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Studying Wine to Become a Better Winemaker

- Dec 20, 2012

Studying Wine to Become a Better Winemaker

Great winemakers have a tremendous depth of wine knowledge in addition to their understanding of the winemaking process. The more you know about finished wines the wines you make will be. Why? It’s nearly impossible for a winemaker to make a subtle and complex wine if he/she can’t describe or even pick out subtleties in what they drink. Once you know how to pick out the nuances of a great wine you can start hone your winemaking skills to draw out those characteristics out in your own wines. Many of us put a lot of effort into studying the winemaking process, as we should. But we mustn’t forget to study the finished product itself. What I mean is that we need to be developing our palate to pick out nuances as well as expanding our understanding of tasting and evaluating wines. Even if you’ve been at this for a while chances are there’s still a lot for you to learn. I know I’ve got a lot to learn. Over the years, however, I’ve found one resource that has broadened my knowledge of wine more than any other. It’s not some stuffy textbook or a video hosted by an “I’m smarter and better than you” wine expert. My Number One Wine Resource The resource I’m referring to is Wine for Normal People Radio, a podcast hosted by Elizabeth Schneider (@NormalWine) and M.C. Ice. Elizabeth is a certified sommelier that knows how to make wine fun and understandable. I’ve picked out my favorite shows to share with you. Listening to them will set you on the path to becoming a better winemaker. You’ll learn how to better taste wine, develop your palate, as well as discover the impact of terroir on wines. To get you started here are my top picks. Tasting and Terroir 1. Tasting Wine This episode walks you through the process of tasting wine. There’s a lot to tasting wine and I’m sure you’ll be familiar with much of this but it’s still something to brush up on especially with the help of a sommelier. 2. Developing Your Palate A winemaker’s palate is his/her most valuable tool. Without a well developed palate you’ll have a hard time identifying the good and bad aspects of your wine. You need to be able to pick out flaws so you can learn to correct them in the next wine you make. 3. Terroir Part I, and Part II Ok, terroir is a big topic for sure. Elizabeth spent two episodes covering this one and you really should listen to both shows. For winemakers terroir is key. The land and climate that your grapes grew up in can alter their flavors and aromas. The same varietal grown in two different geographic regions will have different qualities. Winemaking Episodes From time to time Wine for Normal People Radio will cover some winemaking topics specifically. Here are some great shows for winemakers. 1. How a Grape Becomes a Wine In this show Elizabeth will take you through the entire process of how wines are made. From vineyard to bottle, it’s all here. Since most of us don’t grow our own grapes it’s helpful to understand what’s going on before we get our grapes or kits. 2. Winemaking Terms This is the perfect introduction to winemaking vocabulary for new winemakers. More experienced winemakers may even pick...

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How to Use a Degassing Tool

- Dec 17, 2012

How to Use a Degassing Tool

Degassing is the process of removing suspended carbon dioxide from your wine. Usually you’ll do this when you add your clarifier about two weeks prior to bottling. Wine that’s not properly degassed will be carbonated. If you don’t get the carbon dioxide out of your wine before you bottle it’ll still be there when you open it later. Most degassing tools attach to a power drill and can easily be inserted into your carboy. They’re designed to agitate the wine without introducing more oxygen into it. The tool I use to degas my wine is the Wine Whip from Fermtech (affiliate link). Most of these tools, including the one I use, cost between $10 and $30. What You’ll Need To degas using a degassing tool you’ll also need: a power drill a cup of water hearing and eye protection (optional depending upon how much you value your senses) How to Know When You’re Done Degassing There’s a simple test you can do to see if your wine has been properly degassed. Using your wine thief draw enough wine to fill your hydrometer test jar about half way up. Place your hand securely over the top of the test jar such that you get an air tight seal. Shake the sample for ten to thirty seconds while maintaining the air tight seal. Listen closely and release your hand. If you hear a burst of pressure being released you know there’s still more carbon dioxide suspended in your wine. Should this be the case toss the sample out, grab your degassing tool, and hit it again for another few minutes. Repeat this testing process until there is no pressure released after shaking a sample. Temperature and Degassing If you read the directions for a wine kit you’ll notice that there’s a very specific temperature range you’re supposed to keep your wine within. Generally it’s somewhere around 72-75 degrees (F). While the many yeasts can function in temperatures as low as 60 degrees (F) if you let your wine go below 72 degrees more carbon dioxide will remain suspended in your wine. Thus the time it takes to degas completely will start to increase. My Shiraz fermented and was clarified at around 64 degrees, well below 72. Because of this the two minutes of degassing turned into over twenty minutes! That’s a long time to stand there with a power drill screaming in your face. Things to Remember About Degassing 1. Once bottled carbon dioxide cannot escape so if you don’t get it out now it’ll always be there. 2. Test your wine for any remaining carbon dioxide using the procedure above. 3. Prevent excessive degassing times by closely monitoring and controlling the temperature of your wine during fermentation and the steps preceding degassing. If you’d like to pick up the same Wine Whip I use please consider purchasing through this link. It is an affiliate link which means that this site will earn a small commission on the sale. These commissions help me put up new content here at Winemaker’s Academy. Thank you for your...

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Where to Set Up Your Wine Making Operation

- Dec 13, 2012

Where to Set Up Your Wine Making Operation

Making wine takes not only time but also space. The right kind of space. Finding The Best Wine Making Area With all the sanitizing, racking, and testing you’ll be doing it’s easy to see how wine making can get messy. Without the proper area you’ll definitely be leaving your mark. Let’s look at what sort of area will work best for your wine making operation. The most important factors are: A sturdy work surface. Temperature control. Exposure to sunlight. Being near a water source and drain. Having a washable floor. Having a well ventilated area. Have a Sturdy Work Surface Don’t trust wobbly tables or shelves to hold your carboys. A full 6 gallon glass carboy weighs around 50 lb when it’s topped up. If you’ve got two or three carboys make sure your table or shelves can take that kind of load. Most store bought tables will have some sort of indication as to what sort of weight you can apply before getting into trouble. Stay away from tables made from particle board if you can. Temperature Control Being able to control the temperature of your wine during fermentation is very important. If your winemaking area is too hot during fermentation your wine can take on a cooked taste. Too cold and fermentation will stop. Fermenting wine generates its own heat. So even if your wine making area is at a reasonable temperature your wine can still overheat. Prior to starting your wine making efforts take the time to log day and night time temperatures of your prospective areas. You might be surprised to find out that a certain area has wild temperature swings. The best area will have a more or less constant temperature day and night. Minimal Exposure to Sunlight Sunlight causes wine to age prematurely. Even if you bottled in dark green or brown bottles the light will still change your wine. At the very minimum you need to avoid direct sunlight. Ideally, though, you should block all forms of light especially once you’re aging the wine. During the wine making process cover your carboy to block the light if the room isn’t totally dark. I put an old jacket over my carboy to insulate and block the light. They do make insulating carboy covers that serve the same purpose. After I bottled my wine I moved it under the stairs in the basement. Even with all the lights on you can’t see a thing back there. Find a spot where you can produce your wine protected from sunlight but more importantly figure out where you’re going to store your wine for aging. Be Near a Water Source and Drain Having a water source and a drain of some kind close at hand is really helpful. Throughout every winemaking step, regardless of whether you are making wine from a kit, frozen must, or grapes, you’re going to need to sanitize and rinse equipment. I made my Shiraz in a basement that met every one of the requirements listed here except this one. While I was successful it would have been much easier had I had a sink with a faucet. Before getting started I carried pitchers of clean water down to the basement along with empty containers for pouring used rinse water. To clean my equipment...

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The Most Neglected Piece of Winemaking Equipment

- Dec 9, 2012

The Most Neglected Piece of Winemaking Equipment

It’s inexpensive, easy to use, and easy to neglect. The cost of neglecting it, however, is all the wine your making. So what is this little savior of wine? The airlock. Why Are Airlocks So Critical? First, they keep out all of the undesirable micro-organisms that seek to ruin your wine. Vinegar bacteria, lactic bacteria, and weak wild yeasts are all kept at bay with a properly maintained airlock. Second, airlocks prevent oxygen from entering your wine. Not only does this prevent oxidation it makes the production of alcohol possible. As I mentioned in my post about the yeast fermentation process, yeasts only produce alcohol when it consumes sugar. This is only possible once they’ve run out of oxygen. Thus it is critical that a properly set up airlock is used to starve the yeast of oxygen so they’ll produce alcohol. Now that I’ve shown you how important it is to properly setting up an airlock let’s get into how to set one up. Why do Winemakers Neglect Airlocks? Airlocks are put in place when the wine needs to sit for a while. Generally they’ll be in place for as little as a couple of weeks or up to a few months or more. Many winemakers will “set it and forget it”. The hard part is done and now it’s time to give our wine a little time to itself to ferment or age. Many will just walk away and trust that it’s functioning properly and nothing will happen to it. However there airlocks can fail. All it takes is an overly active fermentation, an improperly seated plug, or a cat to make unseat an airlock and let int oxygen and some nasty micro-organisms. When that happens all that wine will have to go down the drain. How To Use an Airlock In the following four minute video I’ll walk you through the entire process of setting up your three piece airlock. These are not the only type of airlock on the market, however, they’re the ones with the most moving parts. Watch this video to make sure you set up your airlock properly. If you follow these steps you’ll be well on your way to making the best possible wine with whatever raw materials you started with. The price for not following these steps so is just too high. Pretty easy right? Yes, BUT, don’t take these little devices for granted! They may be simple but they’re our guardians against spoiled grape juice. Remember These Tips Clean and sanitize every part of the airlock and plug. Fill airlocks with only clean water. Check on your airlock every day! Here’s a link to the same three piece airlock I use to make my wine. This is an affiliate link so if you use it you will be helping to support Winemaker’s...

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How Much Does it Cost to Make Wine from a Kit?

- Dec 6, 2012

How Much Does it Cost to Make Wine from a Kit?

Wine kits are by far the least expensive way to get into wine making. It requires the least amount of equipment and makes the smallest amount of wine. Let’s take a look at what determines the cost to make wine for the first time. The Equipment I Purchased To get started I picked up the Vintner’s Reserve Shiraz wine kit. This included the grape juice concentrate and nearly all of the additives required to make the wine. However, wine kits do not include any equipment. With that in mind I picked up this wine making equipment kit from Midwest Supplies. This kit included the following: Primary Fermenter Glass Carboy (6.5 gallon) Hydrometer Corker Corks Bottle Brush Sanitizer Airlock Carboy plug While this got me most of the way as far as equipment was concerned I also purchased the following items: Carboy Brush Wine Thief Hydrometer Test Jar Self Adhesive Thermometer Titratable Acid Test Kit (optional) pH Test Strips (optional) With this equipment I was able to progress as far as completing fermentation. However I did find that I was missing a few key pieces of equipment for degassing the wine as well as having enough additives to age the wine longer than six months. Thus I also purchased a Wine Whip 28″ spoon additional potassium sorbate Star San sanitizer. I’ll get to the cost here in a minute. The point of laying out my equipment purchases in this way was to show you that these equipment kits don’t necessarily come with everything you need. Neither do the wine kit instructions spell out everything you’re likely to need. When I was making my initial purchase of the wine and equipment kit I believed I had nearly everything I needed. Even then I’d already picked up several things that weren’t in the equipment kit. As you saw above though, I wasn’t prepared for all of the wine making steps. One thing you may have noticed that’s missing from this list of equipment are the bottles. I used bottles I’d saved from wine I had consumed. Also, I got in touch with a local winery who offered to save me their empty tasting room bottles. I encourage you to collect bottles any way you can. They tend to be quite expensive to purchase due to the shipping costs. Local supply shops also pay that shipping before selling to you so there’s really no good deals on bottles. The only hitch with used bottles is removing the wine labels. So let’s get to it! Here’s the complete list of equipment I purchased and what I paid for it. The price per bottle is the sum of all equipment I purchased divided by the number of bottles yielded, 30. In all honesty I wound up with 29.5 bottles but I could have had 30 had I been more careful with the racking cane. Now that I own this equipment the cost per bottle of the next batch will come down significantly. This is because the cost of equipment can be spread out over the two batches instead of just the one. Much of this equipment will need to be replaced overtime. Most notably the primary fermenter and the brushes. Brushes wear out as you can imagine. Fermenters should be replaced after about five or six uses....

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How to Remove Wine Labels

- Dec 2, 2012

How to Remove Wine Labels

Reusing wine bottles is the perfect way to save some money when making your own wine. The problem is how do you remove the labels? I’ve found there are mainly three types of labels, paper, plastic, and plastic coated paper. Paper labels are easy as they’ll come off after only a few minutes in water. Plastic labels peel off but leave a mess (more on that below). The toughest labels to remove are the plastic coated paper labels. They don’t peel off and water can’t penetrate the plastic so you can’t soak it off. After a bit of practice, however, I stumbled upon a method that works really well for paper and plastic coated paper labels. Check out this video to see how I do it. I’ve got a few more tips and safety tips for you after the video so be sure to check out the rest of the post too. Here’s a brief summary of how to remove wine labels made of paper and plastic coated paper: 1. Using a utility knife carefully score the label vertically and horizontally. 2. Soak the bottle in a tub of water for 24 hours. Hint: it helps to put a little water in the wine bottle so that it doesn’t float. This way you can stand them up in the tub. 3. After soaking take  a window scraping blade and scrape the label off. Be sure to push the blade down the bottle away from you. Do this on a table and not your leg. 4. With all of the paper removed scrub off the glue. The glue can be particularly challenging to remove. One way to speed this process along is to use a cleaner such as Goo Gone. HOWEVER, do not allow any bit of this to get inside the bottle! It’s best to spray a rag away from the bottles and then use the rag to wipe down the bottles. Goo Gone in your wine isn’t going to taste good. After using any cleaners be sure to thoroughly wash the outside of the bottle. If you have to remove wine labels from a lot of bottles be sure to wash the rag out once in a while. While the goo removers do break down the glue it has to go somewhere. Your rag soaks it up and after ten labels or so you’ll just be spreading glue around instead of removing it. Removing Plastic Labels There are some labels that don’t have any paper in them. They’re thin sheets of plastic. I’ve found that these labels leave a real mess of glue behind. Your best bet is to peel the label by hand and then either scrape off the glue or use Goo Gone. A Word on Safety It’s not hard to remove wine labels but please do be careful with those utility knives and window scrapers. I don’t want to be a nag but I’d rather see you bottling wine than getting stitches in the hospital. So just two safety points here. 1. Always use a brand new blade. It’s much better to get cut by a brand new, albeit really sharp, blade than an old jagged one. The healing process goes much quicker in the event of a cut. 2. Always cut away from yourself over a...

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The Anatomy of a Grape

- Nov 29, 2012

The Anatomy of a Grape

Knowing and understanding grapes is absolutely essential to making good wine. After all these little berries are what it all starts with right? By their very nature grapes are the perfect winemaking fruit. No other fruit contains the perfect amounts of sugar, acidity, and phenolic compounds to create such an amazing beverage. Any other fruit requires additional sugar or other ingredients to even produce alcohol. Let’s get to know our little friend a little bit better. Shall we? Physical Components of the Grape The Skin At only six to ten cells thick you wouldn’t think there’s much to the skin of a grape. However, this membrane contains many key elements for red wines. Less so for white wines as the juice spends little time in contact with the skins. The outer surface of the skin is the cuticle, a wax like covering that waterproofs the berry. Protecting it from outside influences. Within the thin skin are a ton of components including aromatic substances, potassium, and phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds refer to a group of compounds, however, there are two very important ones that need to be explored. The first are anthocyanins. These are pigment compounds that give the grape its color and in turn gives red wine its color. As wine ages these anthocyanins combine with other phenolic compounds which serves to stabilize the color of the wine. The second phenolic compound of interest are tannins. Also present in the seeds tannins give wine an astringent and bitter taste. Tannins also combine over time and alter the taste and mouth feel of a wine. Red wines in particular get most of their flavor and spunk from the skins. Merely pressing red grapes and fermenting the juice results in what the French call “Blanc de Noir” meaning white wine from red grapes, or literally white from black. The Pulp The bulk of the grape is made up of the pulp beneath the skin. This is where the grape juice comes from. Vacuoles contain the juice and when broken release the “free run” juice. As you can see in the diagram the pulp contains many compounds of its own including: sugar water aromas potassium tartaric acid malic acid In white wine making the pulp provides the bulk of the flavor and acidity. Red wines get their flavor first from the skins but also from the pulp. Seeds Moving inward we come to the seeds. These are large caches of tannins. So much so that as winemakers we must be careful not to crush the seeds during the pressing of the grapes. By crushing the seeds, and stray stems, the tannins are overdone. If this happens your wine will need much more time in the bottle to become palatable. Chemicals Within The Grape The chemical makeup of a grape is quite diverse and complex. We’ll just hit the major components here. Sugars The sugars within the grape are what the yeast consume to produce the alcohol in wine, as you already know. What we refer to as “sugar” in a grape is actually a combination of several different kinds of sugar. Primarily there is fructose and glucose. To a lesser degree there is also sucrose followed by several others in lesser quantities. The interesting thing here is that these different types of sugars vary...

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How to Use a Racking Cane

- Nov 26, 2012

A racking cane is simply a hard plastic tube used to siphon wine from one container to another. Despite their simplicity they can be a bit tricky to use. The most difficult part of using this device is getting the flow of wine going. While you could suck on the end of the tube like a straw to get the siphon started this is hardly a sanitary way to make wine. I’ll show you the best way I’ve found to use the racking cane. It takes a little practice but once you get the hang of it it’s really easy. Summary To get your siphon going: 0. Sanitize all you equipment. 1. Coil the flexible tubing in a container of clean water. 2. Close the tube clamp or put your finger over the end of the tube to prevent the water from leaving the racking cane. 3. Place the end of the racking cane below the free surface of the water in the pitcher and open the clamp. This will allow water to flow from your pitcher to a waste bucket or sink. 4. Once the racking cane and tube are filled with water close the tube clamp. 5. Place the racking cane into your fermenter or carboy such that the end of the cane is 2 – 3 inches off the bottom. This helps prevent sediment from being siphoned. 6. Place the end of the flexible tube into the waste container and open the clamp. 7. Let the racking cane and tube fill with wine and close the clamp again. 8. Place the end of the flexible tube into the container you are filling and open the clamp. It looks like a lot of steps but it’s really not that bad. This is the most sanitary method I’ve found of filing a racking cane. Remember to always keep the container you’re filling below the free surface level of the wine in the container you’re emptying. If you don’t the flow of wine will stop and you’ll have to start the siphon over again. The Equipment I Use Here are links (affiliate) to the racking equipment I used in the video in case you’d like to work with the same stuff: racking cane (comes with the black tip) 3/8″ Tubing (sold by the foot. I recommend starting with four or five feet. You can always shorten it to meet your needs) small tube clamp Most equipment kits will come with all the racking equipment you’ll need. Auto Siphons They do make auto siphons which are devices designed to help you get the flow of wine going without going through all these steps. I haven’t used one yet and cannot attest to how well they work. However, I have had them recommended to me from more experienced winemakers. I also wanted to start with just the basic equipment and move into fancier equipment as I go. If you’d like to check one out here’s a link (affiliate) where you can read about the auto siphon. I do plan on getting one and will provide a tutorial once I’ve used...

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The Differences Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Sterilizing

- Nov 23, 2012

While this may seem like a trivial distinction to make different wine making resources will use these terms interchangeably and it can get confusing. Cleaning Simply put, cleaning wine making equipment is to remove dirt and debris. This can be done by using warm water and your hands or a sponge to remove the big stuff. You don’t want to use soaps or detergents as these can leave behind a residue of their own. What cleaning does not do is remove any micro-organisms. Cleaning by itself is not enough to ensure that you won’t have any undesirable tastes due to rogue micro-organisms. Sanitizing Wine making requires clean and sanitary tools and vessels (carboys and fermenters). Sanitizing, often done using chemicals, removes most micro-organisms from your equipment. “Most” being the key word. Chemicals such as potassium metabisulfite have been used to accomplish this. However, as today there are much more effective chemicals on the market. Star San is one of the best sanitizing agents available. It’s the one I use and recommend. To sanitize your equipment you merely dip it into a sanitizing solution. That’s it. Many do not require you to rinse the sanitizer off before using it. However, chemicals that are not generally used in making wine should be rinsed off so that you don’t affect the fermentation or the taste of your finished wine. Sterilizing Sterilizing goes one step further than sanitizing. This is a process used to remove all micro-organisms. Nothing survives sterilization. Not yeast, bacteria, or fungus. Generally speaking winemakers do not sterilize their equipment. It takes special machines and or very harsh chemicals to accomplish complete annihilation of all micro-organisms. Chemiclas such as chlorine and hydrogen peroxide can be used to sterilize equipment, however, they must be used at concentrations many times more potent than what’s available to the public. Clean and Sanitized Wine making equipment needs to be clean and sanitized. A quick dip of a dirty hydrometer in a sanitizing solution will sanitize the hydrometer…and the dirt that’s on it. It’s not enough for your equipment to be merely clean either. While some micro-organisms contribute to a wine others turn it into vinegar or worse. How to Effectively Clean and Sanitize Your Wine Making Equipment 1. In warm water use a soft sponge or your hand wipe down all surfaces. Carboys and bottles will require a brush. Do not use dish soap or detergents as these will leave a residue behind. 2. Rinse off your clean equipment to ensure all the dirt has been washed away. 3. Dip equipment into a sanitizing solution such as potassium metabisulfite or Star San (affiliate). 4. Rinse off the sanitizing solution in warm water. 5. Allow your equipment to dry before using. It helps to have a sanitized surface to work on. Setting clean and sanitary equipment down on a dirty surface will undo all the hard work you just put into your equipment. Of course carboys and fermenters may sit on surfaces that have not been sanitized as long as the inside of these vessels remains clean. I recommend cleaning and sanitizing your work surface completely. It’s just good practice. Cleaning and sanitizing equipment is not fun nor is it the sexy part of wine making. However, it is critical to your ability to make a stable, fine wine. My favorite wine making quote I heard from Pier Benci, “the difference between...

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Using a Hydrometer for Making Wine

- Nov 19, 2012

Using a Hydrometer for Making Wine

The hydrometer is the testing instrument you’ll use most when making wine. While it looks simple enough it does take some practice to fully understand both how to use it and what it’s telling you. I’ll show you how to use a hydrometer as well as what the results mean in this three and a half minute video. You’ll get to actually see the hydrometer used to measure the specific gravity of tap water, a sugar solution, as well as a finished wine so you’ll see the differences. After the video I’ll share some additional tips on getting the best reading you can from this extremely useful instrument.   Tips on Using the Hydrometer 1. Give the hydrometer a gentle spin as you lower it down into the liquid you’re measuring. This helps shake loose any bubbles that cling to the hydrometer which will affect the reading you get. 2. If  your wine is still fermenting you’ll need to take the reading as fast as you can before too many bubbles collect on the hydrometer. You could try shaking your sample vigorously in a test jar in order to degas is. 3. Always remove a sample to test fermented wine. While it is possible to take a reading from the primary fermenter you won’t be at a good viewing angle to get an accurate reading. More importantly the longer you leave your wine uncovered to take the reading the more oxygen you’ll be exposing it to. 4. Be aware of the temperature of your wine when you take your specific gravity reading. These instruments are calibrated to take correct readings at only one temperature. For many hydrometers that is 68 degrees (F). Any warmer or cooler and you’ll need to correct your reading to get the true specific gravity. Here’s a link to a specific gravity temperature correction calculator I put together for you. Also, here’s a link to a similar hydrometer used in the video. This is an affiliate link so if you use it you will be helping to support Winemaker’s Academy. If you these tips and the video useful please let me know in the...

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