Fermentation Basics, Part 2: Basic Winemaking Equipment

by Dave Salaba

Besides bottling our wine from last year’s vintage, the weeks leading up to each harvest is a great time to organize and make sure that we have everything that we’ll need before the grapes or juice arrive. That said, let’s get ready to make some wine!

Customers ask, “What kind of equipment and supplies will I need to make good wine?” While the list can be nearly endless (or so it may seem to our friends and family), let’s go over the basic equipment that is absolutely necessary to make a decent bottle of wine. Surprisingly, at the starter level, the list is relatively short


Raw Materials
To make good wine it is absolutely critical that you have good grapes or juice. While it may be obvious, grapes that are over- or under-ripe, infested with mold or insects, or are excessively shriveled, will severely challenge efforts to make anything drinkable. You should also avoid too much of what winemakers call MOG (Materials Other than Grapes). While a few stems and an occasional leaf is fine, too much will ruin your wine. In short, you must begin with fresh grapes or juice.

The choice of grape varieties is considerable, so it’s important to give this some thought now, while you have time to think things through. If you are not sure, feel free to give us a call at Keystone Homebrew. We have many years of experience answering this question, and can offer many suggestions. Now is also a good time to decide how much wine you are going to make, and therefore how much raw materials you’ll need. For fresh grapes, figure on 2¼ to 2½ gallons of finished wine per 36-pound box. This includes what winemakers call a “swing” of about 10%, plus or minus, due to moisture content in the grapes before you start, the losses during crushing and pressing, and a little extra that you’ll need for “topping up” (keeping your carboys filled) along the way. For fresh juice (either red or white), you can figure that the amount that is in the pail (typically 6 gallons) is close to the amount of finished wine because most of the early losses will have already occurred.

We encourage reviewing these choices now because trying to decide what kind of grape or juice, and how much to buy while standing in front of a pallet-load of grapes can be a frustrating, confusing, and exhausting experience-I’ve been there, and can tell you that it’s not as much fun as knowing what you want. Finally, after making your decisions, it’s a real plus to call before the grapes and juice arrive and make your reservation with Keystone. You’ll be virtually assured of getting exactly what you want. While our suppliers are extremely reliable, they may sell out of the variety that you want if you fail to reserve yours.

Primary Fermenters
Any vessel that is made of a food-grade material such as glass, fiberglass, oxygen-impermeable plastic, or stainless steel will suffice. Just remember to allow sufficient “headspace” for the fermentation to proceed without difficulty. This is usually a large, open-topped large fermentor for crushed grapes, or a smaller container such as a carboy or demijohn if you are making wine from juice. If you are unsure about what is best, we can help answer questions. You should plan on leaving about one-third of the total volume of the vessel as “headspace” to avoid trouble such as “boil-over” spills caused by carbon dioxide foaming during the most vigorous portion of the fermentation.  Avoid containers such as “Homer Buckets” from places like Home Depot or plastic garbage cans or pails, as these are not food grade plastic and often contain insecticides or rodenticides to keep critters at bay.

Wine Press
If you are making wine from grapes, you will need some way to separate the juice from the skins and seeds. Fresh juice already has the skins and seeds removed. For small quantities of wine from grapes, pouring the juice/skins/seeds through a small nylon press bag and squeezing out the juice will suffice. For larger amounts, wine presses can be rented from Keystone, borrowed from another winemaker, or several winemakers can purchase and share a press. Be sure to work this one out well in advance so you are not making yourself crazy when you need this piece of equipment. Wine presses vary considerably in size, style, and cost. We at Keystone can help you find what’s best for you.

Secondary Fermenters
After primary fermentation is finished (say at 7 to 10 days or so), and the wine has been pressed off the skins or  racked off the gross lees, we now have something that we could call “wine.” But in reality it is a raw, cloudy, gassy liquid that is still slowly fermenting small amounts of sugar that the yeast has not yet consumed. At this stage, you will need a container (or two) that you can fill nearly to the top with the wine and attach an airlock to complete secondary fermentation sealed away from air. A slightly different problem presents itself here-that is, the amount of wine you’ll now have is less than the volume you started with. Here is where several containers of varying sizes will come to the rescue, as amounts never work out precisely when dealing with this newly made wine. Generally glass carboys and demijons are used as secondary fermenters, but barrels and variable-capacity tanks are more advanced alternatives.

Hydrometer and Cylinder
A simple, essential piece of equipment for the home winemaker, a hydrometer is critical for measuring initial sugar levels before fermentation so that adjustments can be made if necessary. The reading after the sugar has been adjusted is known as the original gravity. The final gravity reading is also important to determine the end of fermentation. Both the original and final gravities are required for calculating alcohol percentage in your final product. Cost for the set is modest.

Potassium Metabisulfite (Meta) and Cleansers/Sanitizers
We’ve covered this topic in Part 1 of this article (see Keystone Newsletter May 2004, page 5), so we won’t say much, except that you should remember that the number one cause of bad wine is poor sanitation. Cleansers such as One-Step, B-Brite, or PBW are a good place to start the process and the mandatory doses of “meta” will help ensure a clean, healthy fermentation. Again, we can help with questions here at Keystone.

Yeast and Fermentation Aids
As you might suspect, there is endless debate around the world over yeast and making wine. What kind, which strain, how much to use, what temperature ranges are best, SO2 tolerance, yeast’s effect on malolactic fermentation and so on. You can see that it can get complicated pretty quickly. However, if we remember that by sticking to a few basics, we can consistently produce a decent, and possibly really good, bottle of wine at home. Fermentation starts with your choice of yeast. Any number of tried-and-true cultured yeast strains will do nicely. A few reliable ones to consider for red wines are EC 1118, Pasteur Red, Bourgovin RC-212 and  Premier Cuvee.  For whites, Cote des Blancs, D-47, Pasteur Champagne, and EC 1118 are good choices. Again, at Keystone we are ready to help clear up any confusion if you are unsure about which to use.

Some people ask whether they can let the “natural” yeasts on the grapes do the job. You certainly can, but you should know that wild yeasts are notoriously unreliable and often will die off when the alcoholic concentration in the wine reaches 6 or 7 percent during fermentation, leaving behind significant amounts or residual sugar that can result in potentially serious problems with microbial spoilage. Believe me, a “stuck” fermentation with several hundred dollars worth of grapes is one thing you don’t want to experience.

Believe it or not, nutrient requirements of yeast vary considerably. It’s usually difficult to determine whether or not there are sufficient nutrients (like minerals and certain vitamins) for the little critters contained in the grape juice. This might sound trivial, but it’s not. If there aren’t enough nutrients to complete the fermentation, its likely that the fermentation will slow down and eventually stop, resulting a “stuck” fermentation. To avoid this, just add a small quantity of commercially available yeast nutrient. This comes as an inexpensive, premixed powder containing all necessary ingredients. Mixing 1 to 2 teaspoons of yeast nutrient in a small quantity of water and adding to each 5 gallons of must is usually sufficient to do the trick.

But fermentation doesn’t stop with yeast. Malolactic cultures are used to mellow the tart, sometime harsh, malic acid found in varying quantities in wine. While a certain amount of malolactic conversion occurs naturally, using a professional-grade malolactic culture can assure a smoother wine, usually with enhanced vanilla flavors and a rounder, more buttery mouthfeel. Nearly all red wines, and some white wines such as chardonnay, can benefit from malolactic fermentation. This subject will be covered in detail in a future newsletter.

Other Necessary Equipment
Stainless steel measuring spoons, a good glass (or polyethylene) 1-quart measuring cup, a sturdy mixing paddle at least 36 inches long to reach to the bottom of the fermenter, a medium-sized stainless steel strainer or wine thief to help in getting a juice sample for the hydrometer, a small funnel, and a thermometer (the floating type) as well as a spare plastic pail (or two) will be about all you need to get started. You may also want to have several old towels and a mop to wipe up any spills that are sure to occur along the way. If you are using an open-topped fermenter, find an old, clean sheet to cover the vessel during the fermentation to keep out curious (and hungry) insects, as well as dust. Don’t forget a notebook to record key information such as starting volume, starting degrees Brix, and so on. Don’t count on your memory to bail you out here-write it down!

Education, How To Make Wine

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