The Wine Making Process Simplified

The Wine Making Process Simplified

There’s no doubt that the wine making process can be a bit complex. There are all kinds of decisions to make regarding varietals, yeast strain, and additives. However, the actual process of how wine is made can be understood in relatively simple terms. It’s important that you have a working knowledge of this process because everything we as winemakers do is to facilitate this process. We can build on this basic understanding over time, diving into more and more details along the way. The Simplified Wine Making Process After a lot of reading and research I’ve been able to boil this process down to a very easy to understand equation. Here is how wine is made: Grape Juice + Yeast – Oxygen = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide We’ll break this down into more detail in time but this is the essence of the wine making process. The Left Side On the left side of the equation the first two terms are grape juice and yeast. Combining these, as you know, is what gets fermentation started. These marvelous little creatures digest the sugar in the grape juice and produce the products on the right side of the equation, alcohol and carbon dioxide. That is, if and only if all of the oxygen is removed from the system. The yeast consume the oxygen as they build their population so we need some oxygen in there to begin with. However, as long as there is oxygen in the must the yeast will produce water and carbon dioxide. I don’t know about you but from where I’m sitting alcohol sounds much better than watery grape juice. Thus, in order to produce alcohol the yeast must be cut off from all sources of oxygen. This is part of the reason we store wine in airtight containers during fermentation. Keeping air out not only keeps unwanted micro-organisms out of our wine, it prevents oxygen from entering the system and allowing the yeast to go back to producing water. Another thing we are tasked with is making sure that only the yeast we choose is able ferment our must. We don’t want just any yeast making our wine, nor do we want spoilage micro-organisms in there making a mess. This is why we add sulfites just prior to inoculating the yeast. We’re setting the stage for the yeast to totally dominate the wine making process as shown above. The Right Side On the right side of the equation we have the by-products of fermentation. In reality there are many bi-products of the wine making process. Much more than alcohol and carbon dioxide as shown here. However, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced in the greatest volume which is why they’ve been singled out here. As you know the alcohol is the most desirable by-product when making wine. It’s what makes wine wine after all. The carbon dioxide we can do without which is why we have to go through all the trouble of degassing the wine. Carbon dioxide left in the wine can produce off flavors and be generally unpleasant in wines that should have been still. The...

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How to Back Sweeten Wine

How to Back Sweeten Wine

Back sweetening is the process used to turn a completely dry wine into either an off dry or sweet wine. This is just one of many ways in which you can produce a sweet wine. The most common ways of back sweetening are by adding sugar or unfermented grape juice to a finished wine. By finished I mean fermented and stabilized. Back Sweetening with Sugar Often amateur winemakers will add sugar to a fully fermented dry wine to create a sweet wine. While this does work there are issues with the flavors of the wine and sugar. Because the sugar was not a product of the grape and because it is added after the wine has finished fermenting it doesn’t completely integrate into the flavor profile of the wine. Instead you’ll have a sweet wine where you can actually taste the table sugar. Aging a back sweetened wine can help integrate the flavor of the wine and the sugar. However, this has its limits. There are many out there that can pick out the table sugar flavors of wines sweetened this way. Should you want to experiment with this method try it with a single glass of wine at first. Draw a sample glass of wine with a wine thief. Next, add table sugar in very small increments, tasting between each addition. If you like what you taste then proceed to sweeten your entire batch. If not, consider leaving your wine dry. Back Sweetening with Unfermented Grape Juice A more preferable method of back sweetening is to ferment the wine completely dry and add unfermented grape juice to it. This process is known as back-blending. It works best when the juice used to sweeten the wine has come from the same juice that was fermented to make the wine. This makes for a much more integrated final product. If you know you want to make a sweet wine from the start reserve a portion of the grape juice for sweetening. After the wine is dry and stable you can blend the unfermented juice back into your wine until it reaches the desired level of sweetness. When back-blending add the unfermented grape juice in small amounts and taste samples often. It’s a good idea to first try this with a sample glass of wine. After all, you can’t un-sweeten a wine that is too sweet so be careful not to go to far. Sweet wine kits come with a package of unfermented grape juice pre-measured in the correct proportions for the amount of wine made in the kit. The Riesling kit I made included an “F-Pack” of unfermented grape juice concentrate. I can say from experience that the f-pack did not negatively affect the flavor profile of the wine. It tastes just as integrated today as it did before I back-blended it. This is the preferable way to produce a sweet wine at the amateur level. Wineries have more complex methods, however, some wineries do produce sweet table wines by back-blending. Stability is Key The most important concern with back sweetening and back-blending is ensuring your wine is stable enough...

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How to Degas Wine

How to Degas Wine

Degassing your wine is a key step in the final stages of the wine making process. Simply put it’s the process of removing suspended carbon dioxide left over from fermentation. Before we talk about how to degas your wine let’s take a minute to talk about why it’s so important to get it done right. Why Degassing is Important It doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference, but leaving carbon dioxide in your wine can have three negative effects on your wine. 1. It leaves what should be a still wine carbonated. While white wines often have a bit of fizz to them reds generally shouldn’t. Fizzy Zinfandel is not cool. 2. Suspended carbon dioxide prevents wine from properly clearing. White wines are especially sensitive to the amount of suspended carbon dioxide. An improperly degassed white wine can have a haze to it that won’t clear through fining. 3. Carbon dioxide increases the sensation of acidity in wine. While the acid isn’t really there it tastes like it is. Despite all these reasons to remove the carbon dioxide you don’t want to remove absolutely all of it. This can leave a wine tasting flabby and boring. For the amateur winemaker, however, this is rarely a problem. Even sparkling wine is first made as a still wine and must be free of carbon dioxide prior to making a sparkling wine. Usually not being able to remove enough carbon dioxide to avoid the three negative effects listed above is what gets us in trouble. So, let’s look at the best ways to degas your wine. How to Degas Wine Carbon dioxide can be removed from wine through three main methods: agitation, creating a vacuum, and time. Let’s look at each of these in turn. Degassing Through Agitation Usually this is done with a type of stirring rod that attaches to a power drill. One of the more common degassing tools is the Fermtech Wine Whip (affiliate link). Run the drill in one direction for 20-30 seconds and then abruptly reverse the direction of the drill so that you’re agitating in the other direction. Switch directions every 20-30 seconds Be careful not to agitate the surface of the wine too much. Doing this can expose your wine to too much oxygen. Most kits recommend a total of about 2-6 minutes of degassing when using a power drill agitator. However, it has been my experience (and that of many winemakers I know) that it can take up to 30 or 40 minutes of agitating to completely degas a wine. To see a wine whip in action click here. Create a Vacuum A vacuum can be created by sealing off the top of your carboy and removing the air that is in there. This creates the vacuum. When there’s negative pressure in the carboy the carbon dioxide will come out of suspension (form bubbles) and float to the top of the carboy. Thus you’ll have to have a way to maintain a vacuum so that all the carbon dioxide is removed. I degassed a single bottle of wine using this method. I took...

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What is Malolactic Fermentation?

What is Malolactic Fermentation?

Malolactic fermentation is often associated with red wines and some Chardonnays. Specifically “buttery” Chardonnay. But what is it? As the name implies it is a form of fermentation. Unlike a yeast fermentation, however, during malolactic fermentation no alcohol is produced. Instead malic acid is converted into lactic acid by lactic acid bacteria. Clever name I know. How Malolactic Fermentation Works Just like yeast, there are lactic acid bacteria all around us and the grapes that we make into wine. Not all species, however, will produce a drinkable wine. There are only about four species we trust. Thus to initiate a malolactic fermentation it is best to purchase a lactic acid bacteria specifically suited for the job. These can be found at many winemaking supply stores. After primary fermentation is complete you inoculate your wine with the bacteria. It is important to prevent oxygen from coming into contact with your wine during this process as the bacteria only produce desirable results when they work anaerobically (without oxygen). In simple terms the bacteria consume malic acid and convert it to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. There are a few reasons this is a good idea. Why Should I do a Malolactic Fermentation? Great question. More can be understood if we talk about the chemical process that your wine undergoes. First of all there’s the issue of stability. The presence of malic acid in our wines makes it a breeding ground for good and bad lactic acid bacteria. If you don’t do a malolactic fermentation prior to bottling it could happen later once it’s in the bottle. I once purchased a bottle of wine that underwent a malolactic fermentation after I bought it. The bottle blew out the cork making a holy mess. Not only that, what wine was left over tasted terrible. It was cloudy, bubbly, and lacked any of the flavors we bought it for. The second reason to go through this process is to reduce acidity. Lactic acid is a less potent acid than malic acid. In general the acidity of a wine may be reduced by 0.1-0.3%. This may not sound like much but it is enough to taste a difference. Speaking of taste, this is the third major reason for doing a malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is said to have a tart taste to it, similar to the peel of a green apple. Lactic acid, on the other hand has a buttery or milky flavor to it. Lactic acid is also present in milk and other dairy products. In fact lactic acid is often referred to as “milk acid”. If you’ve ever heard a Chardonnay described as buttery, it has likely undergone malolactic fermentation. Like a yeast fermentation a malolactic fermentation can get stuck. This can be caused by fermentation temperatures that are too low. Also, too much sulfur dioxide in your wine can prevent them from working their magic. There are chromatography tests you can do to see if fermentation has completed. We’ll get into exactly how to do all of this in a future post. The important things to know about malolactic fermentation is that it is...

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3 Keys to a Creating a Useful Winemaking Log

3 Keys to a Creating a Useful Winemaking Log

Keeping a winemaking log is critically important of you’re to your growth as a winemaker. However, if you’re not logging useful information it won’t do you much good. Short and Long Term Benefits of Keeping a Winemaking Log In the short term a well kept winemaking log can help you keep the timing of each step straight. It also serves as a double check of how much of what additives you’ve put in and when you did it. The long term benefits, however, can be much more valuable. Think about this, the time between when you get your grapes (or wine kit) and opening the last bottle of wine those grapes made may be six months to ten years. By the time you open that last bottle there’s little chance you’ll remember what you did during it’s production. If your last bottle is terrific you won’t know what you did and therefore can’t replicate the process. On the other hand if it’s horrific you won’t know what might have gone wrong so you can avoid that mistake in the future. By not keeping a log you’re setting yourself up to make a lot of mediocre wine because you can’t learn from what you did right or wrong. Don’t fall into that trap. 3 Keys to a Useful Winemaking Log Here are three keys to creating a useful winemaking log that will benefit you for years to come in your winemaking ventures. 1. Keep it simple. Yes you could create a sexy spreadsheet that calculates the standard deviation of your specific gravity readings but that’s really not necessary nor is it helpful. What you need is a straight forward, journal style log of what you did and when you did it. I suggest using a simple notebook that you can keep with your wine. It’s easy to use and won’t short circuit if you spill a sample on it. Also, by keeping it accessible you’ll be more apt to write things down. If you want to re-type everything on your computer or blog that’s great. But also keep a paper version with your wine for easy access. 2. Write down everything. You never know what’s going to be important when you’re trying to solve a problem. If you’ve recorded your every action you’ll have a great chance of figuring out what happened if you do end up in trouble. Or let’s say three years from now you uncork the final bottle of your first Chardonnay and it’s simply amazing. Your first thought is going to be, “Wow! How did I do that?” With a detailed winemaking log you’ll know. First, always record the date and time. Follow that with as many observations as you can make. Such as: Ambient temperature Must temperature Airlock activity level Color Aroma Tasting notes (Get a sample? Take a swig!) Specific gravity Additives (be clear about the quantity too) pH Titratable Acidity Also write down how long you stirred the wine if you did, as well as anything else you notice. It may seem tedious to record each and everything you do but it will...

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Bottle Aging Wine

Once bottled wine needs to be stored in optimal conditions to preserve its life and keep it tasting as wonderful as possible. The three factors affecting wine being aged in a bottle are temperature, light, and humidity (depending on your closure). Red vs White Wine Bottle Aging Red wines benefit the most from long term aging because of the tannins. Over time the tannins join together and form long chains. This smooths out the wine and gives it that silky smooth mouthfeel only an aged red has. Some of the tannin chains get so long they precipitate out, giving the wine a mature feel.   White wines are not usually bottle aged very long. There are exceptions to this, however, most white wines are meant to be consumed within three years or so. Champagne is a notable exception to this rule. Temperature Ideally wine should be stored at 55 deg F. This slows the micro-oxygenation process down and allows the wine to mature gradually. Warmer temperatures speed up the aging process. In theory you could simulate a 100 years of bottle aging by storing it at 80 deg F, however it doesn’t quite work out this nicely. You miss out on all the long chain tannins and the aging process is so abrupt that the wine doesn’t mature as much as it just goes bad. If you can’t store your wine at 55 deg F at least store it as cool as you can. Not all of us have underground cellars or refrigerators for bottle aging wine though. Realize that your wine may have a shorter shelf life if you can’t keep it that cold. Light Wine should be stored in a nice dark place. Ultra-violate light from the sun or florescent lights can damage wine as much as heat can. Darker bottles do help protect wine from these rays, however, if you’re planning on bottle aging a wine for years and years it needs to completely protected from UV light. Humidity Cork closures require a specific range of humidity for long term storage. When corks dry out due to a lack of humidity they shrink and can leak or be pushed out of the bottle entirely. If your storage area has too much humidity your corks can grow mold and introduce nasty flavors to your wine. Keep your cork enclosed wine between 55 and 75% humidity to avoid drying of the cork as well as growing mold. If this isn’t something you can manage you may want to consider going with a synthetic cork or screw cap to avoid the issue altogether. You probably already know this but you should be storing wine enclosed with natural corks on their side. This prevents the cork from drying out from the inside. This is not an issue with synthetic corks or screw caps. Pay attention to these three factors and you can expect great results. Let any one of these get out of hand and your wine could be ruined. Not All Wines Age Gracefully Aging wine is a science. Certain characteristics must be present in your wine for it...

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