By Martin Jordan, host of "Making Wine", the first comprehensive how-to video for making wine in your own home.
Q. What's the difference in making wine from a kit versus making wine from fresh grapes?
A. Kits use grape concentrate which make them very easy to use, and they are by far the best way for a beginner to learn winemaking. So easy in fact that if you follow the directions, they're almost fool-proof. A concentrate kit will generally be ready to drink sooner, and there's no choosing, crushing and pressing of grapes. As well, for many people, space is an issue, and making wine from a concentrate requires very little. However, it is important to buy a quality kit, and to ensure that the grape concentrate you use is fresh.
Making wine from fresh grapes is a more complex process but can be more rewarding. For the most part, the main differences can be found in preparing the must (that's what the juice or crushed fruit that you are going to ferment is called). With concentrate, the sugar and acid levels are for the most part adjusted for you. However, when you're making wine from fresh fruit, you must adjust the sugar and acid levels yourself. Because wines from grapes tend to be more complex in taste, a lot of home winemakers start with concentrates and eventually graduate to fresh grapes in order to improve the quality of their wine.
Q. What is the single biggest reason home-made wine doesn't turn out right?
A. The single biggest reason that home-made wine goes bad is the lack of cleanliness! All equipment, anything that comes in contact with your must or young wine, has to be sanitized (including your hands).
Q. What is the basic process to making wine?
A. The process for making wine is much easier than most people think. When yeast converts sugar in fruit to carbon dioxide and alcohol, the CO2 escapes into the air and what's left is wine. The winemaker's job is to create perfect conditions for the yeast to do its job and let nature take its course. For a complete lesson of the winemaking process, see the video "Making Wine".
Q. What are finings?
A. Finings, usually bentonite, gelatin or isinglas, are natural agents that are added to wine to accelerate the settling or clearing process. The wine is then racked, that is, siphoned from one container to another, leaving the sediment and fining agent behind.
Q. What happens during fermentation?
A. This is one of the miracles in the wine making process. Yeast, which causes fermentation, is a single cell organism that converts the sugar in the fruit to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide escapes into the air and what is left is wine.
Q. Why is acid balance important?
A. Fruit, including grapes, contain different types of acids. Too much acid renders a wine undrinkable. On the other hand, if wine does not have enough acidity, the result is a flat or insipid tasting wine. That's why it's important to check the acid levels and adjust if necessary.
Q. What is sulphite?
A. Sulphite is a natural bacteria inhibitor. A small amount of sulphite in your wine will not only discourage bacteria that could ruin it, but it also helps prevent oxidation. However, some people are allergic to sulphite and they should be careful about its use.
Q. When is wine ready to drink?
A. To a lot of people, it's ready when they want to drink it. However there is no cut and dry answer. Some vintages simply develop faster than others, and whites peak faster than reds. It could be anywhere from a few months for light wines to a few years for heavier, robust reds. The key is to develop your ability to evaluate wines and then taste and judge for yourself. I couldn't think of a more pleasurable pastime.
Q. How do I determine the alcohol content?
A. Take your starting specific gravity, subtract your finished specific gravity and divide by 7.36. For example, 1080 - 995 = 85/7.36 = 11.55 % alcohol by volume.
Q. What should I look for in bottles and corks?
A. Any wine bottle can be used and re-used so long as it is perfectly clean and sterilized before wine goes in. If you're saving bottles, rinse them immediately after use. If there are any visible black spots or bacteria, discard the bottle. As for corks, there are different lengths. The short ones are used for short term wines, while long corks are better for long term wines. You can also find wine bottles that accept a screw-top. Although not popular among traditionalists, screw tops actually provide a good seal, but they are not nearly as romantic.
Q. Is it necessary to filter wine?
A. No, it's not necessary to filter, but filtering does give your wine a nice finished polish.
Q. My wine smells like vinegar?
A. My condolences. Toss it. Now you can appreciate how important it is to keep your equipment clean and your container topped up.
Q. I get headaches from my wine. Why?
A. Your wine likely has high tannin levels and therefore high histamine levels. It is fairly common in red wines. You may want to try white wine. It is also possible you may be allergic to one or more components of the wine.
Q. Why should I use glass bottles?
A. Glass is easier to sterilize, re-use, and recycle. Glass doesn't breathe like plastic which can impart off-odors. Glass is also more attractive and lets you visually judge the wine's clarity.
Q. Why does my wine have a yeasty taste?
A. Most likely, your wine has been left too long on the lees (the dead yeast after the ferment has stopped). Prompt racking can prevent this.
Q. What is cold stabilization?
A. Cold stabilization is the process of removing some of the acid in your wine through precipitation, thus creating a softer finish. First, test your wine for acid content with a process called acid titration. This process is fully explained and demonstrated in the video "Making Wine". To cold stabilize, place your wine in near freezing temperatures for about two weeks. If you live in a northern climate, come winter, your garage makes an ideal spot. The acid will drop to the bottom of the container in the form of crystals. You then rack the wine off of the crystals.
Q. What is the difference between oak chips and oak extract?
A. An oak extract is a 60% alcohol solution that has been steeped with oak chips and taken on the oak flavour. It is very convenient to use, however, personally, I find chips impart a more natural flavour in wine.
Q. What's the easiest way to learn home winemaking?
A. "Making Wine" the first comprehensive how-to video for the home winemaker. It not only tells you, it shows you the process step by step. After all, seeing is understanding.
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