I get email all the time asking for instructions on how to make wine "the way they used to" or "the natural way, without chemicals." I always answer these the same way.
The history of winemaking has largely been one of following techniques that minimized spoilage. A lot of bad batches were made because no one knew how to prevent seemingly spurious spoilage and, to a lesser extent, control oxidation. About 250 years ago, it was discovered that certain sulfurous salts could be used to kill most of the troublesome bacteria and control oxidation that prematurely ruined most wines. From that moment on, winemaking changed.
If you want to make wine like the ancients did, ask someone else. I will not help you turn winemaking back into a game of chance. If, on the other hand, you want to make consistently decent wines from a variety of base materials, stay here and I will show you how.
Their are many ways to make wine. I could write a book teaching you many if not most of the methods, but y you would finish the book without finding a single formula or recipe for doing so. Some of you would be thrilled, for you would truly know how to identify, quantify and adjust the many variables involved in making wine. You would be akin to chefs, able to envision, create and adjust as you go without need of recipes or further instruction. But many of you--I daresay most--would be disappointed at not finding simple recipes for making simple wines.
The truth is, most people don't really want to be chefs. They just want to be darned good cooks. It is largely for them that I have developed this website. But interwoven throughout is the knowledge which, if mastered, will allow them to go on to become chefs. Until they do, I have provided them with hundreds of recipes to guide them in making wines.
I also get a lot of requests and questions about a method of making wine using a balloon. I have a standard answer for this, too.
Many years ago, winemaking equipment was often difficult to come by in large sections of the country. People used a balloon fitted over the mouth of their secondary fermentation vessel in lieu of an airlock. The balloon would be pricked with a small hole with a needle and CO2 formed during fermentation would escape through the hole. When fermentation ended, the balloon collapsed and the hole sealed, preventing oxygen from entering the jug and ruining the wine prematurely. That, at least, is the theory.
In practice, the hole often expanded from the internal pressure and the oxygen still got in. But even when it didn't, there are still problems with this method. First, the wine can easily take on the taste and smell of rubber from the balloon. While this might not bother you, it might bother those you share your wine with (assuming you share it at all). The wine also tends to absorb more of the CO2 gas using this method, which is okay if you degas the wine but terrible if you don't. It's a matter of taste, but one I will not contribute to. Winemaking equipment is easy to find these days, especially with online ordering over the internet.
Therefore, the only advice I give about "balloon wine" is not to make it. Spend a dollar for a bung (rubber stopper with a hole drilled in it) and another dollar for an airlock and do it right. That's all I have to say about this method.
Winemaking recipes are, at best, guides. In truth, I cannot know the precise chemistry of the grapes, blackberries, elderberries, apples, peaches, or whatever you might use to make your wine. But, having made wine from these bases before, I can tell you how I did it. In some cases the recipes originated elsewhere and in such cases I say so. In all cases the recipes worked and if you follow them precisely you will make decent to good wines as long as the ingredients you use are both ripe and average in quality. If you understand how to make adjustments and do so as needed, you should be able to make very good to excellent wines. This website will teach you how to make such adjustments, but the individual recipes will not. They simply tell you how to make the basic wine.
When I say I cannot know the precise chemistry of the base ingredients you might use, I mean this sincerely. Take strawberries, for example. Strawberry wine can be quite exquisite, but it can also be a huge disappointment. Commercial strawberries at your supermarket are picked 5 to 10 days before they ripen so they can be processed (culled, sorted and packaged), stored temporarily, shipped, distributed, and displayed in your market without rotting before you buy them. They typically contain 5-7% natural sugars. Frozen strawberries were picked closer to or at ripeness and were frozen because they would not survive the trip to the supermarket any other way. They typically are 10-13% natural sugars. But if you go to a "U-pick-it" farm and pick fully ripe strawberries, they might be as high as 15-18% in natural sugars.
If the recipe calls for "fully ripe fresh strawberries" and you buy yours at the supermarket produce department, yours will contain half the natural sugar that was intended in the recipe. Yours will also contain only a fraction of the flavor the recipe assumes will be present and the wine will suffer accordingly. And even if your strawberries are picked fresh from your own garden, their sugar, acid, pectin, and flavor components could still differ greatly from the strawberries I used because of different soils, average day and nighttime temperatures, rainfall, humidity, and the variety of cultivar used. In other words, the chances are good to excellent that your strawberries and my strawberries will certainly be different. How then can the recipes be of any real value?
If you think of recipes as guides and you measure the variables you can, you will naturally find yourself adjusting ingredients to fit your circumstances. Bland fruit will compel you to add more fruit than the recipe calls for, but even this will not compensate for really poor flavor. This seems to be the case more often than not with peaches bought at the supermarket. You can usually add a pint of Peach Nectare per gallon of wine to a vigorously fermenting must and improve the flavor immensely. Frozen peach slices also possess greater flavor than most supermarket fresh peaches. So, if the fruit lacks flavor, spike the must with more flavorful base ingredients. This may mean changing the character of the wine by adding another ingredient -- say, nectarines or kiwi fruit, or perhaps fresh pineapple chunks.
If the must, when being transferred to a secondary, tastes insipid (weak, lifeless, flat), add more acid. Do this incrementally so as not to add too much -- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per gallon of acid blend, stir for one minute, then wait an hour for it to fully integrate into the wine and taste again. Repeat additions if needed. If you have an acid test kit, measure the TA and adjust accordingly. See Acidity in Wines for help with acidity, but insipidness may also be caused by insufficient tannin. If you adjust the acid and it still lacks a certain something, try measuring 1/8 teaspoon of powdered grape tannin per gallon of must, put this in a small glass, add 1/2 cup of the must you are using, and stir with a small whisk or a fork until completely dissolved. Add this to the must while stirring and allow it an hour to integrate before tasting.
Many of the recipes on this website result in over-sweet or dry, high alcohol wines. Both results stem from using too much sugar or the wrong yeast. To fully explain this here would require a small essay, so please allow me to simplify the reasons for this -- the full essay is woven into the fabric of this entire website, so please do read on. If you understand the basics as presented here you can make adjustments to avoid this. First, when the recipes I cite are from another winemaker, I try to be true to their formulation and report the ingredients and amounts of each as originally published. I automatically adjust ingredients proportionally when the original recipe is for an Imperial gallon rather than the smaller U.S. gallon I reference, but this often is not enough because of another reason. Many widely published winemakers of the past, I am convinced, simply liked very sweet wines or very dry but high alcohol wines. Their recipes typically call for 3 to 3-1/2 pounds of sugar per gallon in addition to any natural sugar in the base fruit. If fermented with a kitchen yeast, this will result in a sweet wine of 10-13% alcohol. If fermented with a high-alcohol tolerant wine yeast, this will result in a dry wine of 16-19% alcohol -- much too high for a table wine. So, when you see a recipe that calls for 3 pounds of sugar per gallon of wine, think twice. It is better to reduce the sugar to 2 pounds and sweeten the wine later if it needs it than to make rocket fuel that needs sweetening just to make it balance. Better yet, let the must sit overnight before the yeast is pitched, then press out a cup or so of juice and measure the sugar with a hydrometer. Not sure how? See Using Your Hydrometer. Another reason for high initial sugar is the assumption you will be topping up after each racking with water, which will dilute the alcohol. It is better to begin with 14% potential alcohol and end up with 12% than to begin with 12% potential and end up with 10%.
Many of the recipes call for using one or more crushed Campden tablets while others do not. Some recipes call for the use of potassium metabisulfite instead. So why is this? Indeed, all recipes should use potassium metabisulfite (or Campden), but some authors list it and others don't, and some of the recipes on my site were developed by others -- but even I often leave it out of my recipes if it is not added initially. It is just something you should know you should add without being told. It kills almost all wild bacteria and fungi that ride in with the raw ingredients your wine will be made from, inhibits the early viability of wild yeast so that your cultured wine yeast can get a head start, and deters both the browning the oxidation of wines for a considerable period. But this compound is so strong that only 1/4 teaspoon is sufficient for treating 5 gallons of wine. Campden tablets contain a rather large amount of inert binding material and an appropriate amount of potassium metabisulfite (or sodium metabisulfite, which I don't recommend you use) for treating one gallon of wine. Use very finely crushed Campden tablets (you'll have to do the crushing yourself), dissolved in a little water, juice or must, for one gallon batches. Use potassium metabisulfite for 5-gallon batches and larger. If you can divide 1/4 teaspoon of the pure compound into 5 equal parts, then by all means use the potassium metabisulfite for 1-gallon batches instead of crushed Campden tablets.
Add the Campden or potassium metabisulfite (pot meta for short) when the fruit is crushed, unless you are going to use boiling water to extract the flavors, color and juices of the base. The boiling water will kill off the bacteria, fungus and wild yeast, but when you rack the wine you should add the appropriate dose of crushed Campden or pot meta. Some of the sulfur in the dose will bind with other components of the wine but some will exist as unbound sulfur (also called "free sulfur") in the form of a dissolved gas called sulfur dioxide, or SO2. This gas is the sanitizing and antioxidizing agent. As time progresses, the gas is slowly released into the atmosphere or breaks down and the sulfur in it binds with other components created as the wine develops and ages. Thus, the dose of SO2 must be regenerated periodically. If you add the Campden or pot meta to the must at the beginning, add another dose at the 2nd, 4th, and 6th rackings and just before bottling (it must be added at the same time as potassium sorbate when stabilizing a wine, as potassium sorbate alone will not stabilize the wine against malolactic bacteria, something you do not want to take up residence in your bottled wine). If you add Campden or pot meta at the time of the 1st racking, add it again at the 3rd and 5th rackings and before bottling (when stabilizing the wine). This should be done whether the recipe mentions it or not.
Most of the recipes say to stabilize, sweeten to taste, wait some period of time (I now recommend 4 weeks, but some of my older recipes may specify a lesser time), and then bottle the wine. This is very much a normal thing to do, so if a recipe doesn't specifically say this, do it anyway if you want to sweeten the wine. I rarely sweeten my wines, but I still usually add that step in the written recipe when I post it. "Stabilize" means to add potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite (or a crushed Campden tablet) at the same time, stir until dissolved, and then allow the wine to "rest" for 4 weeks to see if it referments. It shouldn't, but if it does you can wait for it to finish -- and it will finish because the two potassium salts render the yeast incapable of further reproduction. The potassium sorbate is not listed as a separate ingredient because some folks don't stabilize their wines and therefore don't need it, but if you "stabilize" a wine you'll need 1/2 teaspoon of the sorbate plus a crushed Campden tablet per gallon of wine.
Some recipes say to boil water and pour it over the crushed or chopped fruit or berries, cover it, and let it cool before adding sugar. Since sugar is much easier to dissolve in hot water, why do I say to do this? I'll explain.
When I am developing a recipe, I sometimes have no real clue as to how much natural sugar is in the fruit. By macerating the fruit in hot water, much of the natural sugar, acid, pectin, tannin, and other components of the fruit leach out into the water. The one I am most concerned with is sugar, which can be measured with an hydrometer, but not until the must cools to room temperature. So I measure the dissolved natural sugar and calculate how much additional sugar is required. I write that amount in my wine log. Later, when I publish the recipe, the amount of sugar I used is listed up front in the ingredients.
At first, I wrote into the recipe to do what I did -- macerate in hot water, cool the must, measure the sugar, and calculate the additional amount needed. Doing it this way spawned many, many emails asking how much sugar to add. So I changed my method somewhat and began reporting how much sugar I added. If you do it the way I did, you should expect to add a slightly different amount of sugar.
Use the recipes as guides and measure and adjust any variables you can. If you do this, your wines will generally be better and you'll quickly learn the ins and out of winemaking more thoroughly than if you just followed the recipes.
However, if a recipe says to start fermentation in a primary, do it. Yeast need oxygen to reproduce rapidly, and for the first two or three days rapid reproduction should be all you want your yeast to do. If you start fermentation under an airlock, you are denying the yeast what they need and may or may not have problems. If you do this and have problems, I don't want to hear about it. If you won't follow my instructions and your wine doesn't like it, then take your problems to someone who recommends starting your fermentation under an airlock -- or whatever else you are doing differently.
I am asked this question all the time, although it really baffles me sometimes. I mean, some recipes say to use a specific herb or flower, add sugar and other dry ingredients, and then add from 7-1/2 pints to a gallon of water. Since the herbs contain no juice or other liquid, it shouldn't be difficult to conclude that the recipe makes about a gallon of wine. I say about because sugar has a volume, some liquid is lost as sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide (a gas), and different thicknesses of lees compact differently -- meaning that you lose more wine with some lees than others when you rack. However, if you top up as instructed, you should always end up with a gallon.
So, as to the question of how much wine do the recipes make, unless they specifically cite another volume, all the recipes on my site are for one U.S. gallon batches. There are several reasons for this:
So, if you wanted to make a 6-gallon batch of a particular wine, just multiply the ingredients by 6, except use two packets of yeast instead of one (each sachet of yeast is usually enough to start a batch of 1 to 5 gallons in volume).
As for topping up, you have to decide on your own strategy. Some recipes initially make a little more than a gallon (and I mean an American gallon, or 3.7854 liters). I often say to crush the fruit, add the sugar and other ingredients, and then add one gallon of water. Obviously, when the sugar is dissolved and the juice is pressed or squeezed from the fruit, you'll have more than a U.S. gallon. When you transfer from primary to secondary, it would be nice if you had a jug that would take all of the liquid without overflowing and with exactly an inch of ullage (airspace between the top of the wine and the bottom of the bung) -- a 4-liter, 4.5-liter (British gallon), or 5-liter jug, for example, might work perfectly (by james key). Then, when you rack later and lose some of the volume, you can rack into a smaller jug -- for example, from a 4.5-liter jug into a 4-liter one, or from a 4-liter jug into a U.S. gallon jug. But, if you don't have a variety of jugs such as described here, then just fill a gallon jug and put the excess into a smaller wine bottle of an appropriate size (750-mL, 500-mL 375-mL, 250-mL, 187-mL, or 125-mL). A #2 or #3 bung will fit these various wine bottle sizes to accept an airlock. You then use this excess wine to top up the gallon jug after racking.
Larger batches require different strategies. For a 6-gallon batch, for example, I would divide the 6 gallons into a 5-gallon carboy and a 1-gallon jug, ferment them side-by-side, and use the 1-gallon batch to top up the 5-gallon carboy. After using some of the 1-gallon batch, I would rack the remainder of it into a 3-liter jug. After topping up during the second racking, I would rack the remaining smaller batch into a 2-liter or half-gallon jug, etc. I have a variety of jugs and bottles that I use for "down-sizing" after using some wine for topping up a larger batch. These include 3-liter, 2.5-liter, 2-liter, 1.9-liter (1/2 U.S. gallon), 1.5-liter, 1-liter, 750-ml, etc.
You can also top up with a finished wine of the same kind or very similar to what you are making. However, if you don't have a wine anywhere close to what you are making (nothing is quite like pumpkin wine, for example), any similarly colored and somewhat neutral-tasting wine will do.
You can also top up with bottled spring water or boiled and cooled water. Many of the recipes use a bit more sugar than necessary just so when you top up with water the alcohol still ends up at around 12% even after being diluted with the water. If you top up with wine the final alcohol content would differ.
Finally, many people simply use glass marbles or glass decorative pebbles to displace the volume of wine lost to racking. I myself have about 3 quarts of glass marbles I use for this purpose with some of my batches.
I am often asked for a list of the minimum equipment required to make wine. I hesitate to answer this because my recipes call for certain additives or assume you have certain equipment. If I exclude something from a list of minimum equipment and supplies required and you see it listed in a recipe, there is a natural disconnect. So let me answer this in a hedging sort of way. You only need what is required to make a given wine. If that wine requires the addition of acid and does not say to add the juice of an orange and lemon, you then need acid blend or whatever acid is called for (citric acid, for example) in the recipe. Otherwise, you don't need acid blend to start making wine. I didn't have it when I started. Similarly, you don't need pectic enzyme or tannin unless it is called for.
The list below contains what I think is necessary to begin making wine as a hobby. By this I mean to make a variety of wines while assuming some measure of both adequacy and control over the process. You don't have to buy a primary if you are making a 1-gallon batch and have a 2-gallon crock pot you aren't otherwise using at the moment. You don't need a nylon straining bag if you're making a wine from juice or concentrate. In fact, you don't even need the bottles, corker and corks if you have some other way of storing and/or sealing your finished wine. I've seen homemade wine stored in beer bottles and sealed with bottle caps and stored in 2-liter plastic soda pop bottles with plastic screw tops. Use what you have and buy what you need when you need it, but the items listed below are what I consider the minimum necessary to make a wide variety of wines "from scratch" using the recipes on this website or from other sources. If you are only going to make wine from manufactured kits, you don't need a lot of the stuff on this list but certainly will need some. If you are not sure what a listed item is or is used for, look for it in my Glossary of Winemaking Terms.
The following list contains equipment you will want if you become a more serious winemaker. None of it is required, but all of it is nice to have if you develop a need for it.