Muscadine GrapesRecently Winemaker’s Academy member Maria wrote in with some great questions that the entire community would benefit from. So with her permission (thank you Maria!) I am going to share her questions with you along with some helpful answers.

Be sure to check out the full email from her down below as she shares her method for making wine from cultivated Muscadine grapes.

1. Because I have a 6 gallon carboy, Do I fill the primary fermenter plastic bucket to 6 gallons? will it foam too much? The bucket at the five gallon level leaves a 5 inch space to the rim. At 6 gallon level it leaves a 3 inch space to the rim. I read your article that says I can top off the carboy with another wine, and I would do that if you suggest starting with 5 gallons instead of 6.

If you’ve got a six gallon carboy your best bet is to make seven gallons of wine if possible. If this is not possible go for six gallons.

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Too much head space (ullage).

The reason you want to make more than six gallons is so that you’ve got some wine left over to top up your carboy with.  Each time you rack you’ll lose a bit of wine. Hopefully not much but even if you minimize your loses you’ll still wind up with a large air gap in your carboy after a while.

So if you can make seven gallons and store your extra gallon of wine in a one gallon glass jug and when you rack your carboy top it up from this jug. As you go you will need to transfer your extra wine from the one gallon jug into several wine bottles, however, it’ll be worth the extra effort if it means you can keep your carboy topped up.

Having too much foam could be an issue in the primary fermenter, however, if you keep your wine cool (upper sixties or so) it will help minimize the foam. Another factor that affects the amount of foam produced is how vigorous the yeast strain is that you choose to ferment with. An overly aggressive yeast will produce a lot of foam and could potentially spill out the top.

If you’re not able to make seven gallons just make six but be aware that you’ll have to top up with something to keep your wine protected from oxygen. You could use a Muscadine wine from a previous year or a similar enough wine from the store. Topping up with water is possible but it will reduce your alcohol levels and in general make things more bland.

2. I want to make organic wine, so I will not use a Camden tablet.

Campden tablets provide sulfites for stabilization. Wineries that produce organic wine are indeed prohibited from adding any sulfites. While this is an attractive way to make wine you must be very careful.

Sulfites protect a wine from oxygen as well as micro-organisms that can spoil your wine. Without this protection sanitation of your equipment becomes paramount. You must diligently clean and sanitize all of your equipment thoroughly before interacting with your wine.

It is also a good idea to minimize the time your wine spends exposed to the outside world. We’re surrounded by yeast and bacteria all the time and it takes very few of these to turn wine into a rotten mess. However, if you’re careful and give special attention to the details you’ll be able to pull of an amazing organic wine I am sure.

3. I will use a hydrometer to measure sugar content. Here in the country old timers just float an egg in the must, it should be floating at the mid line, too low-add sugar, too high -add water.

This is a very interesting method! I can see how this would work. However, like you, I would rather stick to using hydrometers for the sake of accuracy. It would be interesting to know what the specific gravity is when an egg is floating mid way.

4. I understand I will leave the must on the primary fermenter for 6-7 days then rack to the carboy, do you recommend transferring the muscadine skins and seeds too? I have read the skins and seed provide Reservatol, and the longer in contact with the must the better. Is this true?

The amount of time a wine spends with the grape skins depends on how the wine is developing. Grape skins and seeds provide flavor, tannins, Resveratrol, and bitterness if left too long. The extraction of these characteristics can take more or less time depending upon temperature, ripeness, and many more variables.

More often than not 6-7 days is a typical amount of time for a wine to spend fermenting on the skins. That being said, your best course of action is going to be to taste the wine before you rack it to see how the extraction is coming along.

If the wine tastes bland or looks pale then extend the time on the skins. However, it’s already quite tannic and has good color you’ll probably want to get it off the skins sooner than later. Some wines do great with long skin contact times while others don’t benefit at all.

5. Last but not least, what makes wine change to vinegar?

Vinegar is the product of a non-alcoholic fermentation that is carried out by a strain of bacteria known as acetobacter. This is just one of many types of bacteria that can spoil a wine in a hurry.

Some wild yeasts can also spoil wine and because you won’t be using sulfites to protect your wine the best line of defense against these spoilage organisms is meticulous sanitation of your equipment. Clean and sanitize all your equipment, work surfaces, and even your hands before doing anything involving your wine.

When I’m working with my wines I like to keep a large mixing bowl full of sanitizing solution on hand so that I can dip equipment or my hands in there if I happen to drop something or touch something I shouldn’t have.

Maria’s Original Email

Good morning Matt

I appreciate your enthusiasm in winemaking and sharing all the knowledge you have through your beautiful site.

Please post this email in the site if it is convenient.

I have made blueberry and muscadine wine in gallon jugs in 2009 and 2010, this year will be the first time I will make it in a 5 to 6 gallon primary fermenter plastic bucket and a 6 gallon carboy. I live in Blountsville, Alabama.

The recipe I follow for cultivated Muscadine (not wild muscadines) wine:

Quantity per 6 gallon bucket:

  • Crush 42 pounds of Muscadines (7 gallon bags) (we use a 2×4 to crush the muscadines in a food grade bucket)
  • 10 pounds of sugar (22.5 cups) dissolved in 22 cups of warm water
  • Yeast starter – made a few hours ahead by combining 1 packet plus 1/4 tsp Red Star yeast, 2 TBSP sugar, 2 cups warm water, 1/2 tsp yeast nutrient, 1/4 tsp citric acid or juice of 1 lemon

Stir all ingredients in the primary fermented vessel. Cover the bucket with a linen or cheese cloth and let the yeast develop for approximately 24 hours – stir the must 4-5 times since the Muscadines tend to float; after 24 hours place the lid on the bucket with the airlock. During the next 6 days open the lid and stir 2 times daily to push Muscadines down.

Last week I made two six gallon buckets and one 5 gallon bucket, and racked them a week later, everything looked great! Now they are in 3 five gallon carboys for the next 30 days, so far no use of sulfites and no problems..

Photo of Carboy by Jim Lynch

Photo of Muscadines by lucianvenutian

  • FreddyC

    Making “organic” wine is difficult at best. Grapes can be sprayed with sulfur and still be considered organic, and sulfites are a natural byproduct of yeast activity. Additionally, potassium metabisulfide (k-meta) is the best substance to use to sterilize your equipment. Most wine makers I know (myself included) choose to embrace the protective antimicrobial properties of sulfites and just use as little as possible.

    • Hi Freddy, thank you for sharing your knowledge here.

      The relationship between sulfites and organic wines (as defined by the organizations that control this sort of thing) is complicated. You are quite right that sulfites are a natural bi-product of yeast fermentation. I think that the food industry as a whole is still trying to figure out how to define what can be considered organic and why. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with wine and sulfites for sure.

      Have you ever tried Star San for sanitizing? I’ve mainly used Star San and had good luck with it but I would be interested in knowing if you’ve tried it as well and how you think they compare.



      • FreddyC

        I’ve used Star San, but I really don’t like it. When I rinsed the bottles before bottling I got a bit of an orange hue to my white wine. I may have had the dose too high, but I just prefer the k-meta. Plus I think it gives a bit of a higher sulfite kick that offsets the loss I get when using the enomatic bottler.

        • An orange hue? That doesn’t sound good at all. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t “fear the foam” when using Star San but I can’t help but feel like that stuff shouldn’t get mixed in with wine in any quantity.

          I think I’m going to switch to potassium metabisulfite as you suggest for my next batch. Thank you for sharing your experience with these sanitizers Freddy.

  • Roger Seckler

    Degas question,I have 6 gal of Red Raspberry wine I am trying to degas,I have been working on it for about two months off and on,I have used the whip with ele. drill,vacuum pump,hand stirring,transfered the wine to a 6 gal bucket thinking the open top would let the gas out quicker than doing it in the carboy,this wine is almost two years old.I would bottle it but don’t want to blow the corks out.Any help would be greatful,all the wines I have made degas easy but not this one.