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Wine - The Winemaker's FAQ
Welcome to the Winemaker's FAQ where you'll find answers to all your winemaking questions! I've grouped similar questions together to make it easy to find what you're looking for. I'll be adding to this hub regularly, to make it a comprehensive reference for the home winemaker. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, please add it as a comment. I'll answer, and also add it to the main hub. Thanks!
What is the quickest way to make wine?
The quickest way is to let other people do the hard work for you! Buy supermarket grape juice, general purpose wine yeast and granulated sugar, and follow the step by step instructions in my beginner's hub, How to make Wine from Grape Juice. This will take 3 to 5 weeks, depending on temperature. Beware of Internet recipes for one-week or two-week wine. I've never seen one that wasn't seriously flawed. I've seen some that were positively dangerous!
What is the easiest wine to make?
Still dry table wine. Table wine is around 12% alcohol, well within the tolerance of a good wine yeast. Dry wines are easier because, when all the sugar is used up, the fermentation stops by itself. Sweet wines have to be stopped artificially. Strong dessert wines need special techniques to ferment beyond about 14%. Sparkling wines need particular care and attention. But this is all good news - the easiest wine to make is also the most popular type!
Is it legal to make wine at home?
In the UK, it is legal to make your own wine and beer, but not to distill the spirit from it. It is prohibited to sell it without a special license. Similar rules apply in most non-Islamic countries, but if in doubt it is best to check. It is no part of Paraglider's mission to land his readers in jail!
Does wine really improve with age?
Yes. The older I get, the more I like it! Seriously though, all wine will improve with a little ageing, but long ageing will only help a wine that has been specifically designed to be aged, and such a wine will often be pretty unpalatable until it has been aged. Red wines generally need a longer rest than whites, because of their higher tannin content.
Which is stronger, homemade or bought wine?
There is no difference if the home wine recipe is well designed and executed. So-called yeastless or sugar-free recipes turn out quite a lot weaker than bought wines. The folk tales of Grandpa's parsnip wine that was as strong as whisky have two explanations: 1) the stuff tasted foul and gave you a raging headache because it was poisonous, not strong; 2) the old man was secretly distilling it in the potting shed. Naughty Grandpa!
FRUIT & VEGETABLE QUESTIONS
What's special about grapes?
Wine grapes, properly grown and ripened, can contain the ideal balance of sugars, acids and tannins needed for a quality wine. Also, wine yeast is a cultivated form of grape yeast, so grapes are its natural environment. And a happy yeast makes a better wine.
What other fruits can I use?
You can make wine from most fruits, but you will usually need to add some sugar and possibly some acid (lemon juice will do). As no single fruit has the same balance as grapes, it is often a good plan to use pairs of contrasting types. E.g. Grapefruit is too acid and not sweet. Bananas are sweet but with no acid. Get the idea?
Can I use bruised or slightly rotten fruit?
If you must, but it's risky. The organisms that cause the rotting will compete with your yeast for colonisation. If the yeast wins, you might be ok, but if it loses, you'll end up with a pretty grim brew. It's always best to use fresh, ripe, sound fruit. If you wouldn't bake it in a pie, don't put it in your wine!
Can I use vegetable juices?
Yes, but not on their own. you will need to add sugar and acid because vegetables are very low in both. Or you can mix vegetable and fruit juices. Be a little careful with vegetable-based wines as they can sometimes contain undesirable alcohols as well as the ethanol. Even traces of methanol are dangerous to health.
How do I prepare the vegetables?
If you have a juice extractor, use that! If not, chop the vegetables fairly small, boil them in water (don't add salt!) but don't let them disintegrate. Strain off the liquid and leave to cool. Eat the vegetables (waste not, want not!) Remember to add sugar and acid to the vegetable juice, or blend with fruit juice. (Or both).
Can I make wine without using yeast?
No. A sweet fruit juice might start fermenting all by itself, but that's only because some airborne wild yeast has contaminated it. Some wild yeasts are capable of producing wine, but most are not. It is far better and safer to use your choice of wine yeast and be in control of the process.
Can I use baking yeast (bread yeast)?
It's better than trusting to luck with wild yeasts, but it's still not a good idea. Baking yeast will certainly start your fermentation, but it has a low alcohol tolerance, and will die before completing the job. This will leave you with a wine that is too sweet. It's much better to use a good quality wine yeast.
What exactly does the yeast do?
It does two things. At first, it multiplies by replication, vastly increasing its numbers, and in the process it uses up all the oxygen in the juice. Then it starts to release enzymes which break down the sugars to form alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. That is why fermenting juices froth and bubble.
How much yeast should I add?
You don't need much, because it grows by itself. But don't just add it straight to the juice. Add about a teaspoonful of dried All-Purpose Wine Yeast to about half a pint of the juice. Shake it, cover it, and leave it in a warm place for about 24 hours. When it has come alive, you can add the rest of the juice.
Where can I buy wine yeast?
If you don't have a winemaking supplier near you, there are plenty that do mail order. Google for winemaking supplies. And choose 'all purpose' or 'general purpose' wine yeast.
Why do I need to add anything to my wine?
In some cases, you don't. You can make dry table wine from fruit juice, sugar, yeast, and nothing else. And it's satisfying to do so. But there are two main reasons why winemakers use additives. 1) Not all juices contain enough natural nutrients to keep the yeast alive and healthy throughout the process. 2) Wine that is to be matured can benefit from added antioxidants to delay the natural oxidation process until ageing is well advanced.
What is yeast nutrient? When do I use it?
Yeast nutrient is the winemaking equivalent of garden fertiliser. Yeast is a single cell 'plant' that, just like garden vegetables, needs the right nutrition. In particular, it needs a source of fermentable nitrogen. If this is lacking, the fermentation may stop completely, or it may take a wrong turning and start producing hydrogen sulphide, the bad egg gas. You can obtain yeast nutrient from any winemaking supplier. For quantity, follow the manufacturer's instructions, and always add it to the juice before starting the fermentation.
What is DAP?
DAP is diammonium phosphate. It is the principal ingredient of yeast nutrient. Only specialists and professional winemakers would have reasons to use DAP on its own. Just stick to general purpose yeast nutrient.
What is pectolase used for?
Pectolase, or pectolytic enzyme, breaks down pectin in a wine must. Pectin makes jams and jellies set, but is not helpful im wine as it can form a haze that will not settle. Juice wines usually don't need pectolase, but pulp-fermented wines may extract too much pectin from the fruit, causing trouble later. Pectolase added to the pulp has two effects - it reduces the risk of pectin hazes and also increases the juice yield from the pulp, as the pectolase breaks down the cell walls and helps liquify the pulp.
What are sulphites? Do I need to use them?
Sulphites are added to wine as sodium metabisulphite or potassium metabisulphite. Both chemicals act as a source of free sulphite ions in the juice. The sulphite does two useful things. 1) It prevents contamination of the juice by wild yeasts and other spoilage organisms. 2) It acts as an antioxidant, by sacrificially oxidising itself, forming sulphates in the process. Without sulphites, white wines tend to go brown and flat, like a sliced apple.
If you are making table wine from supermarket juices, for early drinking, then you do not need to use sulphites. But if you are using fruit or vegetables, or if you intend maturing the wine, careful use of sulphites is recommended.
What are Campden tablets?
Campden tablets are aspirin-sized pills of potassium metabisulphite. They offer the most convenient way of adding a controlled quantity of sulphite to a wine. But they are not very soluble and should always be crushed (between two spoons) and dissolved in a little water before adding to the wine. Keep Campden tablets out of the reach of children.
Doesn't sulphite smell bad?
Sulphur dioxide is a poisonous gas with a sharp, pungent smell. If you sulphite a wine at the end of fermentation, to stabilise it and prevent early oxidation, then you should not be in a hurry to drink it. As the wine matures, the sulphite level drops steadily. When the wine is ready for drinking, there should be no discernable sulphur dioxide smell. Sometimes you can smell sulphite in commercial wines, and usually this is because they have been rushed to the market too soon.
Is sulphite the only preservative used?
No. Some winemakers add potassium sorbate at the end of fermentation. This forms sorbic acid in the wine, which is a yeast inhibitor. You don't need it in dry wines, but it can be used to prevent intended semi-sweet or sweet wines from continuing to ferment past the desired end point. Note that sorbate is genuinely a preservative, whereas sulphite is technically a retardant but still an active part of the winemaking and maturing process.
What are finings? Do I need to add them?
Finings help a wine to clear. Most wines will fall clear by themselves, especially if you refrigerate them for a few days. But some may form a haze which refuses to settle out. Finings added to the wine can help the tiny haze particles to coagulate and fall as sediment, or in some cases to adhere to the finings particles and settle out together. There are problems though. Different types of haze may require different finings, and the wrong addition can simply add to the haze.
In fact there are two broad types of finings: organic, and inorganic or mineral. Organic finings (e.g. egg white, casein) react chemically with the haze and therefore have to be selected and measured with knowledge and care. Mineral finings are little more than insoluble fine heavy particles that slowly fall through the wine collecting the haze in passing. They are much easier to use.
What is Bentonite?
It is a mineral earth. It is the easiest and usually the most effective inorganic fining agent. If you want to use finings and don't have a degree in biochemistry, stick with Bentonite! Some winemakers add Bentonite to every fermentation, as a precaution, but I don't recommend this, because, though completely harmless, Bentonite will remove some of the more subtle flavours and scents. Note - Bentonite, though technically an additive, is not an ingredient, as it falls to the bottom and is not present in the finished wine.
What equipment do I need?
To get started, the only equipment you need is a plastic pouring funnel and a five litre (one gallon) drinking water container. But you do need a good reliable method. If you take up the hobby seriously, you will want a glass thermometer and a hydrometer (see below). You might want an electric heating mat to keep your fermentation warm, but it is really better just to make your wine in a warm place. When you start designing your own recipes, you should buy an acid testing kit.
What is a hydrometer used for?
A hydrometer is a weighted tube that floats upright, half in, half out of the juice. It has a scale on it which lets you read the Specific Gravity (SG), or density of the juice, as it floats higher in denser liquids. The SG of a juice depends on how much sugar it contains, so the hydrometer is effectively measuring the sugar content of the juice. During fermentation, as the sugar is converted to alcohol, the SG becomes less. The hydrometer is again used to monitor the progress of the fermentation. Finally, it is used to confirm when fermentation has stopped, and the comparison of initial and final SG is used to calculate the alcoholic strength of the finished wine. (For more details, see the section on Technique Questions)
What is a vinometer?
This is an instrument that is supposed to measure the alcoholic strength of a finished wine. It relies on capillary action - the tendency of a liquid to climb inside a narrow tube, or capillary, to a height that depends on various factors, including surface tension, viscosity and specific gravity. It works reasonably well with very dry wines, but with sweeter wines the dissolved sugar affects the result. Being a capillary, it is a difficult instrument to keep clean, and any deposits on the inside will also affect the capillary action. Don't bother buying a vinometer. The right way to measure alcohol content is with before and after hydrometer readings.
What is a fermentation trap?
This is a device to allow fermentation gases (carbon dioxide) to escape from the fermenting vessel while denying access to airborne micro-organisms, dust particles and even fruit flies and other insects that can be attracted by the aroma. There are several designs, but most rely on causing the gases to bubble through water (or sterilising solution). You need one if you are fermenting in the traditional glass demijohn fitted with a cork, but if you are using modern disposable plastic drinking water containers, it is sufficient to use the screw cap, backed off half a turn to allow the gas to escape through the screw thread. Nothing can enter against the steady stream of carbon dioxide.
What is the best kind of fermentation heater?
The two commonest types are electric mats and electric belts. The mat is easier to use. It is like a small electric blanket that you slip underneath the fermentation vessel. They can be quite useful, especially in the early stages when you want to help the process along, but later, when a sediment starts to form, applying heat directly below the sediment can release off flavours into the wine. The fermentation belt solves this problem, as it is wrapped round the outside of the vessel just above the sedimentation level. So, the belt is a better choice than the mat, but better still is simply to control the ambient temperature and use no heaters at all.
What is a fermentation jacket?
This is just a lagged insulating jacket that wraps around the fermentation vessel. It relies on maintaining a good temperature by trapping the heat generated naturally by the fermentation process. Unfortunately it can be self defeating as the trapped heat can lead to temperatures that the yeast can't survive. Also, the jacket takes away the pleasurable and educational experience of watching the fermentation. Lagging jackets are best left to hot-water cylinders!