Wine kits are a great place to start when learning to make wine. They’re inexpensive, pre-stabilized, and come with a great set of instructions to help you through the process. You also need only a minimal amount of equipment.
At some point though we all want to graduate kit wine making to making wine from fresh grapes. Winemaker’s Academy member Matt is at this point and wrote in with the following question:
I was wondering if there is anything different that has to be done or used, when making wine from grapes as opposed to manufactured kits.
This is a great question as there are a few things that differ between the two methods of making wine. The most obvious is the equipment required to process the fruit. You’ll likely need a crusher / destemmer as well as a grape press, all of which are used to extract the juice from the fruit.
The other differences are on a deeper level and this is where I’d like to dive in and explore what the big differences are.
You’re In Complete Control
The single greatest difference in making wine from grapes versus making a kit wine is that each and every decision is now up to you. Kits are pre-stabilized, all additives pre-measured, yeast pre-determined, and the wine making method completely laid out for you.
When you buy grapes to make wine from you just get a pile of grapes. The rest is up to you. Let’s take a look at what this really means.
When you buy a kit you get a box with a big bag of grape juice concentrate. This means that the fruit has been harvested, crushed, de-stemmed, and pressed. That’s a lot of work you will have to do on your own when working with fresh grapes.
The equipment required to do all of this can be expensive to purchase, however, it is usually available to rent from a local wine making supply store. The down side to renting is that harvest time comes about only one time each year so you may competing with other wine makers to use the same equipment. Often equipment is rented by the hour so that it can be re-rented to another wine maker the same day.
Another great place to gain access to equipment is through a local wine making club. Many clubs have equipment you can use either at a “crush party” or some you can barrow and return.
Sugar Content (Brix)
When purchasing grapes the ripeness of the fruit is vitally important. As grapes ripen their sugar content increases. Most often the sugar content of grapes is measured with a refractometer that relates sugar content in the units of Brix.
Based on the sugar content we can determine what percent alcohol content these grapes are likely to produce. This in turn factors into your yeast choice.
If the brix is too low you may have to add sugar to bring up the final alcohol to your desired level. On the other hand if the brix is too high you may have to consider adding water to dilute the sugar a bit or come up with a hearty yeast that can withstand the level of alcohol you could potentially be dealing with.
There are two major factors to think about when selecting a yeast. The first is what flavors and aromas a given yeast strain can help pull out of your grapes. Different yeasts produce different flavor and aroma profiles so take some time to think about this before you go to pick up your grapes.
The second major factor to consider is the alcohol tolerance of the yeast. If your sugar content is high enough to produce an 18% alcohol there are only a few yeast strains that will be able to handle that. This is why it is so important to understand the sugar content of your grapes. It gives you an idea of the potential final alcohol.
To help you with all of this I’ve put together this guide on wine making yeast selection. This is the step by step process I use when selecting a yeast.
Acidity and pH
Not all harvested grapes will have ideal acidity and pH levels to produce the type of wine you’re looking for. So you’ll need to have the necessary testing equipment and additives on hand in case you do need to intervene and make some adjustments.
Any adjustments you decide to make to your acidity or pH should be done prior to fermenting your grapes. The yeast will help integrate all of these things when fermentation is taking place. Making adjustments after fermentation can lead to off flavors or mouthfeel.
Do you Want a Sweet or Dry Wine
This is a decision that you need to make before you even bring your grapes home. If you do decide to make a sweet wine you’ll need to determine how you want to accomplish that.
The easiest way for the amateur wine maker to produce a sweet wine is through back sweetening. This is done by fermenting the wine completely dry, stabilizing it, and then adding back unfermented grape juice.
For the best results back sweetening should be done with grape juice from the same grapes that went into making the wine. Thus you’ll need to set aside some portion of grape juice when you crush that gets stabilized but not fermented.
Back sweetening requires potassium sorbate to prevent further fermentation once the unfermented grape juice is added back to the wine. How much you need to add is something that you’ll have to determine based on the volume of wine you’re making. Here’s some more information on using potassium sorbate.
Each of the decisions you will have to made up to this point should take place before your wine goes into the primary fermenter. Because you can only let harvested grapes sit for so long before fermentation begins on its own you’ll need to make these decisions quickly. Having what you need on hand or available locally for immediate access is critical.
Another thing to consider when it comes to time is the timing of each step in the wine making process. When you rack, add clarifiers, bulk age, and bottle is now all up to you. There are no specific instructions included with your grapes to tell you when it’s time to do any of this.
Having a recipe on hand or someone with more experience to help you through your first fresh grape fermentation can be very helpful. Wine making clubs are great places to find both.
Sulfites are used to keep wild yeasts and stray bacteria present on your grapes from taking hold. Some vineyards will spray their grapes with enough sulfites to harvest the grapes and get them to a crush facility. From there you’ll need to monitor and adjust your own sulfite levels.
You could opt to make sulfite free wine, however, I don’t recommend this for your first time working with fresh fruit. If it were me I would use sulfites for at least the first time or two and then once I’ve successfully made great wine I would consider changing how I do things.
Whether or not to perform malolactic fermentation is a big decision. Yes it does impact your finished wine in a significant way but it also affects how you make the other decisions required when making wine from fresh grapes.
Malolactic bacteria are sensitive to both pH and sulfites. In order to have a successful fermentation you have to make sure that these things are balanced not for a finished wine but in such a way as to promote
a healthy malolactic fermentation.
Your sulfite levels will have to be quite low and your acidity spot on in order for the bacteria to survive. You’ll need a chromatography kit to monitor their progress as well. Here is some more information on malolactic fermentation.
While making wine from fresh grapes certainly does place a lot of responsibility on you, the wine maker, the payoff can be tremendous. The quality of wine from fresh grapes often is in a league of its own when compared to manufactured kits. It’s entirely within your power to create a masterpiece wine.
Kits on the other hand are closed. They are designed to work a certain way and while you can certainly experiment with some things the processing they go through during manufacturing will prevents you from having total freedom to do whatever you like. That processing also has an impact on the quality of the finished wine.
If you’re interested in making the leap from kits to fresh grapes I would suggest you find someone locally who can walk with you through the process and help you understand what you’re seeing in your wine as you make it.
Photograph by: heydrianne