The following guide will teach you everything you need to know on how to make your own wine at home. As a winemaker with more than 30 years of experience, I have experimented with many different ways to make wine. Here I will share with you what I have learned along the way.
- What is wine?
- Is it easy to make?
- What kind of wine can I make?
- How do I know what wine grapes are best?
- Where do I buy wine grapes?
- What are you talking about?
- What equipment and supplies do I need?
- Important Basics
- Cleanliness is next to godliness.
- Oxygen will destroy your wine.
- Let’s Do It!
- Wine is good for you.
- Acid blend – To add or not to add
What is wine?
Simply answered, it is the natural fermentation of grapes. When yeast on fruit breaks down its sugar, it creates carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Loosely speaking, wine can be made from strawberries, blueberries, dandelions, and really, anything that ferments.
But when most people speak of wine, they are speaking of wine made from fermented grapes.
Is it easy to make?
Perhaps because fermentation is a natural process, wine is as old as civilization itself.
A winery was recently unearthed in the oldest civilization yet discovered, Old Armenia, whose merry citizens were partaking in 4100 B.C.
If the Old Armenians were able to make enough wine for the whole city without electricity or running water or AmazonPrime, surely you can make five gallons.
Now you may have heard that Jesus Christ effortlessly turned water into wine when the alcohol ran out at a particularly jubilant wedding.
Don’t expect it to be quite that easy. You will need to invest a bit more time and attention to detail than he did before you are able to offer your dinner guests a bottle of fine homemade wine.
What kind of wine can I make?
Well, what kind of wine do you like? That’s what you should make!
Red and white wines are all made from three basic groups of grapes: European grapes, or vitis vinifera; native grapes, meaning those that grow naturally on your homeland; and hybrids, which are a cross between the two, meaning essentially that one parent is a vitis vinifera and one is a native.
How do I know what wine grapes are best?
You have Foxgrapes choking your lilacs. Could you use them? Your neighbor grows Concords on trellises in her yard and has offered you as many as you’d like. Should you accept?
The European grapes are the ones whose names you will see more frequently in a wine store: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, to name a few. These vines have been cultivated for thousands of years.
They are still grown today, but with a necessary concession. During the colonial years of America in a spirit of exchange, folks, including notable folks like Thomas Jefferson brought these grapevines to America to try to grow. Likewise, curious Europeans took home native American grapevines.
Unfortunately, the soil clinging to these grapevines housed an American pest, the phylloxera. It chewed through the roots of the vitis vinifera, spreading like wildfire and destroying seventy percent of the vineyards in Europe.
To save the vitis vinifera, growers cloned, that is, they attached the upper part of the vine to a resistant American root, and that is how it is grown today.
Vitis vinifera like abundant sunlight, long, dry summers and sandy soil, which obviously does not exist everywhere, so they can be difficult to grow in wet climates where they are susceptible to molds or chilly climates where winter winds freeze and kill them.
That being said, you will find heartfelt testimonials of winemakers who swear that clay or chalky soil is preferable as they compel the vines to struggle, imparting a heartier flavor to its fruit.
The native grapes can be wild ones like the fox grape, or those grown in your neighbor’s garden, like Concord. They grow naturally here and are resistant to the pests and mildews that plague the vitis vinifera, but they have sharp flavors and pungent aromas and they do not make the best wine.
Hybrids combine the best of both worlds. Growers have created varieties that are hardy and taste good. These are becoming increasingly available. You might recognize Marachel Foch, Chambourcin or Vignoles.
So try the ones that appeal to you. Do you like a light fruity wine or a dry heady wine? You may not be able to secure the exact kind of grape you want in a given year, but you can probably find a similar alternative.
Who knows, in time, you may even decide to grow your favorite grapes.
I prefer organic grapes or better yet, grapes grown biodynamically. These are not very easy to find and that might be another good reason to grow your own.
If you take one look at the seasonal spraying schedule published by one of the university agricultural departments for the quantity and frequency of chemicals recommended for controlling pests and mildews, it could color your wine drinking experience.
For an insight into biodynamic wine, read Nicolas Joly’s book, Wine from Sky to Earth.
Where do I buy wine grapes?
It is becoming easier to procure wine grapes than in the past. If you are fortunate enough to live near a vineyard, you might wander over and ask if they have any extra they’d consider selling you.
You can also inquire at your local wine and home brew store if you live in a mid-size town.
You can try a local wholesale producer if you live in a metropolitan area.
And alas, you can also simply search “wine grapes for sale” on the internet. Grapes from California are available in early autumn and grapes from South America are available in Spring.
How much do I need? The easiest vessels to store it in are six-gallon glass carboys (jugs). One gallon of wine requires about 16 pounds of grapes.
You will leave some room for fermentation, but some will evaporate as well and you will want to replace it, so go ahead and buy 100 pounds.
If you can, it might be interesting to order 50 pounds each of a vitis vinifera and a hybrid variety you can blend. Creating sensational flavors is a good deal of the fun.
What are you talking about?
Winemakers have their own language and freely toss about phrases you may never have heard or that simply don’t make sense in the context. Don’t be intimidated. It is far simpler than it sounds.
For example, a primary fermenter can be just a plastic bucket. Lees are just sediment. Must is floating grape skins. Here are a few more common terms:
Bung: A bung is a rubber stopper to close up the jug. Ideally it has a hole drilled in it for a fermentation lock. Even more ideally, it has a cool sparkling clean double fermentation lock in it and it’s ready for action.
Campden tablets: I may as well tell you about this again as you will see them in every recipe and might forget that this is the pill form of potassium metabisulfite, a wonderful substance in any form.
Carboys: Big jugs.
Fermentation lock: There are a few different kinds. I often chip or lose the caps on the small vertical plastic ones and I like the geometry of the double ones a little better.
Hydrometer: An instrument that measures the specific gravity or density of the liquid compared to the density of water. This means that it is measuring the sugar in the liquid.
This is significant to a winemaker because the sugar turns into alcohol and you want to keep your eye on that process.
Lees: This is just another name for the stuff that filters out of the must. It has tiny seeds, pieces of grape skin, dead yeast and other things that were part of the grape’s ecosystem and won’t completely dissolve. Nobody wants to closely evaluate and more accurately name this, so it’s just called lees.
Must: Definitely not as bad as it sounds. It’s not as though you must do something. Must happens on its own.
When the yeast starts bubbling away, filling your home with the aroma of baking bread and happily turning the sweetness of summer into alcohol, the gas bubbles push as many grape skins as it can to the top of the juice. If you don’t push them down, they will attract microorganisms. So you punch it down below the surface and mix it back in with a long spoon.
It’s also called the Cap.
Pips: What you get on your toes from stomping grapes. Psych! It really means grape seeds.
Primary Fermenter: The first vessel the crushed grapes are out in for fermentation.
Secondary Fermenter or third or fourth: Depending how many times you rack your wine. It is the next vessel you have transferred your wine into so that it is free of the old sediment that has gathered and can set about dropping out a new layer of sediment to be removed later.
Sediment: See Lees.
Top off the Head: Something said without thinking. In winemaking, this means to add wine to a fermentation or storage vessel so that the liquid stays near the top of the container and excess oxygen is not allowed to contaminate it.
Rack: Probably not what you are thinking. This means to remove the sediment from the wine.
Specific Gravity: The density of the wine juice compared to water, in essence, how much sugar is in it at any given time.
If this short list of new terms is only whetting your appetite and you are thinking that adding a dash of the oenophile might splash an appealing edge to your life, there is an entire language out there just for you. Peruse this glossary of winemaking terms for possibilities.
You can regale your drinking pals with a chilling story of an acetobacter haunting your wine cellar. Another night you might share a cigar and discuss the Solera system.
What equipment and supplies do I need?
Well, let’s take a look at what we are doing. The processes for making red and white wines differ a bit because different results are being sought.
A red wine is generally more full-bodied. Its more robust flavor can benefit from the acidic tannins in grape stems and its ruby color deepens when it is fermented with its purple-red skins.
White wine is generally more delicate and the flavor imparted from the stems would add an unwanted bitterness. Its skins are light and do not add significant color. Accordingly, neither stems nor skins are included in fermentation.
The grapes also prefer cooler temperatures that might mandate refrigeration. You might seek a more precise filtration process (than a mesh bag and siphon) as the clarity, or lack thereof is more readily apparent in a clear liquid in a clear bottle.
The process for making specialty wines like, port, champagne or sherry are a bit more complex.
This article is written for the enthusiast who is experimenting with wine-making for the first time.
Red wine is a bit simpler and requires less precision than white wine to make, so let’s start with a red wine.
You can buy all kinds of equipment to make things easier. Visit a modern winery and listen to the hum of the huge polished steel wine presses. Once you have made your first batch of fine wine, you may become interested in further refining your techniques.
You will want a crusher and a presser. You might want them more for the romance value than any utilitarian need, but hey, it’s your life.
You may want a more advanced filtration system and you will definitely want some oak barrels. Many a winter evening can be passed reading about the history of barrel making and the different types of wood preferred by professional vintners.
Perhaps you will want a laboratory where you can blend different varieties, but just for kicks, let’s start out with a minimal investment.
And let’s make five or six gallons, your call.
For the first time, here is what I recommend buying:
A plastic food grade pail that holds at least seven gallons. You will not use the lid at the initial fermentation stage, but a pail with a lid that accepts an airlock can come in handy in a pinch to hold extra juice.
You will need only a thin towel to cover your pail as you want gas to be able to escape, but it does need to completely cover it.
A 5 or a 6-gallon glass carboy.
I’ve always used a five-gallon carboy and that’s just about as heavy as I want anything to be. But you may feel that if you are going to the effort of making five, you may as well make six. Fair enough.
If you want to buy your supplies separately, rather than buy a starter kit, you can buy a carboy through Amazon like this 6 gallon Kegco Glass Carboy, sold by Northern Brewer Homebrewing Supply.
And even if, to start out with, you buy a kit with a carboy, at some point you may want another. It is simpler to have an extra carboy for racking the wine. Otherwise, you have to transfer it to a pail and then back to your carboy after the sediment is cleared.
If you have an extra, you can just let the wine continue to ferment in that one. But for the first time, it’s probably good to get the extra experience of racking from one vessel to another anyway.
You will need a rubber stopper (bung) with a hole drilled through it for an air lock, and the air lock itself, sometimes called a fermentation lock. The bung should be the right size to fit in the mouth of your carboy.
You will want four to ten feet of 5/16 inch clear food grade siphon hose with a small plastic shut-off clamp so that you don’t have to worry about not squeezing it tight enough and spilling wine all over the room as you move from bottle to bottle. You will need a 5/16 inch auto siphon, which is a hard plastic tube to which you attach the flexible siphon hose. The auto siphon has a small filter at its bottom to prevent sediment from sucking into the siphon. You will rest it near the bottom of the fermentation pail a safe distance above the line of sediment.
You will also need a brush to clean out the carboy, an eight-inch diameter funnel that fits into the mouth of your carboy, a thermometer that floats to so you can make sure the juice does not get too hot or cold for the yeast, and a hydrometer with its own test jar which measures the sugar and alcohol content.
You can do the math and compare equipment from different companies but it looks like it is just as, if not more economical to buy a starter kit like the Premium Wine Making Equipment Kit, sold by Winemakers Depot.
You will want a sterile muslin or other open weave cloth or other mesh straining bag to place in the funnel to collect the grapeskins. Then you can squeeze the grape skins for more juice before taking them out, dripping across the floor, to the compost.
The kit does not appear to have a test jar for the hydrometer, which simplifies matters. That way you can take a sample of juice from your fermenter (pail) and read it more easily and accurately to find the specific gravity than trying to read it in the bucket among the floating grape skins. You can find a test jar for the hydrometer like this plastic a href=”http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0064O952K/?tag=jenrev-20″ rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”>hydrometer test jar handy as well. They are available in glass if you would prefer, for just a bit more.
Whether you buy the kit or not, you will also need the following:
A sterilizer like this one pound bag of Potassium Metabisulfite . You will come across many recipes that call for Campden tablets. These are potassium metabisulfite in pill form. It is a matter of personal preference which to use.
You need wine yeast like this hardy more-or-less all purpose Montrachet Red Star yeast created by the University of Davis, renowned for its winemaking research.
You might also want a yeast starter, nutrients the yeast likes, to encourage the fermentation process. You can get a jar at a winemaking supply store for around $6.00.
Civilizations probably handed down wine yeasts they cultured to produce reliably good wine. The rate of fermentation and the flavor that results are related to the qualities of the yeast.
If you find yeast you are particularly fond of, you could culture it and use it the next time. However, it is easy and inexpensive to buy a packet of wine yeast to make five or six gallons of the wine you like.
Enologists are working on creating new strains as you are reading this: strains that remove histamines from grapes that give many people headaches, strains that slow fermentation time and strains that specifically complement the characteristics of a specific variety.
You will definitely need a long spoon, a corker, corks and wine bottles.
The need for wine bottles is another good reason to spend some time trying different wines to determine your favorites. You can collect bottles during your research.
Wash them in the dishwasher after finishing the bottle. Store them in a clean, dry place and wash them thoroughly again before you bottle. You will need 25 bottles for six gallons.
The Egyptians and Greeks carried and stored their wine in clay vessels called amphorae. These vessels resemble modern day wine bottles for good reason.
The narrow neck minimizes the amount of oxygen that can flow into it, shouldered bottles are used to keep any sediment from pouring into the glass with only a slight tilt, and a concave bottom can easily collect sediment that settles out from the wine during its storage.
The amphora were easy to carry on your shoulders
If you want to make special labels, just do a little research and you are sure to find an option to please. You should at minimum, note somewhere the grape and year of your production.
Until you are at the stage where you are storing your wine in oak casks, you should probably drink your red wine between one and two years old and your white wine, even younger. You might save a bottle or two to see how they age.
You should have a couple five-pound bags of sugar on hand. Sugar is what feeds the wine yeast so that it makes alcohol. If there is not enough sugar for the yeast, there will not be enough alcohol in the wine.
It is not usually needed for vitis vinifera, but your hydrometer, which measures the specific gravity or sugar content will be your guide.
Get familiar with your hydrometer. Many winemaking supply websites have in-depth articles on alcohol and sugar.
For your purposes now, just know that you are aiming for an alcohol content of between nine and fourteen percent. Expect to be on the higher end for red wines and the lower end for whites.
That’s it. You might want to buy an acid blend for a few more bucks or squeeze in a lemon if you need a bit more acid.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
All of your equipment must be squeaky clean, that is, as close to sterile as you can get it.
Stray microorganisms from wild yeasts, molds and bacteria can seriously mess with the fermentation and cause your wine to turn to vinegar in an afternoon.
That being said, you should not use chlorine bleach to clean your equipment as its residue may also kill the good wine yeast.
Wash your vessels and siphon and everything else you are going to get anywhere near the wine, with plain old seventh generation dish soap, or whatever you usually use and then rinse it very well with hot water and potassium metabisulfate.
You will be adding a pinch to the wine at the beginning of the fermentation process anyway, and it’s cheap, so there is no reason not to have a pound of this crystalline powder on hand and use it for all of your sterilization needs.
Oxygen will destroy your wine.
Oxygen affects fruit as soon as it is exposed to air. Think of how once the protective skin of an apple has been peeled, in a very short period of time it turns brown and mushy and its flavor is off. The same thing happens to grapes.
Oxygen is not a huge concern at the beginning of the fermentation process when the must appears to be bubbling because the carbon dioxide is pushing most of the oxygen away.
The initial fermentation will be done in your pail. If you don’t have one with a lid, you can simply cover the top with a thin towel to keep out flies and curious children. For the first 24 hours after you have added the potassium metabisulfite and before you have added the yeast, it is especially important that the gas can escape. You will be removing the towel at least once a day to punch down the must, stir the juice, check the temperature and measure the specific gravity. Once fermentation slows though, it becomes more important to reduce exposure of the wine to air. This is when you will transfer it to a vessel with a smaller headspace, that is, your glass carboy jug and plug it with a fermentation lock which allows the carbon dioxide to escape, but does not allow oxygen to enter.
Light and heat also encourage oxidation. That is the reason wine is usually aged in colored glass bottles to shield it from excess sunlight and stored in cool places, like a wine cellar.
As mentioned before, there are also airborne microorganisms that can turn your wine to vinegar in short order. And fruit flies that appear out of thin air bearing lethal bacteria on their tiny feet. In sum, you need to be very vigilant to minimize exposure to oxygen.
Let’s Do It!
You’ve cleaned your equipment, you’ve got your grapes, now let’s get to work.
1. De-stem and crush your grapes. Yes, there is lovely equipment to do this, but you don’t have it yet, so have some friends over.
Wash your hands, try to get 90% of the stems out and then crush the grapes. If you are going for an old-fashioned grape-stomping, make sure feet are clean and be careful though!
Watch the following video for a possible hazard you may not have anticipated.
2. Throw them into your primary fermenter (plastic pail) and test the sugar content with your hydrometer.
Adjust the specific gravity to 1.095 by adding water if necessary.
If you have decided to buy measure the acid content, adjust the acid to .65% by adding acid blend. If not, add the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon or a pinch of acid blend.
3. Dissolve a pinch (1/3 ounce) of potassium metabisulfite in a small bit of water and add to the fermenter.
4. Check the temperature of the must. Ideally, it is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
If it’s over 80 degrees, lower a tightly-sealed bag of cracked ice into the fermenter until it cools and if it’s too cold, increase the heat in the room.
5. If you are going to add yeast starter, do it now and cover the fermenter with a thin towel.
6. After 24 hours when the temperature is around 75 degrees, add the yeast. Stir in gently.
7. When the cap forms, that is when the grape skins have bubbled to the top and formed a bit of a ceiling, you must “punch them down,” that is.
Stir them back into the mix. This will help keep he microbial levels down and the skins will deepen the color of the wine.
8. Punch the cap down at least daily and keep an eye on the temperature as it will heat up and could get so hot that it kills the yeast.
9. After five or six days, it is time to rack off the free-running wine into a secondary fermenter. You will need to lift the pail to a higher surface than the carboy.
Place a funnel in the carboy and a mesh cloth to catch grape skins that come through and funnel into the carboy. Try not to splash or get extra oxygen into the wine.
Squeeze the juice from the remaining pulp through the mesh. You want to always keep the carboy at least 7/8 full, so you put remaining juice aside to top it off as the liquid evaporates.
10. Add a touch of potassium metabisulfite to the fermentation lock and plug the carboy.
Keep in a safe, quiet place free from temperature changes where it can continue to ferment for five to seven months.
11. After a few weeks and periodically thereafter, you will want to rack the wine, that is, transfer it from one vessel to another, leaving the sediment behind. Use the siphon.
You can more easily get the juice out without mixing in the sediment and there is less chance of oxidation.
If you have just one carboy, transfer it to the pail, wash out the sediment and return it to your carboy.
12. After five or seven months, when fermentation has stopped and you are pleased with the clarity, carefully siphon your wine into clean wine bottles.
Store them on their shoulders in a cool, dark place and drink as you please.
Wine is good for you.
Cato’s book on homesteading, written for his fellow Romans in the oldest surviving work of Latin prose (c.160 BC) recommends a vineyard. It has been an integral staple of most civilizations since, well before time, if one is to follow the antics of the Greek god of wine and merriment Dionysus and his Roman counterpart, Bacchus.
Here he is, diligently checking the quality of the wine aging in its barrel.
Since California ratcheted up its wine production, its popularity has spread across the United States as well.
A plethora of articles on the health benefits of regularly drinking moderate amounts of wine have been published recently in popular magazines and even in scientific journals.
According to Christine Quinlan, the Deputy Editor of Food and Wine, this nectar of the gods has been proven to promote longevity, reduce the risk of heart attack and heart disease, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, lower the risk of having strokes and of getting cataracts, cut the risk of colon cancer and slow the decline of brain function.
If you are curious, she cites scientific studies to support these claims.
Wine is a natural process. It just happens anyway. Basically, the natural yeast on grape skins turns the grape sugar into alcohol and as long as it doesn’t get too much oxygen in it, you’ve got wine.
This video, “How to Make Homemade Wine” by Italian Masterworks is of a winemaker who adds nothing and pretty much just lets the wild yeast already on the grape skins do their work.
That’s not to say things can’t go wrong. The natural yeast is a wild yeast and wild is wild – that means anything can happen. We know of 1500 strains of yeast out there. A wild yeast can produce a wine you do not want to drink, even on a bad day.
So, despite the video above, I suggest that at minimum, you retard the growth of the natural yeasts and add a reliable one instead. It is very important too, to prevent other bacteria or microorganisms from entering the scene and destroying your wine.
That is why it is absolutely essential that everything you use, the stirring spoon, the fermentation lock, the funnel, the carboy, everything is kept scrupulously clean.
It is just as important to minimize oxidation as well. This is not as difficult as it sounds.
It means keeping your fermentation bucket covered, not splashing your wine around the room when you siphon from one vessel to another and using fermentation locks.
Another simplistic overview on how to make wine at home is this one on the website of E.C Krause, an online winemaking supply store.
I recommend reading that and then watching the following video.
This ten-minute video How to Make Wine from Grapes at Home by LearnHow2 is a great overview.
A difference from what I will suggest and what he does is that he uses a second bucket for racking and he uses smaller carboys (demijohns) for storing the long interlude. We will just use the larger carboy we have for both of these purposes.
Racking is just a fancy word for removing the sediment that collects as the skins and debris separate out of the juice and drop to the bottom of the carboy. You can see the clarity and the sediment in the glass carboy and decide when you want to rack.
It is important to not jostle the carboy and just let the sediment fall. Then take the siphon, placing it far enough above the sediment that it won’t suck it up and then siphon the clear liquid to the second sterile vessel.
If you don’t have a second carboy, transfer it to the clean bucket, clean the sediment out of your carboy, clean it thoroughly and siphon the juice back in to continue fermentation and settling.
The second fermentation stage can last up to seven months, so if you are gentle and inclined to do so, you can rack it a few times before you bottle your wine.
He also prepares the wine yeast in a separate solution, which is not necessary with the yeasts available on the market today. It can give the fermentation a jump start though and might be something you choose to do in your second or third batch.
After the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed and placed in the primary fermenter, add a couple pinches of potassium metabisulfite. It will kill the wild yeasts. Wait 24 hours before adding yeast or it will kill your wine yeast.
The important thing to know about yeast is that it only thrives between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit and ideally, between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures too hot or too cold will kill it.
The packet can be sprinkled on top of the must and gently stirred in. Most packets are for five gallons.
Acid blend – To add or not to add
If you have a scientific bent and want to measure and control the amount of acid in your wine, you can buy pH strips or a wine titration kit that can advise exactly how much acid you want to add.
The following article gives you a general idea of the process and options available.
A wine’s acidity obviously affects its flavor and professional winemakers who produce large quantities must measure the acid levels so that they are not selling wine that makes your lips pucker and your eyes roll at the first sip.
But if you are just producing five or six gallons, the general rule is that a pinch of acid blend or squeezing an acidic fruit juice like that of a fresh lemon at the end of fermentation will increase the acid to a desirable level.