Fermentation Basics, Part 3: Questions We Regularly Receive
by Dave Salaba
Fresh grapes…fresh juice…kits…is there really a difference in making wine from each?
You bet there is! While each method will produce wine, there are significant differences. The most difficult (and often costly) way is using fresh grapes. If there is a scale of difficulty from 1 to 10 with 10 being “next to impossible, why did I get myself into this?” and a 1 being so easy that the wife or significant other asks, “why you don’t do this all the time?” then making wine from grapes is about an 8.
Making wine from fresh grapes is akin to making a cake from scratch. While not going through the entire process here, some things that make it more difficult include costs of materials, the space and equipment needed, and the limited time that fresh grapes are available-usually September and October. Grapes are a perishable product that waits for no one! You will need to have a flexible schedule and work when dictated by Mother Nature, or other forces, such as when the shipping company delivers late. So, a little patience will be helpful, but hey! It’s our hobby…right?
Next, the grapes will need to be crushed, de-stemmed, fermented, pressed, and the partly fermented juice stored for secondary fermentation in glass, stainless steel, or wooden barrels. If you are thinking that it could also be heavy, dirty work, you are right! On the other hand, fresh grapes can produce wine that has the most amazing flavor, range of colors, delicate nose, and fullness of taste that no other method can rival.
Less difficult is making wine using fresh juice. On our scale of difficulty, it’s about a 6. The process is essentially the same as with grapes, but eliminates the crushing, de-stemming, and pressing. You won’t need to worry about how much juice a box of grapes will yield, or getting a press, or disposing grape skins. Still, fresh juice is perishable, so you’ll have to make time when it arrives.
Wine made from juice generally results in some loss of color, flavor, and aroma. While these losses are small, they can be noticeable when the wine is compared to wine made from fresh grapes. If you are looking for a sound, early drinking wine, then fresh juice might be the best way to go. However, if you are looking for a wine that rivals the stuff made from fresh grapes, you may be disappointed starting from juice.
The easiest method is using a kit. Now before you start to make a funny face, let me say that the wines made from today’s kits can be surprisingly good. In fact, they often rival those that you can purchase in retail wine stores-no kidding! The manufacturing processes used to produce them are space-age and the juice concentrates that are the base for the wine retains all the characteristics of the original grape. Scale of difficulty here is only a 3. The kits come with all the necessary ingredients and well-written, easy-to-follow instructions. If you can read and follow them, you can make wine, period. You will need only basic equipment and minimal space to make your wine, and the entire process usually takes only 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the style of wine. Wines made from kits are usually ready to drink in 3 to 6 months.
The big advantage with wine kits is that you can make wine at your leisure…no fighting Mother Nature. Costs for a kit range from about $60 to over $100, depending on the grape and style-all produce good wine. Remember, each kit makes about 25 to 30 bottles, so even with the most expensive kit, each 750ml bottle will cost less than $5. Not a bad deal. If you are a first-time winemaker, or have never enjoyed the fun of making wine in the “off season,” give a kit a try…you’ll be surprised just how easy it is and how good the results can be.
Whichever way you make wine, your friends and family will stand amazed at your knowledge about the mysterious process of winemaking. And don’t think that you’ll have trouble finishing all those bottles: Once you hear people at a gathering say “you make a great bottle of wine!” you’ll have lots of volunteers
My grandfather never added yeast to his wine, why should I?
This is a question we hear many times each year. Let me begin by saying that no, you do not need to add a commercial yeast to your juice or must in order to get a fermentation going. The skin of the wine grape is covered with a white, waxy-looking substance that is slightly sticky and which helps trap yeast and other airborne microorganisms while the grapes ripen. However, in addition to several different kinds of yeast, an amazing variety of microbes come along for a free meal of grape sugars. Mold, fungi, and bacteria are usually present in large numbers and surprisingly comprise about 95% of the biomass covering the grape. Yeasts only make up about 5%, so you can see the potential for trouble here.
While many of these molds, fungi, and bacteria are not particularly harmful, or are killed when we add sulfur dioxide, there are some that can cause real trouble for winemakers. In particular, a group known as LAB, or lactic-acid bacteria, can multiply quickly and either spoil the fermentation outright or create high levels of bad-smelling, bad-tasting compounds that can result in lousy-tasting wine. In addition, the “natural” wild yeasts usually do not have the horsepower to ferment above 7% alcohol. This presents another problem, as a lot of unfermented sugar in the wine can feed those pesky lactic-acid bacteria, which love to feed on sugars. So, while grandpa sometimes made good wine, it’s a lot less risky to add some commercial yeast. Only good things can happen by doing this: you’ll be more likely to end up with great wine, and I promise that no one will be offended once they taste it.
I see all sorts of cleansers and sanitizers; what should I use?
Good question. While you can use just about anything to clean equipment, some things are better, and a heck of a lot easier, to use. For starters, you’ll want to clean off all visible dirt and residues that may be in and on your equipment. Here, hot water, a long soak, a mild cleanser like PBW or B-Brite, and a little elbow grease should do the trick.
People often ask if they can use dishwashing detergent, like Cascade, or a liquid soap, like Joy. You sure can, but they are a lot of work to rinse off completely and any remaining residue is deadly to wine quality. The same goes for liquid bleach. It does a great job of killing microbes, but like all chlorine-based cleansers, it is highly corrosive and you have to rinse, rinse, rinse-or else.
Once crud has dried inside a hose or piece of equipment, getting it completely off can be a real chore and a really non-fun part of winemaking. So make life easy for yourself and completely rinse your equipment as soon as you are done using it. That way, all you’ll need to do is give it a light cleaning before its next use. Drying your equipment is also important. Knowing that bacteria and mold just love standing water, wineries go to great lengths to ensure that their equipment and hoses are thoroughly dried after washing. So hang up your hoses and stand your equipment upright to completely drain.
After your equipment is clean, good sanitizer like Iodophor or Star San for carboys or hoses will do the trick. These solutions are easy to prepare and use with little worry about harmful residues. Another good choice is a strong solution of potassium meta-bisulfite followed by a citric acid rinse—a technique used by many wineries.