthy fermentation. This is called punching the cap and prevents CO2 build up in the wine, as well as inhibits mold growth on the fruit surface. Once there is alcohol, it will be absorbed into the fruit and you won’t need to worry as much.

While your wine is fermenting, it’s time to talk oak. Oak aging can take your wine to the next level. If you have homebrewing experience, you may already know that you don’t need a whole barrel for this process. Oak comes in many forms for conventional home brewing use. I won’t go over everything there is regarding oak (as that’s a whole other subject), but I will go over the terms and tools to guide you in further research. There are 3 levels of toast in all forms you’ll find, light, medium, and dark. Each will add different characteristics. Depending on the wine you are making, you may want to think about oak aging. Once you’ve decided on your toast level, you also want to look at what type of oak. Three common ones in wine making are French, American, and Hungarian. How you deliver the oak to your wine is up to you. It comes in chips, cubes, staves (like a dowel), and spiral forms. Chips will oak your wine very quickly, within 2 weeks even. It’s important to monitor semi regularly while using oak chips to not over oak the wine. Cubes are the next largest and take longer, but add greater complexity due to the different levels of toast inside of the cube. Staves and spirals take the longest. With the oak overview, we’ll continue on.

  1. If you decide to oak your wine, rack it to another fermenter (don’t forget to sanitize) on top of the oak. The oak may or may not float at first, but will eventually sink after absorbing wine. Once you’ve reached your desired oak level, which depends on the form of oak as well as your goal in flavor profile.
  2. If you forgo oaking, you can still rack to a second fermenter for further bulk aging off the lees (or sediment). Bulk aging will create more consistency from bottle to bottle and give you a head start in aging bottles. Over the months of aging, your airlock may dry out, so it’s important to check it occasionally and top it up as needed.
  3. Once you’ve aged to your liking, you are ready to bottle. Wine can be bottled in wine or beer bottles. Stabilize your mead at this time by adding potassium metabisulfite (campden tabs) and potassium sorbate. This will keep your wine from re-fermenting in the bottle. Wait 48 hours before bottling. Sanitize your bottles and siphoning equipment. Sanitizing corks and caps is optional.

If your caps have an oxygen absorbing lining:

Don’t get the caps wet. Once they get wet, they will begin to scrub the oxygen from the air and will be useless by the time you get them onto bottles. Corked wine bottles should be stored on their side to keep the cork moist. Capped beer bottles should be stored upright to keep the caps from getting wet (if you have oxygen absorbing caps, turn the bottle upside down and the right side up to activate the cap’s oxygen absorbing property). When it comes to aging wine, more time is usually always better. It can be hard, especially for a new winemaker, but the reward is worth it. Having 5 gallons worth of wine is helpful in being able to save some for a year or more.