Making wine offers a very good bang for the buck with very a decent product ringing in between $2 – $5 per bottle. Conveniently, wine making is also the least labour-intensive of the homebrews, unless you are growing and crushing your own grapes. I hope to get to that point someday but the quantity of wine I go through in a year will require owning acreage.
Grape juice can be purchased from your local home brew store in the form of kits with concentrate or as pails of fresh juice. Starting from a kit can produce excellent wine and there is the benefit of having all additives included and the juice ready to go – just add water. Of course there are a range of qualities and prices with the highest end kits including grape skins packaged separately. The addition of skins can work wonders for body and complexity of flavour but you will be paying a premium for these kits. One major benefit to purchasing concentrated juice is that you can control the final volume of must and therefore make a fuller bodied wine simply by adding less water in the first step.
Alternatively, fresh, unmolested juice can be purchased from home brew stores and some enterprising specialty deli/grocery stores, particularly ones owned by Italian and Portuguese families. At a minimum, these folks can probably point you in the direction of a local juice supplier.
Fresh juice is exactly that – juice and nothing but juice (unless there are grape skins included too). You will need to purchase all other ingredients and additives separately as well as ensure that the juice is at an appropriate pH (optional). This is great news for the experimental brewer as you have full control over the entire process AND you get a big food-grade bucket for future use. The 23L of juice is typically sold in big (heavy) buckets with lids which are useful for all sorts of things, including more brewing projects. One issue with fresh juice is that the volume is set and nothing can be done to enrich the body of your wine as in kits.
The First Steps
The first thing to add to your big bucket of juice is dirt. Well, it’s actually clay derived from volcanic ash. The two common forms of bentonite used in wine making are sodium and calcium bentonite. Both act as clarifiers as they bind to proteins in the juice and drag it to the bottom of the fermenter. Either type can impart unwanted flavour to your wine so they must be used sparingly. Bentonite carries a negative charge and thus attracts positively charged proteins in the juice and sticks to them like a magnet. The heavy bentonite particles remain in the fermenter after racking and help to reduce haze in your finished wine.
The final pH of a wine is very important to the overall flavour and mouthfeel. While you can generally make good wine without monitoring pH, it is something to consider if you hope to make great wine. pH is the measurement of acidity with values below 7 (neutral) being acidic and above 7 alkaline or basic. The optimum pH of a red wine is between 3.4 and 3.7 while white wines range from 3.2 to 3.5.
In order to follow the progress of the fermentation and to determine the final % alcohol, the specific gravity of the must needs to be determined. This is accomplished with a hydrometer which measures the relative density of a liquid. Check and record your original gravity (o.g.).
The first time I bought fresh juice from a small Portuguese deli, the heavily accented owner asked me “Need yeast?” I replied that I didn’t (I keep a stash of varieties on hand at all times) and he proceeded to tell me to “open bucket, put next to house water heater, leave four months. Yeast come. Best way.” As much as I enjoy the romantic IDEA of wild yeast, I need the comfort and reproducibility of pitching a commercial strain. There is a world of commercial yeast out there – do your research and choose one that suits your needs/taste. How to pitch yeast is a whole other topic.
Once you’ve got these additions done and a lid loosely fitted on the bucket, the must should come to life with bubbling and foaming as the yeast convert sugars to ethanol. The process is now mostly out of our hands as long as temperature is maintained between 15 – 30C, depending on your yeast and style of wine. After about a week of primary fermentation, we will move on to secondary fermentation and finishing our wine in Part 2.