This is meant to be a complete guide of how we make wine without getting too deep into the chemistry and nuances of winemaking. This guide will tell you what to do at each stage of the winemaking process focusing primarily on making wine from grapes, but a frozen must would also work. Also note that this post is mostly focused on red wines because there are more steps, but we note the steps you would need to take for white and rose wines.
Note on sanitation: At every step, sanitation is incredibly important. You want to limit the amount of potential bacteria that will turn your wine to vinegar. We have a two step cleaning/sanitizing process that uses ammonia and water to clean, then a sanitizing mixture of water and potassium metabisulfite.
Day 1: Grape Pickup Day
Bring the grapes home, you need to crush & de-stem if the vineyard did not already do that for you (ours gives us the option)
- Remove all the stems, they will add a vegetal taste to the wine. Also remove anything that looks funky or any leaves that end up in there. You don’t have to go too crazy with it, but the better quality grapes you put in, the better wine you will get out.
- Crush the grapes: you can stomp the grapes (make sure your feet are super clean first.) Erika tried stomping the grapes but gave up because it was too itchy due to the stems and seeds… maybe something that is less practical in reality than in the movies. You can also used rubber gloves and crush them by hand or a crusher/destemmer machine.
- Pressing the Juice: If you are making white wine, this is when you want to press the juice off the skins, you will be working with juice the rest of the process. If you are making red wine you can decide how long you want to leave the skins on. We usually let the must sit on the skins 24-48 hours before adding the yeast and starting the fermentation on the skins. We let the must sit outside in our garage where it is cooler since this happens in October and we live in Michigan. We typically ferment on the skins for about two weeks before pressing. This allows a bit more color and flavor extraction. Think of the skins as tea bags, the longer you let your wine sit on the skins the more color, flavor, and tannin you will end up with in your wine. If you want to make a rose, you can press your must anywhere from 12-48 hours after crushing depending on how much color/tannin you want in the finished wine. At that point you will add yeast and ferment the juice just like you would a white wine.
Side Note: Sugar Vs. Acid: Before we move on to testing the wine, a bit of a lesson of acidity and sugar in your wine must. Sugar is the food for your yeast. The yeast will consume the sugar and their byproduct is alcohol and Co2. The sugar in your must can be measured by the brix or the specific gravity. You can use a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity or a refractometer to measure brix. We tend to rely on the SG test since it requires more must and you get a more accurate reading. On the other hand you also need to test the acidity of your must, when grapes grow, they are basically turning sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis. As grapes ripen, the sugar increases and the the acidity decreases. There is a sweet spot the growers are looking for where these two attributes hit their prime winemaking and they decide to harvest. Depending on your region and grower, your grapes might never hit that sweet spot and you may need to make adjustments to your must.
- Sugar too low, acidity too high: wine will be low in alcohol and therefore body, may also not be stable for long term storage. The acidity might be a bit astringent (think sweet tarts).
- Sugar too high, acidity too low: wine will be very high in alcohol without enough acidity to support it. Often described as ‘flabby’ these wines will feel very unbalanced.
- You can find charts that show the specific gravity and how it relates to the theoretical alcohol content of the finished wine. One chart you can use is found here: https://www.brewersfriend.com/abv-calculator/
Checking Sugar Content
The day you get the grapes you’ll need to check the specific gravity of the must. You are looking for a specific gravity of at LEAST 1.09 – this will get you about 12.5% finished alcohol. Any lower and you risk it not being stable for aging and is much more likely to spoil. It will also be lacking some body and will not feel as full in the mouth. If your must ends up less than a SG of 1.09, you will want to chaptalize (means to add sugar). This is a bit controversial (not allowed in France), but for us in Michigan where the season is short and we do not have control of when the farm harvests so we often have to chaptalize. You want to use just plain old refined sugar, don’t get fancy and buy turbinado sugar (like Sugar in the Raw) or unprocessed sugars since it still has the molasses that is in unrefined sugar and could give your wine some off flavors. Refined sugar is the way to go, your yeast will love it. Just add it in based on the formula below, and mix it in. You will want to allow it to dissolve and mingle for at least 12 hours before testing the SG again to make sure you hit your goal.
- We found this great easy to use website to help you determine how much sugar to add to your must: http://www.musther.net/vinocalc.html#chaptalisation
Finally you want to test the acidity and pH of the wine must. You will need to get an Acid Titration kit as well as some pH strips which you should be able to find at your winemaking store or Amazon. We also use a graduated beaker for the samples.
- Your targets for red wine are: pH around 3.5 and an titratable acid (TA) of a minimum of 0.55%, but target closer to 0.60% (above 0.90% will lead to an unbalanced wine and will likely want to adjust it)
- Your targets for white wine are: pH around 3.2 and a titratable acid (TA) of 0.65% minimum and target of around 0.70% (above 0.90% will lead to an unbalanced wine and will likely want to adjust it)
- Adjusting acidity: If your acidity is outside of the parameters above, there are ways to adjust them in order to give you a more balanced finished wine.
- If your acidity is too low: Full disclosure, we live in Michigan so we have never had to adjust the acidity up, but the basic theory is that you can add tartaric acid to your must to bring it up to desired levels. There are formulas you can find on other winemaking sites, but we have never done this adjustment so cannot personally offer advice on the subject. From what we have read, 18 grams of tartaric acid would raise the TA of a 5 gallon must by 0.10%. This process should be done before adding sulfites to kill the wild yeast on the first day.
- If your acidity is too high: there are two options for reducing the acidity of your wine. You can do what is called malolactic fermentation, which basically just adding a malolactic bacteria culture to your wine near the end of your primary fermentation which turns the more astringent malic acid into a softer lactic acid. We have done this with great success in our own wines. You can buy vials of the ML culture at most winemaking stores or online – it should be refrigerated so keep that in mind if buying it online. We typically add it when the fermentation starts to slow down and the specific gravity is under 1.01, but we have read about people starting it with the primary fermentation with success. We will touch more on ML fermentation later in the winemaking process. You won’t have to do anything on the first day but make sure you write the acidity down and plan on it. The other way you can reduce acidity, and is more common for white wines, is what is called cold stabilizing: it is basically just keeping your wine in a cold environment for about 2-3 weeks in the 32-35 degree F range. During this time the wine will precipitate tartaric acid from the wine which will form crystals at the bottom of your carboy. Fun fact – If you ever go to a smaller winery that doesn’t cold stabilize, it is common you will see some of these crystals at the bottom of your wine glass.
Killing Wild Yeast
This is the last step on Day 1. Once your grapes are crushed, destemmed, tested and adjusted (chaptalized and/or TA adjustments) you need to kill the wild yeast that are naturally occurring on the grape skins. It is possible to ferment with wild yeast, and it is done in many French vineyards with hundreds of years of winemaking history. Most of the common yeast strains you buy at your winemaking store trace their origins back to France. Chances are you are not buying your grapes from one of these vineyards, so it is safest to go with a tried and true strain of yeast. If you go the wild route, there is a good chance you will have a stuck fermentation (not fully fermenting) or funky/off flavors in the finished wine. Your potassium metabisulfite container will likely tell you how much you need to add to your must, we typically buy the LD Carlson brand and it requires 1/4 tsp per 6 gallons of must. Add it, stir it around and let it sit for 24 hours.
Day 2: Start Fermenting
Yesterday you did all the hard stuff. Today all you have to do is make sure your must/juice is at room temperature and add the yeast. If you did any chaptalization, you will want to retest the specific gravity. If it still hasn’t hit your target SG, you may need to add more sugar before you can add the yeast. Just sprinkle the yeast on top of your must or add directly into your juice for white or rose wines. Your yeast will start working about 24 hours after being added to the must/juice. Fermentation should happen at about room temperature, if it is too cold fermentation could stall before completely fermenting your wine.
Days 3-14: Fermenting & Punching Down the Cap
For White/Rose Wines
Allow the juice to ferment, maybe check on it to make sure it is fermenting (check the specific gravity after a week to see where it is, you won’t want to move on until fermentation slows and you have a specific gravity of around 1.001).
For Red Wines
You will need to do what is called ‘punching down the cap’ twice per day. You will notice as soon as your fermentation starts, the Co2 will push the skins to the top forming a cap. you want your skins to be in contact with your must as much as possible. There are other ways wineries do this, such as pumping wine over the cap, but we just use a long sanitized spoon to punch it down and stir it around twice per day. At this point, the must is producing enough Co2 to protect it from oxidation. Later on you will want to be careful to limit the wine’s exposure to the air. That being said, make sure your container has a lid, it will likely be attracting fruit flies at this stage.
Day 14: Pressing the Reds, Racking into Carboys
At about day 10, you will notice the cap isn’t as pronounced and the fermentation is starting to slow down. We typically press when the fermentation is barely showing any life and 14 days is usually around the sweet spot. At 14 days we will press the wine off the skins. I made a simple wine press LINK HERE that we use a sanitized kitchen pot to transfer the wine must into.
- We will then press the wine and transfer it into a carboy. We typically get between 90-100 lbs of grapes for each varietal which produces around 6 gallons of pressed wine (30 bottles). One thing to note is that some wineries will use the word ‘free run’ for their highest quality wines. That basically means that the wine wasn’t pressed, but rather the must was pumped into the press and any wine that ran through was saved for the best wine. After that they will press the remaining juice from the skins and use it for their next tier of wine. The reason we bring this up is that how much you press the wine does influence the quality of the wine. Generally speaking, the less you press, the higher quality the wine. That being said, we don’t have a large operation so press our wine pretty hard. Just something to keep in mind.
- Check the specific gravity, the primary fermentation isn’t complete until it is under 0.998, and at 14 days it tends to be around 1.01. We will then let it sit another week to finish the primary fermentation and right after pressing we will add the Malolactic culture (if we need to do it). As mentioned above, Malolactic Fermentation helps soften the acidity, and we typically start it towards the end of the primary fermentation. At this point, you want to add the culture, it is not as vigorous of a fermentation as the primary fermentation, but it will produce small bubbles that will slowly and occasionally make their way to the surface (you probably will barely notice it is happening). Also note that the ML culture is pretty sensitive to sulfites, so do not add any sulfites until you are done with the ML fermentation. After another 2 weeks, we will check the TA and pH again to see if the acidity is in the range we are looking for, then add sulfites to stop any remaining fermentation and stabilize the wine for longer term storage. At this stage you can move the wine to the basement or other cool/dark area out of direct sunlight. It should stay stored in that type of area for the rest of the time.
- After the ML Fermentation/30-40 days after picking up the grapes: At this point, you are ready to transfer (rack) the wine into another carboy. You do this to get the wine off the lees (dead yeast that will build up on the bottom of your carboy). At this time you may also add the sulfites to stop any ML fermentation and stabilize the wine. For reds, we usually add oak at this point, winemaking stores sell different forms of oak: cubes, spirals, powders, etc. We prefer the spirals, they go right in the carboy with the wine and you leave them for up to 6 weeks per the instructions. We have actually found we like a bit more time on the oak than the packaging says, and have found 8 weeks really does a nice job of giving the oak notes in the finished wine. We have never dealt with barrels, they seem to be too much of a hassle: the large ones take way more wine than we deal with and the small ones have a bad reputation and are costly. The spirals are nice and you have options on the type of oak and toast level.
- A Note about Oak: There are two key decisions you need to make when you are buying oak: toast level and country of origin.
- Toast level will determine the characteristics of the oak. Lighter toasting will be milder and and have a flavor profile that leans more towards earthy/wood/coffee flavors. The darker the level of toast the more you get the vanilla, brown sugar, espresso (darker coffee), etc. Very generally speaking, you want to match the color of the wine with the toast of the oak. The darker the wine, the darker the toast that it can handle. We typically buy medium or medium plus toast with American oak for our Michigan reds (typically a bit lighter).
- Country of origin: there are oak forests all over the place. The most common you will see are French, American, and Hungarian.
- French Oak is the most common for barrels and the most expensive. It give a great depth of flavor and structure to wine. When we were in Chile, at the winery Loma Larga they mentioned they buy French barrels from two different parts of France. One is closer to the ocean with a longer growing season, the other is a forest near the middle of the country and has a shorter growing season. This distinction influences how close together the grain. The tighter the grain, the lower the tannins. French Oak Spirals
- American Oak is known for giving heavier vanilla notes (think bourbon) but is less expensive and can give a good structure to wines. We typically go with American Oak. American Oak Spirals
- Hungarian Oak is actually a French Oak species, but with the colder climate it gives it a tighter grain . It is similar cost to American oak, but they do not make the spirals I mentioned at this point.
8 weeks after adding the oak and beyond
After about 8 weeks, we will rack the wine off the oak and lees. There is usually a ton of lees at this point in the process since it has mostly fallen out of suspension after fermentation is done. Your wine should also be pretty clear and it is a great time to taste it and see where you are at. It usually tastes somewhat close to the final product at this point, although it will be a bit young and may have some effervescent characteristics to it. If it does, do not worry, it just needs more time. At this point, we like to let it sit for another 8-9 months in the carboy (bulk storage) racking it every two to three months. to make sure the final wine that goes into the bottle has as little sediment as possible. We will typically rack 4 times total before bottling. A lot of wine ‘kits’ will tell you to degas the wine by vigorously stirring or a drill mounted degassing attachment, but the primary reason is to speed up the process so you can bottle in 30 days after starting. If this is your goal, you can do it. We have a lot of carboys and don’t mind waiting for the bulk storage to let the gas escape naturally over a 9-12 month period. We like doing the bulk storage as we get more sediment out of it and it maintains a more stable temperature.
After multiple times racking the wine and many months of waiting, it is finally time to bottle. We typically bottle around September the year following harvest. The first thing we do (after sanitizing!) is siphon the wine from the carboys the wine was stored in to a bucket. We do this to get it off any lees that may be left in the bottom of the carboy. Once in the bucket you can attach the bottling wand to your siphon setup and start bottling. We will typically set the first bottle aside since it risked getting a bit aerated when you start the siphon. Fill the bottles as much as possible and move along. Usually at the end will be a partial bottle, which we will also set aside and drink that night.
- Bottles – There are two options for acquiring bottles. You can buy them at a winemaking store for around $2/bottle or you can find good bottles of wine for less than $10 AND you get to drink it! The only pain is taking off the labels: you can soak them in hot water and dish soap with a dull knife and a Scotch Brite pad. Some labels will come off better than others, just make sure you rinse the bottles and hang them upside down to so they don’t get moldy
- Aging – After bottling, we typically wait at least six months to a year before drinking them. We will taste a bottle after a few months to see where it’s at. The first wine from grapes we made was the 2015 vintage and it is still improving in the bottle. I would expect it to continue to improve over the next couple years. We get the same varietals every year for the most part so one thing we like to do is a ‘vertical’ tasting where we drink a 2015 and 2016 of the same varietal. It is interesting to see how your winemaking decisions and grape harvest influence the finished wine.
Tools, Equipment, and Other Things You Will Need
- Food Grade Rubbermaid Totes
- 6 Gallon Carboys with carrier
- Potassium Metabisulfite
- Yeast: Our top choice for Red Wine or White Wine
- Ammonia (for cleaning- make sure there are no scents or detergents)
- Sugar (if chaptalization is needed)
- Oak: American or French
- Acid Test Kit
- pH Strips
- Malolactic Culture
- Winemaking bucket
- Siphon system & 3/8 hose
- Bottle filling wand
- Double Lever Corker
- Winemaking Kit: you can piece it together with the pieces above, but one like this (6 gallon) is what you are looking for.
- Corks – We use #9, but #8 will work fine
- Bottles – we just clean & peel the labels off the bottles we drink 🙂
- Vines to Wines – This is a great comprehensive resource
- Wine Press (instructions)