My biggest creative pursuit of the last few months has been to tackle the challenge of homemade wine. It should surprise no one that making my own wine is a prospect I’ve contemplated for a few years. Unfortunately, it took me a while to make the leap to actually attempting the task because of less-than-helpful information. Many how-to books on home wine-making are overly complex and full of intimidating mandates for buying bulky equipment. Perhaps the ambitious home wine-maker wants to invest in oak barrels and several-gallon fermentors in the hopes of making Napa-quality pinots noir, but I just wanted to make a jug or two that would rival Franzia.
As fate would have it, a couple new to taking lessons at our dance studio this year turned out to be home wine-makers. They brought a few bottles to a studio dance party one night, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it tasty and dry; every homemade wine I’d ever tasted before that time had been cloyingly sweet — another source of my reluctance to make the effort myself. Who wants to go to the trouble of making a wine she hates? I remarked on the wine to this couple, struck up a conversation about their home operation and discovered that many of my previous assumptions about difficulty of making my own wine were vastly overblown. Two revelations from that night put the prospect of wine-making within reach for me and what I was willing to fit into my lifestyle:
1) Wine can be made from store-bought juice: While the iconic practice of grape-stomping has been rendered unnecessary in the modern age, the use of actual fruit in home wine-making adds a huge amount of inconvenience and expense to what can otherwise be a very simple process.
2) Wine can be made in batches as small as one gallon: Many home wine-makers opt for 5 or 6 gallon fermentors eventually, but one gallon containers are much easier, cheaper and more convenient to come by for the home wine-maker looking just to “give it a try.” One gallon fermenting also offers the opportunity to try out lots of different recipes and flavors easily and cheaply without having to build an addition onto your home. Batches smaller than a gallon would, of course, be possible, but in my opinion, there is no space or convenience or cost advantage to making less than a gallon at a time.
At this point, I took to the internet to find a basic recipe for a gallon of wine, and found surprisingly few… let me rephrase, I found many recipes, but very few had been posted by people who’d actually tried them out, and so lacked instruction on many of the finer points of wine-making.
Not wanting to invest a lot in equipment upfront, I was attracted by the recipes for “Homemade Balloon Wine,” but again found many recipes woefully lacking in any expertise from the people posting them. I went back to our dance studio wine-makers and asked more questions, got a basic recipe from them, did some further online searching and then resolved to try out my first recipe.
Gathering the equipment needed for making wine by the gallon is not difficult, but it does require collecting a few items you might not have “around the house” already. Some of these items you will need to start the batch; some you will need to finish the batch. Fermentation takes anywhere from a few weeks up to a month or more to complete. The first list is what you’ll need to start fermentation, the second is what you’ll need when fermentation is complete.
ITEMS TO GET NOW
Gallon jug (glass is best)
pins (i.e. like those used for sewing)
funnels (a set with different sizes is best)
optional wine additives:
I have used plastic milk jugs in the past, but have come to prefer glass wine jugs (a 4L jug of wine is the practical equivalent to one gallon) for starting fermentation. I started my collection by purchasing a 4L jug of Carlo Rossi wine at my local wine store (added bonus — you get to drink the contents first!). Wine supply shops sell wine-making kits with plastic buckets as the primary fermentors, but I have found that’s not necessary if you’re not using fruit (and even then, adjustments can be made for using glass jugs). Wine shops also have air-locks and stoppers, but I like the old traditional balloon because it works essentially as a built-in indicator of the status of fermentation. The wine additives can also be found at a brew shop. I recommend using them because it will make the process easier and more timely, but they are not necessary.
ITEMS YOU’LL NEED LATER
A second glass jug (clear glass is a must!)
A siphon (fresh aquarium tubing is cheap and easy to find)
Campden tablets (a wine additive that stops fermentation)
Beverage bottles and some way to seal them
When wine ferments it creates sediment as a by-product of the fermentation process. Sediment affects the flavor of the wine and makes it appear cloudy. The second jug is necessary for allowing the wine to clear before drinking or bottling (wine can also be kept in this jug for aging), which is why I suggest using a clear glass jug only, so you can assess the state of clearing. The only way to get wine out of any container without disturbing the sediment (and thus clouding up the beverage all over again) is to use a siphon to remove it. There are all sorts of helpful siphon devices at wine supply stores, but I prefer to use a simple tube in order to keep control over the tube depth myself, since some wines produce more sediment than others.
Even if you purchase no other wine additives, I recommend Campden tablets because there’s no way truly to stop fermentation altogether without a stabilizer (stable wine is necessary if you’re going to cork it… also if you don’t want your bottles to explode). After wine clears, in the second jug, it will need to be siphoned again into bottles for longer term storage, or for more immediate consumption, just to assure that the wine remains sediment-free even when jostled or transported. I started by collecting screw top wine bottles. Sometimes I even used juice bottles. Eventually I invested in a corker so that I can reuse any old wine bottles.
Once you have all the equipment needed from the first list, you can start a batch of wine. Specific wine recipes will follow in subsequent blogs, but here is an overview of the process for making a gallon of wine with fruit juice.
WINE MAKING: THE BASIC PROCESS
1. Make Sugar Water: When I first started making wine, I was shocked at the amount of sugar required for one batch, but don’t worry… it’s not going to turn out sweet unless you stop fermentation early and it’s not going make the caloric intake of your beverage astronomical. The alcohol content in wine is created when yeast interacts with sugar. The actual sugar is consumed in the fermentation process, provided fermentation is allowed to finish (stopping it early will result in a sweeter, lower-alcohol beverage). By dissolving the sugar in water ahead of time, thereby making a sugar syrup, you ensure that all the sugar is available to interact with the yeast, and no granules fall to the bottle and get trapped underneath the growing layer of sediment that will form during fermentation. To make sugar water, simply measure out your quantity of sugar into an appropriately-sized saucepan, and add just enough water to cover. Heat on medium low fire until it reaches a gentle boil. Then remove from heat and allow to cool.
2. Hydrate the Yeast: If you’ve ever baked homemade bread before, you’re probably familiar with the process of hydrating yeast. The process is pretty simple and takes maybe 10 minutes at most. Put a small amount of sugar (1 tablespoon, give or take) and a small quantity (you can use a whole packet, but I seldom do unless I’m making a larger batch) of yeast in a cup or small bowl. Add enough warm (but not hot) water to cover the dry ingredients; the yeast will float a little, that’s okay. Yeast will activate and get a little foamy. I do this right after putting the sugar water on the stove.
3. Add First Ingredients to Jug: Start with a sanitized jug (I use soap, hot water and rubbing alcohol, but wine supply stores do offer other sorts of chemical sanitizers). Use a funnel to add your fruit juice concentrate (if applicable to the recipe) — in the alternative, fruit juice concentrate can also be boiled with the sugar water as an extra measure of sanitation. If using any wine additives, such as pectic enzyme, acid blend or yeast energizer, add them at this time and swish them around in the fruit juice.
4. Prepare Your Balloon: Wash out one balloon in hot tap water. Pierce the balloon with a sewing needle or pin to make four to six holes in the latex. Stretch out the opening of the balloon to get it ready to fit over the jug.
5. Add Remaining Ingredients: Make sure the sugar water is cooled down before adding it because water that’s too hot can kill the yeast. Or, if you’re in a rush, use a large funnel and fill it with ice cubes, then pour the sugar water through the ice cubes. Add the yeast mixture (it should be pretty foamy by now), and then fill up the jug the rest of the way with water.
6. Secure the Balloon: Stretch the opening of the balloon over the mouth of the jug, and use a rubber band to secure it. As fermentation begins, the balloon will fill up. It does not matter how large the balloon gets; it can still be pretty small, as long as it’s taut with air. Occasionally and unexpectedly my balloons will get larger. I haven’t found that it matters much either way. Some particularly vigorous fermenting recipes can bubble up into the balloon, usually darker reds; in instances when I know a wine will bubble up, I won’t fill the jug all the way and simple top off after siphoning later.
7. Wait: Fermentation can take a few weeks (I’ve noticed when using yeast energizer it really cuts down on fermentation time) or a few months (now that the weather’s gotten colder, all of my batches are taking longer). If you stop fermentation too soon, you will get a sweeter, less alcoholic beverage. To get a dry wine, make sure to wait until fermentation is complete.
8. The Balloon Flops: When fermentation is slowing down, you will notice the balloon may start to get a bit wrinkly looking and may droop. Sometimes this means fermentation is over, sometimes it is a “false positive” of sorts. Now that the weather is colder, the batches I keep in my spare bedroom (where all the heating vents are closed) will slow down to the point where the balloon flops over, but when I stir up the contents and move it out to my front hall closet (fermenting and aging beverages should be kept out of direct light), the balloon fills up again and fermentation resumes and continues for another few weeks. When my balloons start to flop now, I always stir them up (by grabbing the neck of the jug and swishing it around) so that the balloon refills as a test. If they no longer fill up easily upon stirring, they are ready to siphon.
9. Let the Jug Settle: When your balloon has flopped for certain, take your jug and place it on a table or other high place where you plan to set it for siphoning. Make sure to cover it with a dark or opaque cloth (I use pillow cases) while it rests. In order to siphon from one jug into another, the jug to be siphoned must be placed higher than the jug the liquid will be siphoned into. I use my dining room table and siphon into a jug on the floor. Place the jug with the flopped balloon on your table or other surface and then wait another day or two. This will ensure that any sediment that was stirred up by moving the jug will settle before siphoning.
10. Siphon Your Wine & Stop Fermentation: Prepare a second, empty, sanitized jug. This one should definitely be glass because this jug is where your wine will sit while it clears. Crush one Campden tablet (I use my mortar and pestle) and pour the powder into the clean jug. Cut a length of clean plastic tubing long enough to reach from the bottom of your filled jug to past the neck of your empty jug when they are sitting wherever you plan to place them during siphoning. Rinse out the siphon tube with hot water, then fill the tube with cold water and carry it over to your jugs with the tube ends up. Keep one end covered with your finger while inserting the other into the jug. Thread it deep enough that it’s near the bottom layer of sediment, but not close enough to draw sediment out. Guide the covered end to the mouth of the clean jug and then let the water flow to start the siphon (a little extra water in your wine won’t hurt). When the liquid gets low enough in your first jug, you may need to tip the jug gently (try to disturb the sediment as little as possible) and re-position the tube to get as much semi-clear liquid as possible. If a little sediment gets sucked up at this stage, it’s not the end of the world, but stop short of siphoning up the sludge.
11. Wait Some More: Cap your jug tightly and move it to a cool, dark place where the stilled wine can settle. Allow the new jug to settle for a couple weeks. If you check on it frequently, you will actually see the top clear first as the sediment progressively sinks.
12. Drink or Age: Once the wine clears, it’s drinkable. Though, your wine will get better with age, so you can also choose to leave it in the jug for a few months. Alternatively, you can bottle the wine. A gallon jug will produce roughly five 750 ml bottles. Many wines, even highbrow wines, come in screw top bottles, so save those along with their caps for an easy and reusable bottling option. A good corker is easily available for around $45. Corks and empty bottles can be purchased online and at wine supply stores, or you can save wine bottles and soak the labels off (reusing wine bottles is great, but always get fresh corks). Bottling the wine now will allow you to drink some today and age some for later. I try to save at least one bottle of each new flavor to see how it will age. Note: As my collection of bottled wines grows, I have taken to labeling my wines with small post-it notes with the type of wine and month of bottling so that I know how long each has been aging.
Stay tuned for more wine-making adventures, and specific recipes…