Home winemaking is a fun and relatively easy process that can be an inexpensive alternative to purchasing it. It can produce a quality product every bit as good as what is available by retail and makes a great gift. All it takes is a little planning and a few brewing supplies and you will be on your way to being the envy of all of your friends.
Wine making kits are available in a multitude of varieties and styles from both online retailers such as Grape Stompers and local stores like The Brew Hut. They usually run for $75-$100 and provide enough juice to produce about 30 bottles of wine, roughly $3 a bottle. Most of the supply retailers maintain a stock of many varietals of grape juice from around the world, as well as starter kits that contain all the brewing supplies you will need for about $150.
Supply kits typically include a 6.5 gallon primary brew bucket, a 6 gallon carboy, long stirring spoon, stoppers and air locks, an auto siphon for racking (transferring) the wine to another container, tubing, a hydrometer for measuring the specific gravity, and a bottle filler. A few other things that can be helpful include a second pail, with a spout which makes bottling easier and a carboy carrier because six gallons of wine weighs about 50 pounds.
Finally, investing in a drill mounted paint stirrer is strongly suggested. During primary fermentation yeast eats the sugar in the grapes and produces alcohol (ETOH) which is good and carbon dioxide (CO2) that you do not want. Prior to bottling, all that CO2 will need to be removed from suspension in the liquid so you don’t end up with champaign. Trying to do that by hand with a long spoon is not very easy. As with any hobby, there are some best practices to learn and a few common pitfalls to be avoided.
Most juice kits will come in a box that contains 6 gallons of grape juice from a vineyard, and packets with yeast, oak chips, some chemicals such as potassium metabisulphite, a package of isinglass (clarifier), a package of bentonite clay, and some instructions.
The first step is to clean, clean, clean. Then when everything is clean, clean it one more time. Bacteria is no friend to wine making and can quickly turn a $100 investment into a foul smelling nightmare. There are special cleaning agents available from the most brew stores that kill wild yeasts and work very well. A no-rinse sanitizer is also suggested that can be mixed up in batches and kept in an old spray bottle. Spray everything with a good coating of the sanitizer before it touches the grapes. Also, spray the lid to the bag of grapes before it is opened. Hygiene in wine making cannot be stressed enough, as a result take the time, and wash items more than once. Diligence in this area will pay off in the long run in a higher quality and better tasting wine produced.
Following the directions of the specific kit, place two liters of warm water in the bottom of the primary fermenter and mix in the bentonite clay powder. Bentonite has an affinity for yeast and stays in suspension in the grape juice. This will help the yeast evenly distribute itself across the grape juice and provide for an even fermentation. Next add the bag of grape juice provided and mix will with the spoon to incorporate the bentonite throughout the grapes.
Using the wine thief and hydrometer that comes in the supply kit, the next step is to check the specific gravity. As yeast eats the sugar in the grapes it produces alcohol. This measurement will identify the alcohol content in the wine and is how the fermentation process is monitored. Once the first hydrometer reading is obtained, it should be record it in a notebook then checked every few days. The specific gravity will decrease until the wine is done fermenting.
Next add the oak that come with the kit. This gives the wine some character and mimics aging in an oak barrel. Some kits come with chips, others with an oak corkscrew stick that steeps in the grapes like a tea bag. Some kits also come with elderflowers or other items based on the type of wine being made.
Mix well to incorporate the oak chips under the surface of the grape juice and finally sprinkle the packet of yeast onto the surface of the grapes, but allow this to rest on the surface and do not mix the yeast in. Check the temperature of the batch to ensure it is between 65-75 degrees for the yeast to function optimally. Place the lid on the primary fermentation bucket and add an air lock into the hole provided.
Storage should be in a location that maintains a relatively stable temperature between 65-75 degrees. In winter, a heating pad may be useful. If all goes well, the air lock should begin to bubble indicating fermentation has started within 24-48 hours. The wine should remain in this bucket until primary fermentation has lowered the specific gravity to 1.010 or below, usually 5-7 days. The lower the temperature, the longer this will take.
In a week we will move to step two – racking and secondary fermentation.