Frequently Asked Winemaking Questions

What do I need to make wine?

Basic equipment for a 5 gallon batch (2 cases): a plastic bucket, a 5 gallon glass carboy, siphon hose, hydrometer, sterilizer, stopper and fermentation lock. The ingredients can be as simple as a wine kit (all ingredients except water), or a more detailed recipe. At the time of bottling, you will need 2 cases of bottles (regular 750 ml wine bottles), corks and a corker.

What is the basic process to making wine?

Wine begins in a plastic bucket (called a primary) that is slightly larger than the finished volume (ie: 5 ½ - 6 gallons to yield 5 gallons). After the initial fermentation, when it is half way finished, it is transferred (racked) to the glass secondary. When the wine is finished fermenting, it will be racked twice more (each separated by a month). The wine will be clearer each time. The wine can be bottled after this.

What is “topping off”?

Once wine has been racked to secondary, it should be topped off. This means the wine should be within 1-2 inches of the stopper. If a large air space is left in the carboy, the wine will oxidize, turn brown and taste bad. When racking from primary, extra wine should be put into a smaller bottle (wine bottles with stoppers and locks) and used for topping off after each racking. This smaller quantity of wine should be treated the same as the larger one, as it is fermenting along with the rest. If extra wine is not available, a similar finished wine should be used. Water should be avoided if the quantity needed is more than 1-2 cups per 5 gallons. Adding water in greater amounts will water down the wine, making it taste watery and reduce the body.

How much fruit do I need to make wine?

For fresh fruit, other than grapes, figure 3-5 pounds per gallon. The acid and sugar content will need to be adjusted, as fruit generally does not have the proper acid/sugar balance to make wine. For wine grapes, 2 ½ boxes (36 pounds each) will make 5 gallons of wine.

Why should I add yeast?

By adding proper wine yeast to a must (unfermented fruit/grape juice), control over the finished product is easier. Wine made without using added yeast (using wild yeast) may not properly ferment, may develop off or odd flavors/aromas, or not turn out right at all. Wild yeast by itself is very sensitive to sulfur dioxide and does not ferment when the alcohol content goes above 5%. By adding yeast specifically designed for winemaking, the winemaker has better control over the finished product and the process itself. A winemaker who depends on the “wild yeast” to make wine is taking a gamble that there is enough “good” yeast around to make good wine. By adding wine yeast, the winemaker knows the wine will ferment the way it should, and will be good in the end.

What size cork do I need to bottle wine?

A standard wine bottle (375, 750 ml or 1.5 L) all take a #9 cork. To use this size cork, you will need a corker. A corker is the tool to insert the corks. The number of the cork refers the size: a #8 cork is smaller, and is needed for some older or cheaper corkers. A #7 cork is used only if champagne bottles are used (they are not champagne corks) or the cork is being inserted by hand (no corker used). The #9 gives the best seal.

What kind of cork do I need?

New cork types are now available for the home winemaker. The home winemaker has the choice between traditional corks (“cork corks”), ALTEC® corks (a mix of cork and synthetic resin) and Resin corks (synthetic). Altec® corks are a new type of cork now available for the home winemaker. They are composed of a new material made by fusing the purest part of cork with synthetic cells. This material produces a cork that retains all the best properties of a traditional cork, and does not leave an off-taste or odor, leak, defect in the cork surface and can easily be removed by any cork extractor. Resin corks are totally synthetic. This material also does not leave an off-taste or odor, leak and can easily be removed by any cork extractor. Traditional corks are traditional in that the cork is harvested from the cork tree. This harvest does not harm the tree and is also done at prescribed intervals to keep the tree healthy and productive. The variations seen in the corks are natural and should be expected in a natural product.

How do I prepare the corks?

Traditional corks need to be soaked in water before using. This softens them, making them flexible and easier to insert. The recommended method for preparation is:

1. Boil a quantity of water, and allow to cool. Put corks into a container, pour the water on top of them, and let it sit for 24-48 hours. Be sure the corks are completely submerged.
2. 10-30 minutes prior to bottling, drain off the water, and add the sterilent: sodium or potassium metabisulfite solution. Again, make sure the corks are submerged. They do not need to be drained or dried before inserting into the bottle.
3. After bottling, keep the bottles upright for 24 hours, then put on their sides for storage.

Altec or Resin corks do not need to be presoaked prior to bottling. They should be dipped into the sanitizing solution just prior to corking. Altec corks are best inserted with either a Gilda corker or Floor corker (both use “iris compression”, like a camera lens). Resin corks should be inserted using a Twin lever or Floor corker. Wines corked with either of these corks can be laid down immediately.

Do I need to seal the bottles once they’re corked?

No. The wine needs to breathe through the cork to properly age. Wax, plastic or PVC seals may be added if you wish to give the bottle away, to dress it up.

Can I make wine without using chemicals or sulfites?

It can be done, but you need to be very careful about your sanitation and fermentation. The wine also will not keep for very long. Sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of wine fermentation. It is also added during the fermentation process to help protect and preserve the wine from oxidation. It inhibits or kills bacteria or wild yeast. Other chemicals (acid blend, tannin, pectic enzyme, etc) are used as needed to ensure a good, drinkable wine at the end of the process, rather than leaving it all to chance. Used as a sanitizer, everything that comes in contact with a wine (bottles, fermenters, siphon hoses, etc.) should be rinsed with a solution of ½ oz sodium or potassium metabisulfite to 1 gallon of water. Just rinse the item and let it drain – do not rinse with water afterwards.

What is an Acid test kit? How do I use it?

An Acid test kit allows the measurement of tartaric acid (the most important of the several acids present). A wine too high in acid is sharp and tart. One too low is flat or “flabby”. The acid test kit usually contains a container to put a measured sample of wine in, a color indicator and a neutralizer. Follow the directions of the kit to determine the acid content, then make any adjustments, if needed. The best time to measure and adjust is prior to adding yeast, and also before adding any sulfite to kill wild yeast. Adding a measured amount of water can reduce a must that is too high in acid. Adding acid blend (a balanced blend of tartaric, malic and citric acid) can increase one too low in acid. Consult a good reference book for further details.

What is an SO2 test kit?

An SO2 test kit measures the amount of sulfite in wine. This measurement should be done on finished wine, at the time of bottling. Follow the directions for sampling and measurement that are in the kit.

What is fining a wine?

Fining is the removal of sediment (proteins and excess tannin among them) that can cloud a finished wine. Several different types of fining agents are available. They all work by attracting the sediment and forming heavy enough “clumps” to settle to the bottom of the fermenter. Fining agents are added prior to bottling, and should always be used prior to filtering. Bentonite is a very fine clay that is mixed with a small amount of water or wine. Isinglass is a liquid made from fish bladders. Gelatin is also used. These are all available where winemaking supplies are sold.

Should I filter my wine?

Filtering adds the final polish to wine, but does not need to be done. An unfiltered wine, even though clear when bottled, will usually develop a fine sediment as it ages. The sediment is very small particulate matter that all wines contain. This sediment is what is removed by filtering. Several types of filters are available to the home winemaker, both manual and electric. Before buying a filter, be sure to discuss your needs with the supplier, as they will be able to advise you on the correct type of filter. Never filter a wine that has not been fined first, as you risk clogging up the filters.

Do I need to bottle wine? How many bottles do I need?

Wine should be bottled, corked and stored on its side for proper aging. Some aging does occur in the carboy or barrel, but the final aging only begins once the wine is bottled and corked. One thing that should never be done is to take off (or draw off) a portion of a carboy or barrel for immediate consumption and leave the rest. This invites oxidation of the remainder of the wine by creating a large air space on the top of the wine. Oxidized wine turns brown and bitter. In general, 2 cases (24 bottles) of 750ml bottles will be needed for each 5 gallons of wine. Used wine bottles are fine as long as they are clean and sterilized before use. Always use new corks.

What are the crystals on the bottom of the wine?

This is precipitated tartaric acid. It is harmless and is a natural byproduct of fermentation and aging. The crystals that settle out soften the wine and are usually seen after the wine has been kept at cool temperatures for a long period of time. If they are in the fermenting vessels, they should be left behind after racking. If in the bottle, they should be left in the bottle. They are not harmful to drink, but don’t taste good.

Do I need a barrel to make wine? How do I use a barrel?

Barrels are used to ferment, age and give a wine an oak flavor. They are the traditional container for winemaking, but are not necessary. Wine makers making less than about 20 gallons of any one type of wine are not encouraged to use one. Smaller barrels give the wine an oak flavor much quicker than large barrels (sometimes a matter of weeks as opposed to months). Oak chips or oak essence (a natural liquid extract of oak) will give the same taste without the expense.

There are several types of oak barrels available. Each imparts a different type of flavor to the wine. American oak gives a strong oak flavor, and high astringency. It is best suited for strong red wines. French oak is the most favored of all.

Barrels should be inspected prior to use for bacteria, mold, cracks or anything else that could interfere with the wine making process. New, unused barrels should be treated to remove the excess tannin prior to use. Old whiskey barrels should have the char removed, then treated like a new barrel to remove the tannin. Good, used barrels that are being emptied of wine but not immediately filled with new wine need to be stored with a solution of sterilizer and water to avoid the barrels going bad (sour). Barrels are expensive and valuable, and are worth taking care of properly.

How do I get fresh grapes?

In the fall, Beer and Wine Hobby orders fresh California grapes and 6 gallon buckets of fresh-pressed juice for the local customers only. All of this is pre-sold – meaning none is purchased on speculation of anticipated sales. A special grape flyer is sent to interested wine makers in mid to late August. The flyer contains the available grapes, with estimated prices and the order blank. The estimated price for the boxes of grapes is just that – estimated. The actual cost is not determined until the grapes are actually shipped. The grapes that are ordered are “House Pack”, meaning they are handpicked and hand-packed. They are also premium grapes. Only the best grapes are purchased, so grapes cannot be guaranteed to be from a specific vineyard or region, as the growing conditions vary from year to year. The due date for the orders is printed on the flyer and needs to be followed! Late orders are not filled, as the order to California is placed soon after the due date. Every effort is made to fill everyone’s first choice, but occasionally a second choice must be used. Buyers should order the number of cases of grapes wanted, enclose the deposit and include a second choice (should the first choice be unavailable). When the grapes come in, Beer and Wine Hobby will notify all the buyers with a scheduled time for pick up, plus the balance due. Buyers should pick up grapes within 24 hours of notification, or make arrangements to have them picked up. Customers need to understand that Beer and Wine Hobby is not in the produce business, and therefore does not have the facilities to store produce under ideal conditions! Buyers should also be aware: grapes never come in at a convenient time! They grow and ripen on their own schedule, plus transportation from California to Massachusetts can be subject to delays! Making wine from real wine grapes is a wonderful experience, and gives the best wine – so take the time to make real wine!