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Ben Rotter's
Improved Winemaking

Lum Eisenman's
The Home Winemaker’s Manual, and excellent book

Terry Garey's
Joy of Home Winemaking

Marc Shapiro's
The Meadery, my favorite mead site

Forrest Cook's
The Mead Maker's Page

Dave Polaschek's
Mead Made Easy

Mathieu Bouville's
Mead Made Complicated

Mead Lover's
The Bees' Lees


Michiel Pesgen's
The Home Winemaking Page

Roger Simmonds'
Homemade Wine

Jordan Ross'
Going Wild: Wild Yeast in Wine Making

UC Davis'
Making Table Wine at Home

Viticultural Roundtable of SW Ontario

Winemaking Fundamentals

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Drink Focus'
All About Apple Cider

The Brewery's
Cider Recipes

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If our website has helped you in your wine or mead making endeavors, and you feel moved to contribute to help offset our expenses, you may...

Who is Jack Keller?
Jack Keller lives with his wife Donna in Pleasanton, Texas, just south of San Antone. Winemaking is his passion and for years he has been making wine from just about anything both fermentable and nontoxic.

Jack has developed scores of recipes and tends to gravitate to the exotic or unusual, having once won first place with jalapeno wine, second place with sandburr wine, and third with Bermuda grass clippings wine.

Jack was twice the President of the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, is a certified home wine judge, frequent contributor to WineMaker Magazine, creator and author of The Winemaking Home Page and of Jack Keller's WineBlog, the first wine blog on the internet, ever. He grows a few grapes, still works for a living, and is slowly writing a book on -- what else? -- winemaking.

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Some Other Wine Blogs

There are hundreds of wine blogs. According to Alder Yarrow (see below), none have been around as long as Jack Keller's WineBlog, but 99% of these newcomers are for wine consumers, not winemakers. They have anointed themselves the official "wine blogosphere." You can count on both hands those of us bloggers dedicated to actually making the stuff they write about, and yet our blogs are largely ignored by this elite. Still, they exist and are important. There are some who write for the buyer / consumer but still occasionally talk about the making of wine, even if they usually are talking about making it in 125,000-liter stainless steel tanks. Or they might talk about grape varieties, harvests in general, the cork-screwcap debate, stemware, or other subjects I think you might find interesting. They're worth reading even if you aren't interested in their tasting notes. Then again, that just might be your cup of tea. Here are a few of them I like, listed in a loose alphabetical order (by blogger):

Alder Yarrow's
Vinography: A Wine Blog

Ben Evert's
Making Homemade Wine and Beer, about home winemaking

Ben Hardy's
Ben's Adventures in Wine Making, a very fun read from across the Atlantic

Charlie Short's
Clueless About Wine

Chef Neil's
A Wine Making Fool's Blog, a lot of fun to read

Chris Nuber's
Texas Wine Blog, a good, unbiased read

Darcy O'Neil's
The Art of Drink

Eric Asimov's
The Pour

Washington Winemaker

Frugal Wine Making

Ian Scott's
The Home Winery, about home winemaking

James Jory's
Second Leaf, about home winemaking

Jamie Goode's
Jamie Goode's Wine Blog

Jeff Lefevere's
The Good Grape: A Wine Manifesto

My Wines Direct

Chez Ray Winemaking

Karien O'Kennedy's
New World Winemakeer Blog

Ken Payton's
Reign of Terrior, lots of good interviews

Ken W.'s

Wine Amateur

Marisa D'Vari's
A Wine Story

Mary Baker's
Dover Canyon Winery

My Wine Education

Mike Carter's
Serious About Wine

Mike McQueen's
Life on the Vine

Noel Powell's
Massachusetts Winemaker

Noel Powell's
Random Wine Trails

[no name]'s
Budget Vino...for the $10 and Under Crowd

[no name]'s
Two Bees Wine, about home winemaking

Russ Kane's
Vintage Texas, searching for Texas terroir

Sondra Barrett's
Wine, Sex and Beauty in the Bottle

Steve Bachmann's
The Wine Collector: Practical Wine Collecting Advice

Vines & Wines

Thomas Pellechia's
VinoFictions, interesting variety

Tim Patterson's
Blind Muscat's Cellarbook

Tim Vandergrift's
Tim's Blog, a humorous and enjoyable flow from Wine Expert's Tim V.

Tom Wark's
Fermentation: the Daily Wine Blog

Tyler Colman's
Dr. Vino's Wine Blog

Who is Jack Keller?
Jack Keller lives with his wife Donna in Pleasanton, Texas just south of San Antone. Winemaking is his passion and for years he has been making wine from just about anything both fermentable and nontoxic.

Jack has developed scores of recipes and tends to gravitate to the exotic or unusual, having once won first place with jalapeno wine, second place with sandburr wine, and third with Bermuda grass clippings wine.

Jack was twice the President of the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, is a certified home wine judge, frequent contributor to WineMaker Magazine, and creator and author of The Winemaking Home Page. He grows a few grapes, still works for a living, and is slowly writing a book on -- what else? -- winemaking.

WineBlog Archives

Blog entries are generally presented in reverse chronological order, with earlier entries at the bottom and recent ones at the top so the newer can be read first. An archive is more useful if the entries are presented chronologically. I have thus rearranged them as such.

July 8th, 2005

I received a good question the other day. "I have been trying to find some ways to sweeten wine with sugar before bottling. My wife loves very sweet dessert type wines. I have read a lot, but nobody really discusses sweetening to ones proper taste. I have a friend who uses a syrup. He uses white table sugar and some other ingredients that you boil to make the syrup. My batch of syrup did not taste as good as his. So I have been trying to find some different ways to add sugar to sweeten my wine before bottling. Do you have any syrup type recipes that could be made from sugar or any other ways to sweeten my wine to taste?"

Sweetening can be a problem, but need not be. Here are some thoughts on the subject:

Stabilize First

First, be very sure the wine is stabilized before adding sugar to it or it will start fermenting again, a potentially explosive situation if you sweeten and then bottle it. It takes both potassium metabisulfite (or crushed Campden tablets) and potassium sorbate and a little time to stabilize a wine.

One crushed and dissolved Campden tablet and 1/2 teaspoon of potassium sorbate (also dissolved) per gallon of wine will do the trick, but this only prevents the existing live yeast from reproducing and keeping the colony going. Until they die out, these existing yeast are quite capable of restarting fermentation. So, stabilize, wait a couple of weeks, sweeten to taste, and then wait another couple of weeks just to be sure the airlock doesn't start bubbling again.

I always rack my wine one last time before bottling, as racking removes more yeast from the wine than any other thing you can do. You will almost always see a very fines dusting of sediment on the bottom of the secondary after you stabilize and wait. That dust is the yeast that weren't able to reproduce before expiring.

Simple Syrup

Second, you can sweeten with just sugar or you can make a simple syrup. You make a syrup with two parts sugar dissolved in one part of water (as in two cups of sugar in one cup of water). You should boil the water, remove from the heat, add the sugar, and stir like heck to make the syrup, as that much sugar doesn't easily dissolve in cold or warm water.

Here's a helpful hint. If you have a really strong blender (we have a Bosch), put the sugar in it, turn it on high for 2-3 minutes or until the sugar becomes powder, and then add the prescribed amount of warm-to-hot (not boiling) water and turn it on low until the sugar dissolves completely. Do NOT use commercial powdered sugar, as it contains corn starch to keep the sugar from re-solidifying and corn starch will permanently cloud your wine.

Allow the simple syrup to cool to room temperature (not in a refrigerator or it might start re-crystallizing) before continuing.

Sweetening to Taste

Third, measure how much liquid it takes to fill your hydrometer test jar to within three inches of the top. It take about a cup to fill mine that far. Measure out that much wine into a large water glass and stir into it two tablespoons of simple syrup. Fill the hydrometer test jar with this sweetened wine and measure the specific gravity. Write that number on a piece of paper and set a wine glass on top of the number. Pour about one inch of wine from the hydrometer test jar into that wine glass and pour the remaining wine back into the large water glass.

Replace the amount of wine you poured into the wine glass so you have as much as you started with last time and stir into it two more tablespoons of simple syrup. Again pour it into the hydrometer test jar and measure the specific gravity. Write the number on a piece of paper and again set an empty wine glass on the number. Pour an inch of wine into the glass and return the rest to the water glass.

Again replace what you used and add two more tablespoons of simple syrup. Stir, pour into the hydrometer test jar, and repeat the previous procedures. Do this until you have four or five wine glasses sitting on their specific gravity figures. Now taste them in the order they were filled (first glass to the last) and note the one that tasted best to you. It will be the one you tasted just before you picked up the one that was too sweet. Look at it's specific gravity. That's the specific gravity you want to sweeten your wine to.

Hitting a target specific gravity is not hard, but it does take time and patience. Unfortunately, I can't simply construct a look-up table for you saying to add this much simple syrup to achieve that specific gravity reading because not all wines will be equally dry to begin with. You just have to add some, stir, measure, and adjust until you are very close to the target s.g. Then add syrup, stir real good, wait 15-20 minutes, and stir again. This time when you measure the specific gravity the syrup will be better integrated into the wine and the reading will be more accurate.

Here's another consideration. Over time, all wines mellow out somewhat and actually taste a little sweeter that they did when first bottled. If you plan on keeping the wine for a couple of years, you might want to back off the target sweetness just a hair to allow for this. For example, if the target s.g. is 1.012, you might want to sweeten it to 1.011 or even 1.010 to allow for this perception.

July 22nd, 2005

Last month my wife and I met a lovely couple who grow over 1,500 varieties of day lily and several hundred varieties of hydrangea. Coincidentally, a reader recently asked if I had a recipe for day lily wine. The two events are not related. Walking through a garden with over 1,500 varieties of day lily did not give me any special knowledge of the flower, except to learn there are an estimated 60,000 varieties of day lily in the world. But it did spark an interest in the flower, and since then I have learned more about it.

Now, it so happens that I do have a recipe for day lily wine. The problem with day lilies is that while most -- but not all -- species are edible, some cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. My sources say you have to gorge yourself on the bad ones to experience this, or eat some of the green stem attached to the flower base. My problem is that I don’t know which are and which are not edible. But I learned that the very first day lilies imported to Colonial America were edible and quickly escaped into the wild. The large clumps of wild day lilies found throughout the Eastern United States and Canada are descendants of those early escapees. Known botanically as Hemerocallis fulva, the common day lily is perfectly safe to eat and make wine with. As for me, I have only made wine from flowers given to me and certified as edible. If you know that your lilies are edible, then you might try the following recipe.

Day Lily Wine

  • 2-1/2 qts day lily petals, lightly packed
  • 1 11-1/2 oz can of Welch's 100% White Grape Juice frozen concentrate
  • 6-1/2 pts water
  • 1 lb 10 oz granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp acid blend
  • 1/8 tsp powdered grape tannin
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • Champagne or Hock wine yeast

Pick petals only and wash. Be careful to remove all green portions of stem, as this will cause illness. Put petals in nylon straining bag, tie closed, and set in primary. Meanwhile, bring one quart of water to a boil and stir in sugar until dissolved. Remove from heat and quickly pour over nylon bag in primary. Cover primary and set aside for five minutes. Add remaining water and white grape juice concentrate to cool the must. Stir in the remaining ingredients and activated yeast, cover, and put in a warm place for five days, squeezing bag gently each day. Drip drain and discard petals. Pour liquid into secondary fermentation vessel and fit airlock. When wine clears, rack into clean secondary, top up and refit airlock. Rack, top up and refit airlock every 30 days as long as even a fine dusting of lees form. When wine stops throwing sediment for 30 days, rack into bottles and age 6-12 months before tasting. [Author's own recipe.]

This recipe makes a wine with 12-1/2% alcohol by volume. Do not make it stronger than this or the alcohol will mask the flavor of the flower.

I like this wine slightly sweet, and by "slightly" I mean with a specific gravity of 1.002 to 1.004. Serve it chilled. When the season is right, serve it on the patio with a salad garnished with day lily petals.

August 1st, 2005

I received the following email not too long ago: "I was reading a wine book and it listed wines from flowers that are poisonous. Lilac was listed. I have made lilac wine and have consumed it. I got the recipe from your site. Is the book wrong?"

I bet I address the issue of toxicity at least 10 times a year in writings of one form or another. It occurred to me that I really haven't done it here in a thorough way, so this would be a good time -- especially after flirting with the issue in my last entry (on Day Lily Wine).

Toxic Does Not Mean Poisonous

Some years back I received a request for a lilac wine recipe. I had one (and 5 bottles of the wine gathering dust in a wine rack), but I declined sending it because I had come across a web site that said the flowers were toxic.

Toxic does not mean poisonous. It is unfortunate so many people use the two words interchangeably. It is especially unfortunate when they set themselves up as an authority by publishing a list of either edible or non-edible plants and use the word "poisonous" when they should have used "toxic." For example, elderberries are toxic, but only a couple of species are toxic enough to actually make you wish you hadn't eaten them (or made wine from them).

After a great deal of research, and many letters (and emails) later, I arrived at the following understanding.

There are many sites out there that claim to list non-edible plants. If you examine them in enough detail, you might discover -- as I did -- that there are three original lists of non-edible plants. All other lists are variations of these three. Some we authors try to be all inclusive and combine two or even all three lists, but offer no explanation of how the lists were compiled or what they might mean. It is the three original lists that you have to examine and ignore all the rest. It took me a week to track down the original three lists, but I lost their names and URLs some months back when my computer crashed. But I did learn something before the crash.

The Three Lists

One list contains every plant that could find ever having been reported to cause illness in humans and animals. If one reads the entries instead of simply copying the listed names of plants, one will see that the author evaluates the data and says things like, "has been reported to cause illness in cattle grazing exclusively on this plant," or, "purgative toxicity confirmed for felines." This is the most helpful database I have ever found for toxic effects of plants, and I hope to stumble across it again some day.

Another list contains toxicity reports for humans only, but also includes dermatological toxicity (from skin irritation to extreme rash, caused by skin contact to the sap, oils, or hairs on the plant). This, too, is a very useful list because it tells you the effect and relative dose for ingestion toxins, which is really all you should be concerned with. We all know that stinging nettles and poison ivy cause skin problems, but you can make wine from nettle tops without a problem. Not so with poison ivy because the oils that cause skin problems have an ingestion effect too. Web authors who use this site as a source are prone to simply copy the names of plants mentioned on the original site without comment or weight. In other words, nettles, poison ivy and deadly nightshade all get listed equally, but so do lilacs, elderberries and day lilies.

The third list identifies the compounds of toxicity and reports every plant that contains any of them. This list is next to useless for the winemaker, as it contains the following compounds by class:

  • Alkaloids: considering that over 40% of the plant families contain alkaloids, this list contains coffee, tea, cocoa, and a lot of things we ingest all the time.
  • Glycosides: many glycosides are not toxic at all, but a large number (about 800) contain poisonous cyanoid compounds. The problem is the amount, where the compounds are located, and the dose required to cause problems. That list contains apricots, cherries, plums, apples, peaches, and tomatoes, to name just a few. The cyanoids are, of course, in their seeds or, in the case of tomatoes, in the green, raw fruit and stems.
  • Oxalates and Oxalic Acid: even heavenly laden plants can be eaten in moderation; beets and rhubarb are listed.
  • Tannins and Phenols: let's see...grapes, elderberries, blueberries, and a host of others are included. If this makes sense raise your hand.
  • Resins and Volatile Oils: plants listed here are really bad dudes and ingestion in quantity can cause death, so this is one true category of concern (includes poinsettias and rhododendrons).

Let the Reader Beware

The bottom line is that you really need to do in-depth research when it comes to toxic plants. Many, many lists contain the names of really common plants when in reality it is cats that are affected by them, or grazing sheep, or an oil in their roots that you would never encounter in a normal lifetime. The wise thing to do is stay away from simple lists and search out descriptive entries that actually tell you what it is about the plant that warrants avoidance and why. You may just discover, as I did, that some toxic plants lose all of their toxicity when cooked.

An excellent reference book for any winemaker's library is Common Poison Plants and Mushrooms of North America.

In answering the original question, I discovered that it was entirely unlikely (although still possible) anyone would get sick drinking lilac wine in moderation. I drank all of mine long ago and have made it several times since.

August 17th, 2005

A reader complained that most of his country wines are "too harsh" for his taste. He said at first he thought it was acid, but he tested the acid each time and it was fine. He wondered if it could be tannin.

I really couldn't resist. I explained that the usual description for tannin was "astringent," not "harsh." I myself used to call it harsh -- or bitter -- but then a wine snob educated me and explained -- not too nicely either -- that the correct word was "astringent." I've used it ever since and am glad I have. It helps to use the right word on certain occasions -- when judging wines, for example.

Why Tannin?

I've written here before about tannin (see my entry of May 20, 2004). Tannin gives a wine that certain "bite" that helps differentiate it from fruit juice. A little tannin is essential in my book, but then that's just me. If you don't really care for the "bite" in wine, eliminate the tannin.

But tannin serves another purpose. It promotes the ability of a wine to age well, but in this it is not alone and other factors are equally important. But if you intend to drink your wine without setting a few bottles aside for a couple of years down the road, then it really doesn't matter if the tannin is in there or not.

Finally, tannin plays a minor but important role in the balance of a wine. As I said back in May of 2004, tannins are phenolic compounds with a bitter taste and astringent mouthfeel. In balance, tannins can help wines age and lend structure and texture to them, especially when they form complexes with anthocyanins (pigments). When we speak of a wine's balance, we should think of a balance scale with acids and tannins on one side and alcohols, sugars and glycerin on the other. Put another way, the sour and bitter tastes are on one side and the sweet tastes are on the other. The word "balance" implies a certain equilibrium should exist between these two opposing sides of the scale. When you eliminate the tannins altogether, you must rely on acids to hold down one side of the balance scale. When you do that, the acids really need to be perfect.

Okay, so what do you do if you have wines, like the fellow who wrote to me, that have tannins in them and you decide you'd rather not have them there after all? Can you take them out? Sure you can..

Tannins are negatively charged compounds. To remove them, you need to add a positively charged compound. The opposite charges attract each other, bind weakly, and their combined mass causes them to succumb to the force of gravity and settle to the bottom of the carboy. Gelatin, albumin (egg white), casein, Isinglass, chitin (Chitosan), and Sparkolloid are all positively charged fining agents that will remove some, if not all, of the tannins from your wine.


When I say mesquite, most of my winemaking friends think of one or two things. They either think of mesquite wood or mesquite beans or both. Because I happen to like the taste of mesquite wood in wine, I tend to promote it over the alternative -- oak.

My introduction to mesquite wood as a wine flavoring came from Bob Denson, the winemaker at Poteet Country Winery in Poteet, Texas. Some years ago he served me a superb mustang wine aged with mesquite and I never looked back. Since then I've aged more than a few wines with mesquite and have avidly promoted it writings and talks. I have many friends that now use it,

Bob Denson originally wanted to barrel age his mustang in mesquite, but when he priced the barrels at around $1700 each he visited a mesquite wood worker in Uvalde, Texas and obtained bags of mesquite shavings. He gave me some and since then I have made more. Here's how to do it.

Age a fairly straight section of a mesquite branch, 4-6 inches in diameter and 1-2 feet long. I age them a year, but 6 months is probably long enough. In your workshop, use a chisel and hammer to remove the bark. Sweep up the bark and discard it before going any further. With a band or circular saw remove an inch or so from each end of the section. Then use an electric planer to remove the dark outer surface of the wood to a depth of at least a quarter-inch. Only fresh, red wood should be visible all the way around. Again, sweep up the sawdust and litter and discard them. Spray the floor around the planer with a 5% sulfite solutions and let it dry. Then turn on the planer and start making chips. But watch those fingers.... Alternatively, you can clamp the section in a bench vise and hand plane the wood into shavings.

An acquaintance in Arizona rips the wood into thin planks and makes mesquite cubes. He uses a propane torch to lightly toast the cubes. I don't toast the shavings or chips. It isn't oak and I don't think of it in the same terms as I do oak, but the toasting might be okay. I haven't tasted his mesquite wine and he hasn't tasted mine, so who knows? Use the chips or shavings as you would use oak chips.

All over South Texas the mesquite beans are falling. We have eight trees on our property and collected a few pounds last weekend for wine and jelly. The jelly is fabulous and the wine is worth making. It does need to be aged a year before drinking. This year I'm going to do something I've never done. I'm going to age my mesquite wine with mesquite chips. It should be interesting.

August 28th, 2005

A reader mentioned my page entitled "Using Your Hydrometer" and noted it twice says that an S.G. reading of 1.045 equals 16 oz. (one pound) of sugar within one gallon of water. Later, in the specific gravity chart, it shows an S.G. at 1.045 equalling 1 lb. 5 oz. of sugar within a gallon of water. "Is this not a contradiction? he asks.

Actually, the hydrometer is not difficult to understand. What is difficult to fathom is the difference between sugar IN one gallon versus sugar TO one gallon. Consider the following:

Hydrometer Readings

(1) If you have one gallon of sugar-water solution with a specific gravity of 1.045, that gallon has exactly one pound of sugar dissolved in it.

(2) If you have one gallon of water and want to add sugar sufficient to raise the specific gravity to 1.045, you must add 1 pound 5 ounces of sugar to it. You will end up with more than a gallon of water because the sugar takes up space, but the specific gravity will be 1.045.

The table he referenced has five columns. The second column is the sugar IN a gallon at certain specific gravities if it is already sweetened. The third column is the sugar required to be added TO a gallon (of unsweetened water) to bring the specific gravity up to certain levels.

It turns out that when the writer printed out the page, the table was not formatted exactly as it is on the web page because of his margin settings. This caused him problems in seeing the table as intended. Once he went back on-line, he saw the relationships I described.

Mesquite Wine and Mesquite Jelly

I made another batch of mesquite wine. This time the beans were drier than I would usually want them. Ideally, the bean pods should have just turned brownish-tan and would still be hanging from the tree. They should not be pliable, as when they are still green, but neither should they be totally dry. But I waited too long and the beans fell. By then the pods were quite dry.

I went ahead and broke the 3 pounds of bean pods into one-inch pieces and simmered them in the water for an hour. After straining off the water, my wife and I decided to attempt making mesquite jelly from the already used pods. We put them back in the pot and added one and one-half quarts of water and simmered them for another hour. During that time, I used a potato masher to break up the pieces a bit more. When I strained the water from the pod pieces, it was deep yellow and reduced to four cups. Below are the two recipes I used.

Mesquite Bean Wine

  • 3 lbs mesquite beans
  • 1 11-oz can Welch's 100% White Grape frozen concentrate
  • 1-1/2 lbs granulated sugar
  • water to make up one gallon
  • 1-1/2 tsp acid blend
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • Montrachet wine yeast

Wash the bean pods and break them into one-inch pieces. Put them into a large cooking pot and cover them with about 3 quarts of water. Simmer slowly for one hour, covered. Strain the beans off and discard or use to make jelly. Pour the water into a primary and stir into it half the sugar and the Welch's frozen concentrate. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Cover with cloth and set aside to cool. When at room temperature, add acid blend and yeast nutrient. Stir to dissolve these ingredients and add activated yeast starter and recover. Stir daily for about 5 days and stir in remaining sugar until dissolved. Transfer to secondary, top up, and fit airlock. Rack into clean secondary, top up and refit airlock every 30 days for next 4 months. Stabilize, sweeten if desired, bottle and allow to age one year before drinking. This wine will keep well, getting better as it ages. [Author's own recipe]

Mesquite Bean Jelly

  • 3 lbs mesquite bean pieces previously used to make wine
  • 6 cups water
  • 4-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tblsp lemon juice
  • package of pectin

Add water to bean pod pieces and simmer one hour, mashing the pieces as possible with a potato masher during the simmering time. Strain off liquid and measure. Either simmer longer to reduce quantity to 4 cups or add water to make 4 cups. Stir in sugar and lemon juice. When thoroughly dissolved, add pectin according to the directions that came with it. I cannot predict which pectin you use so cannot say what adjustments you might have to make, but I had to mix a powdered pectin with 3/4 cup of water, bring it to a boil, add an additional 1/2 cup of sugar to the mesquite- water mixture, add the pectin, and bring it to a 3-minute boil. It set up beautifully and is a most delicious jelly.

October 1st, 2005

I must apologize to all for the long absence. Some of you knew already that I am originally from Louisiana and have family members concentrated on both sides of the state. Hurricane Katrina roared through east Louisiana and Mississippi and relocated many of them -- mostly into Texas. The news has covered Katrina well -- too well, perhaps, but at least we can say well.

Then Hurricane Rita swept through western Louisiana and scattered many more of my extended family across three states -- and tens of thousands of others, as well. From Cameron, LA to Port Arthur, TX, on the Gulf, up past Leesville, LA to Jasper, TX, the Texas-Louisiana border region is in shambles. Most communities in that belt still do not have electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, gasoline, produce or refrigerated foods, or any retail outlets or services requiring electric power.

The news media has burnt out on this story. It was not as spectacular a storm as Katrina (although certainly it was more powerful a cyclonic storm) and no major city was devastated, so they tired of it and went home. But in a belt 90 miles wide and at least 200 miles long, hundreds of thousands of trees fell across roads, driveways, homes, automobiles, power lines, telephone lines, businesses, and everything in between. People are hurting for basic essentials, but I have not seen any major private, non-profit or corporate fund-raising efforts for these victims -- although this very morning in Wal-Mart I saw a collection box for Hurricane Katrina victims. The victims of Rita are not only already forgotten, they were not really ever recognized except in those few towns the news media chose to broadcast from. There are no collection boxes for Rita's victims.

During this period the President signed the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) recommendations and life at work got more complicated. My base will shed itself of its military components and my unit will move to Fort Sam Houston, TX. Someone has to represent the moving units in this process and see that adequate facilities are built and services provided at the gaining installation. For my unit, I am that person. There is a lot to do.

So, my attention has been elsewhere. I apologize for this, but hope you will understand. If you sent me an email recently asking for help or advice, be patient. It's all I can do to rack my wines on schedule.

Airlock Barometer

A little over a week ago I received a phone call from a winemaker in Winnie, Texas -- west of Beaumont. He said his airlock had been positive, passing CO2 bubbles intermittently from within the carboy to the outside, which was normal. He noted this Thursday evening, but about an hour later it had backed up, meaning the liquid in his "S"-type airlock reversed itself and was rising toward the inside of the airlock. Whenever this had happened before, his fermentation was finished, but this time bubbles were still being forced down through the liquid and out, a very strange occurrence. Then, Friday morning, it had reversed again. What, he asked, was going on?

I told him simply, "You're about to get a hurricane. The airlock was normal, but then the high pressure system that was keeping Rita in the Gulf of Mexico got compressed by the sheer force of the storm and that pushed the liquid down and toward the junction with the carboy. Overnight, the high pressure system moved away and the liquid reversed itself again under the influence of approaching storm. He thought that was cool. As we talked, I watched The Weather Channel display the anticipated track of Rita. I suggested he join the traffic jam heading west. I don't know if he did or not.

Semi-Sweet Orange Wine

Back in April I noted I was relaxing with a glass of semi-sweet orange wine. A reader wrote recently to ask for the recipe, which I provided him. This wine took a first place in the Fruit Wines (Dry) category at the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild's 2005 Spring Competition, so it is pretty decent.

  • 6 lbs. very ripe or over-ripe oranges
  • 1 11-oz can Welch's 100% White Grape Juice frozen concentrate
  • 1-1/2 lb Turbinado Sugar (do not substitute brown sugar)
  • water to make up a gallon
  • 1/8 tsp grape tannin
  • 1 tsp yeast nutrient
  • wine yeast

Put two quarts of water on to boil. Meanwhile, peel the oranges and remove any brown spots and all the white pith (it is bitter and will ruin the wine). Break the oranges into sections and remove all seeds (very important). Drop them in a juicer or a blender and liquefy (you may have to add a cup of water to the blender). Mix the juice or liquefied oranges with the sugar, tannin and yeast nutrient in primary. Add boiling water and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Add grape concentrate and additional water to make one gallon total must. Cover and set aside to cool. When cooled to room temperature, add yeast. Ferment 7-10 days and strain through a fine-meshed nylon straining bag, squeezing to extract juice from pulp. Transfer to secondary, top up if required and fit airlock. Rack every 30 days until not even a light dusting of lees settles on the bottom between rackings (3-4 times). Stabilize and sweeten to a specific gravity of 1.006. Wait 3 weeks to ensure fermentation does not restart and rack into bottles. Age (very important) 6 months to a year before tasting. We drank a 2-year old bottle recently that was to die for. [Author's own recipe]

October 9th, 2005

I have a ton of email to get to, but wanted to hit a few subjects here before I start on that -- which I may not get to today anyway. As I said in a previous post, life is full. I have 41 wines under airlock and two batches of venison jerky in the dehydrator. There is no correlation between the two, although venison jerky and dry red wine go together pretty well.

Varietal Raisins

Speaking of the dehydrator, I have a friend who takes all his second harvest wine grapes (those that were not quite ripe when he picked the bulk of the crop) and dries them out in a dehydrator. He then vacuum seals them and labels them for later use. As food raisins, they are not enjoyable because they have seeds, but as varietals for winter and spring winemaking projects they are exceptional. He gave me 1.5 pounds of Zinfandel raisins and they were used right away in two wines.

There are several things to say about using raisins:

  • They are generally about 60-70% sugar -- use 65% as the average. If you use 1/2 pound per gallon of wine to give the wine body, you are adding a little over 5 ounces of sugar (about 2% potential alcohol) to the must, so plan accordingly.
  • Even though grapes are usually dipped in sulfite solution and ascorbic acid before being dried into raisins, they still oxidize to some degree. This gives pure raisin wine its sherry-like flavor and does affect the flavor of every wine raisins are used in. Just be aware of it.
  • Varietal raisins cannot be minced or chopped because the seeds will break and flavor the wine adversely. Buy some seeded grapes and eat them, chewing the seeds and all. If you like the flavor, then go ahead and mince the varietal raisins. It is far better to put them in a bowl and pour hot (boiling is okay) water over them and let them sit and rehydrate. The plumped up raisins can then be easily crushed.
  • Commercial golden raisins can be rehydrated and then minced far easier than just mincing the dried fruit. That meat grinding attachment to your food processor is perfect for mincing (and not nearly as messy) after the raisins have soaked a while.
  • When making varietal raisins, be sure to wash them, destem them, dip in sulfite solution, and then thoroughly dehydrate them. They will go moldy if you don't. You can add ascorbic acid to the sulfite solution to help prevent oxidation, but you must realize there will still be some oxidation anyway.
  • Varietal raisins offer country winemakers a great deal of added diversity in their winemaking. I added 1/2 pound of Zinfandel raisins to my last batch of plum wine and it gave it body and a new dimension of fruitiness. I have some Blanc du Bois raisins I will use in a dandelion batch next spring. I could just as easily used hem in an apple wine I'm making now.

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

Prickly pear cactus fruit (called "tunas") are ripening in my area, so it is natural people are inquiring about making wine from and harvesting them. The wine can be one of the most beautiful wines one will ever encounter -- a deep, iridescent magenta -- but is an acquired taste. Further, if you are allergic to beets (approximately 1% of the population is), you will also be allergic to prickly pear wine, as it is a specific pigment in both that is the problem. However, for those of us who can drink it and acquire the taste, it is a most enjoyable wine. As a bonus, four ounces of the wine with an ounce of tequila makes a wonderful (but powerful) drink.

There are many ways to pick (harvest) the tunas. How you do it will depend on the means you have available or a personal preference.

I use long metal tongs and a long bladed fillet knife. The tongs are necessary because the tunas possess clusters of very small by annoying spines. The tunas should be dark purple or dark red. There are some varieties that turn yellow when ripe, but I have never seen them in South Texas. The deep color indicates ripeness. Grab one with the tongs and if it is really ripe it will practically fall off. If it doesn't fall off or break off and you are certain it is ripe, cut it off with the knife. I use a bucket to collect them, as the only time I used a plastic bag we ended up with millions of very fine spines in the trunk of the car that stuck to everything we put in it thereafter.

Most people burn off the spines. They are very fine -- only 1/16 to 3/16 of an inch long -- and grow in small clumps that burn easily. Some people use a propane torch, while others bring them home and use a propane barbecue grill -- lay them on the grill, turn the fire on high enough to burn the spines, and turn the tunas several times to burn off the spines all around. Do not "cook" them.

I don't burn the spines off because I don't have a propane torch or grill. I hold them with the tongs and cut the top off, then hold them upright on a wooden cutting board and use the fillet knife to thinly cut the skin off them with narrow downward slices. Then they get a quick wash, get chopped up and go into the primary. If you burn the spines off, you don't need to peel them -- just chop.

Yet another way (I used this method for years) is to put the tunas in a large crock or pail and then pour one gallon of boiling water over them. Wait two minutes (to loosen their skin) and drain off the water. Allow the fruit to cool and use the tongs and knife to carefully peel the skin off.

Prickly Pear Cactus Wine

  • 5-6 lb. prickly pear fruit
  • 2 lb. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. acid blend
  • 1/2 tsp. pectic enzyme
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 tsp. yeast nutrient
  • wine yeast

Remove spines from fruit using one of the methods discussed above. Cut fruit into pieces not larger than one inch, put in pot, add 1/2 gallon water, bring to boil. Reduce heat to maintain gentle boil for 15 minutes. Cover pot and allow to cool to luke warm. Pour fruit and juice into large nylon grain-bag (fine mesh) or sieve and squeeze juice into primary fermentation vessel. Discard pulp. To juice, add sugar, acid blend, pectic enzyme, and yeast nutrient. Stir to dissolve sugar and additives. Cover well and set aside for 10-12 hours. Add yeast and set aside in warm place for seven days, stirring daily. Siphon off lees into secondary fermentation vessel, top up with water, fit airlock, and let stand three weeks. Rack and top up, then rack again in two months. Allow to clear, rack again if necessary, and bottle. May taste after one year, but improves with age. [Author's own recipe.]

October 13th, 2005

In plowing through the ton of email backed up on me I ran across some very good questions which, in turn, prompted me to answer as I could. I'll try to address a few of them here as I have time, but first I need to address a problem that has surfaced.

Earthlink Users

Spam is not just a creeping problem, it is an epidemic. There are many strategies for combating spam, but Earthlink users are more and more opting to use a service that requires the sender to log into a webmail site and register to send them email. They then "preapprove" the sender and add them to a list of approved senders. While I admire this approach to combating spam, I cannot subscribe to it.

Let me explain. The computer I use to answer emails pertaining to my web site or WineBlog is behind a double firewall. The security I enjoy on this machine is non- negotiable; I cannot turn it on and off, and it will not connect to the Earthlink webmail site. Indeed, it will not log into any webmail site. This is a security feature designed to protect a very large network against computer viruses, worms and trojan horses, which can bypass email antivirus protection by coming in over webmail.

As a result, I cannot get placed on your preapproved senders lists and my answers to your questions end up being killed by Earthlink. I wasted at least an hour yesterday answering four emails which were so killed. I have very little time to answer emails as it is, so I really resent wasting what little time I have writing answers that will never be read. So I have had to adopt a new rule:

If you are an Earthlink user and use this extreme anti-spam measure, then put me on your preapproved senders list yourself, before you write to me, or don't bother writing. You're asking me for advice or information, so either allow me to answer you or ask someone else.

Shelf Life of Wines

I received two different but similar questions pertaining to the shelf life of wines. One concerned sugar and the other concerned acidity. One wanted to know why an expert had written that very dry wines had a short shelf life, while the other wanted to know why I had written that low acid wines also had a short shelf life. The answers are self-supporting.

The shelf life of wines -- that is, their ability to retain their freshness and drinkability while aging and growing more complex -- is determined by the preservative elements they contain. Primarily, these preservatives are alcohol, acid and sugar, although tannins also have lesser preservative qualities. The final preservative found in most wines is sulfur dioxide, which is usually introduced by the winemaker.

Alcohol has long been known as a preservative. Most winemaking books include a statement about alcohol preservation, such as, "Wines containing 12% alcohol by volume are self-preserving." Actually, the number is lower than that, but the point is made.

Sugar has also long been known as a preservative -- jams and jellies have very long lives until exposed to air. In wine, off-dry or semi-sweet wines generally have longer shelf lives than dry wines, while sweet ports, sherries and other dessert wines enjoy even longer potential lives.

Acidity as a preservative actually refers to its ability to deter spoilage bacteria. In wine, both alcohol and acidity work in concert to this end. Acetobacter aceti and related species that convert ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of air are unaffected by either alcohol or acids in wines, but are stopped cold by aseptic levels of sulfur dioxide.

POM Pomegranate Juice

A woman wrote to me about using POM-brand pomegranate juice to make wine with. She said, "The juice is pricey, but I think it might still be more economical than the 30-45 pomegranates a person would need for a 3 gallon batch." She essentially wanted to know how many pomegranates each bottle of POM represented. I had seen the juice in several supermarkets, but really had no idea what the answer to her question was. I basically told here this. Some time later she informed me she had written to the POM Company's customer service and they had responded: "Each 16 oz bottle contains the juice of approximately five crushed pomegranates. Thus, one 8-ounce serving would contain the juice of 2.5 pomegranates."

Based on this information, she then proposed a recipe for a 3-gallon batch. I made a few comments and that was that. I intend to make wine from this juice just to know it better. After I have done so, I will publish the recipe. However, if you want to get a head start on me, sources of the juice and an alternative concentrate are linked below.

October 19th, 2005

This past weekend was spent with winemakers and affectionados, as the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild hosted its annual Fall Competition. I truly do feel sorry for everyone that doesn't belong to a winemaking club. It's difficult to find a finer group of generous, unselfish folks.

As promised, here are some more of the emails and postings I've made recently.

Sulfite Solutions

I was asked about the strength used for sanitizing winemaking equipment, bottles and countertops and how to measure potassium metabisulfite for a 10% sulfite solution.

I use a solution made by adding one level teaspoon of potassium metabisulfite to one gallon of water. A 2-minute exposure to this will kill any known bacteria or mold likely to be in a kitchen or winery. This solution is undoubtedlyly stronger than it needs to be, but I just want to be sure the job is done when I use it. Its use hurts nothing. After use, I then pour it back into a gallon jug, cap it, and reuse it. It lasts much longer than I keep it, which is around 3-4 months.

A 10% sulfite solution is easy to make if you have precise scales. A liter of water weighs 1,000 grams, so add 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of potassium metabisulfite to one liter of water. For a 5% sulfite solution, use 50 grams (1.75 ounces) of potassium metabisulfite to one liter of water.

Oxidized Wine

When a winemaker in Jamaica told me he had dumped a batch of Thompson Seedless Grape Wine wine because it had oxidized heavily, I told him the first grape wine I ever made was with Thompson Seedless. It, too, oxidized badly. I uncorked it, resulfited it to prevent further degradation, fortified it to 18%, and then sweetened it to around 1.020. It was a very nice sherry-type wine.

I've done the same with oxidized blackberry, black cherry and red grape wines to make very nice tawny-style ports. With a little more work (actually, a lot more), you can make passable Madeira- or Marsala-type wines.

Madeira wines are high in alcohol (18-20%) and slowly baked in special buildings called estufas -- the wines are kept at temperatures ranging from 101 to 140 degrees F. for several months. If you live in the hot South, you can achieve similar results by bulk storing your wines in a garage or out-building during the hot summer months.

Some Madeiras also used a solera system of blending, where a cask has one-tenth of it's volume replaced each year with an equal amount of younger wine. After ten years, the cask is fully soleraized. It can be further aged, but not further blended.

Marsala wines are actually made with very specific grapes grown only at the extreme western tip of Sicily around the city of Marsala (Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino for golden and amber Marsala; Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola for ruby red Marsala), but other grapes can be used for "Marsala-type" wines. Depending on the style of Marsala, these usually have an alcohol content no less than 14% but often 18-20%, with residual sugar ranging from bone dry to dessert sweetness. They are aged 8 months to 10 years in oak, and are blended using the solera system. Thus, it is not possible to make a single vintage Marsala.

Well-made Marsalas can achieve a long life (over 100 years), while quality Madeiras can mature to 150 years and longer. However, do not expect such age from homemade wines of these types.

Stabilizing Wines

When asked why a stabilized wine continued to drop lees for over a month, I replied that when you stabilize a wine with potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate in conjunction with potassium or sodium metabisulfite (or Campden tablets), you are fixing the yeast population as of that moment. The living yeast in the must or wine are thereafter incapable of reproducing. That is the effect produced by stabilization. They yeast continue to live, but die naturally after a while -- hours to weeks. Because they can no longer reproduce, the entire colony eventually dies. As it dies off, dead yeast cells settle and form the very fine lees.

Living yeast cells are individually invisible to the eye except under powerful magnification. A single drop of heavily fermenting must can easily contain 150,000 yeast cells and will probably look cloudy. The cloudiness is caused not by the yeast themselves, but by the microscopic bubbles of CO2 gas they are emitting as fermentation waste. In a carboy, these bubbles are so close together that they combine rapidly into larger bubbles -- which get even larger as they rise. Within a few inches they become large enough to actually see. By the time they get near the top of the carboy, they are quite large compared to what they were originally. The bubbles breaking the suface of a 30,000-liter fermentation tank can be so large the surface looks like it is boiling. If you stabilized this batch at this time, you would not see a reduction in fermentation rate for several days, and it would probably drop heavy lees for two or three weeks -- lighter lees for up to six.

Most commercial wineries use (1) chilling, fining and racking, (2) sterile filtration, (3) heating, or (4) sorbates to remove yeast once fermentation has ceased and the wine clears. Using the first method alone still leaves a fairly substantial yeast population in the wine, so for sweet wines they usually follow through with sterile filtration or sorbating. The wines are then held 30 days and the wine is processed through a cell counter. If less than 10 cells per 750 mL remain, the wine will probably be bottled and released. If 10 or more cells per 750 mL are found, the wine is retained an additional 60 days to ensure the risk of re-fermentation is past.

I had a still wine that had finished dropping lees and had then been racked twice but not chilled, filtered or been sorbated. At that point I set it in a bulk aging area and left it there for 14 months. I then chaptalized it to a semi-sweet and bottled it. Two moths later I entered a bottle in competition where it was disqualified as being entered in the wrong category -- entered as a still wine instead of sparkling. Yes, whatever yeast remained began reproducing and recolonized the batch. I had never seen yeast live that long without dropping at least a fine dusting of lees, but they did. I now use two of the four stabilizing methods for my off-dry and sweet wines.

November 5th, 2005

Once again personal and work-related travels have imposed an absence. However, both bore fruit and were rewarding. At the same time, emails dropped in volume, which occurs evry year around this time, although I am still playing catch-up with the flood that came in before the volume dropped.

Wine Won't Degas

In a forum discussion at WinePress.US, a winemaker noted he had an orange wine that had lots of air bubbles in it when he tried to take a hydrometer reading. Indeed, when he inserted a rod into it to degas it, an eruption of bubbles came up and caused an overflow out of the secondary. He would wait a while and attempt to degas it again, only to have another eruption of bubbles. It did not seem to him that any headway was being gained on the gas problem. The gas was undoubtedly CO2 which is usually produced in wine by either alcohol fermentation or malolactic fermentation (MLF). Various opinions were offered, including a hunch that MLF was occurring. I saw it quite differently.

I didn't think it was MLF. MLF is a bacterial fermentation in which very specialized organisms process malic acid into lactic acid. MLF can occur naturally if (1) the must contains malic acid in the first place, (2) the MLF bacteria was present on the grapes or other ingredients that went into the wine, and (3) the must is not sulfited beyond a certain point prior to MLF starting. But there wasn't any malic acid in the recipe (my Orange Wine [2] recipe) except what was in the raisins specified in the recipe, and that would not be enough to produce as much gas as was reported. Also, it was very unlikely that any ML bacteria came into the must through the orange juice, raisins or boiled banana slices the recipe called for. To rephrase Sherlock Holmes, if we eliminate the possible, the explanation must reside in what is left. I think it was just CO2 produced by the yeast during the later stages of alcohol fermentation.

I asked the winemaker if he was using a cylinder-type airlock or S-type bubbler? If a cylinder-type, I would guess it was over-filled (has too much water in it -- it should be filled to the line in the middle and then the inner cup inserted and the cap snapped on). If the S-type, I would again bet it was overfilled for the conditions. The wine is obviously still fermenting, although at a very slow rate. If fermentation slows so dramatically that the CO2 being produced doesn't create enough pressure to move the water in the airlock, the CO2 will be absorbed into the wine. I recommended he pour all of the water out of the S-type airlock except just enough to barely seal the bottom "U" and see it this doesn't allow bubbles to escape. Also, I recommended stabilizing the wine now so that fermentation indeed stops altogether in a few weeks. Then he can degas the wine once and for all.

If the must has been sulfited to an aseptic level -- a level sufficient to kill the various bacteria winemakers are likely to encounter -- spontaneous (i.e. natural) MLF will not occur. A sulfited must can decline from 70 ppm SO2 to 15 ppm during fermentation and then undergo MLF, but only if you inoculate it with the MLF culture. The 70 ppm high will have effectively killed any wild MLF bacteria in the must unless the must had a dangerously high pH to begin with (3.8 to 4.0, for example), in which cases a much higher dose of SO2 was needed to create an aseptic environment.

In the normal scheme of things, MLF is not all that dramatic an event unless you happen to be a molecule of malic acid that gets consumed by the bacteria and turned into a molecule of lactic acid. In grapes, excluding "late harvest" grapes and certain predominately sub- temperate varieties that have little malic acid anyway, an MLF in the bottle will produce just enough fizz to let you know the wine is no longer perfectly still -- not enough to warrant Champagne flutes as the winemaker described. The same applies even more to an MLF in a secondary, where an airlock can at least offer an escape route for the CO2.

On the other hand, an apple or blackberry or other exclusively malic fruit that undergoes MLF can produce a noticeable amount of gas, but nothing like the winemaker described and rarely ever enough to raise a cork should it occur in the bottle. The affect on TA and pH is slight except in wholly malic wines and is most useful in grape wines where a slight malic edge needs to be honed. It has little affect on grape wines with jagged edges, as these are usually caused by too much tartaric acid.

I consider these observations important because far too many novice (and even experienced) winemakers are talking about spontaneous MLF occurring under conditions in which it should not. If you analyze the must -- that is, the sum of all the ingredients that went into it -- and its history (it was boiled, or made from concentrate, or aseptically sulfited with Campden tablets or potassium metabisulfite), one can readily determine if natural MLF is even possible. When it isn't possible, then it almost certainly did not occur.

Measuring Sugar

A winemaker asked me for a conversion factor for sugar, volume to weight. This is quite simple. Using U.S. measures, two level cups of finely granulated refined sugar weighs one pound. Thus, eight ounces of the same weighs 1/2 pound, and one dry ounce (volume) equates to one ounce by weight.

Two pounds of refined sugar dissolved in one U.S. gallon of water has a specific gravity of 1.090. Thus, one pound of refined sugar dissolved in one U.S. gallon of water has a specific gravity of 1.045.

I specified finely granulated refined sugar for a reason. This sugar is fine enough that the measures given above work out perfectly. If regular granulated refined sugar is used, the air spaces between the gains of crystal are ever so slightly larger and the volume changes. I use two level cups plus 3/4 teaspoon of regular granulated refined sugar to measure one pound volumetrically. In truth, I rarely ever use the regular grind of sugar, even though it is usually a few pennies cheaper per pound -- even more if it is beet sugar rather than cane sugar. It is simply easier and faster to dissolve the finely granulated sugar than the coarser "regular" grind. And the volume measures work out evenly, as was already said.

November 19th, 2005

I racked, degassed and stabilized some wines today, moving them further along the path to bottling. I don't taste all of my wines when racking, but occassionally I taste a wine I've never made before to see where it is balance-wise. One of them today lacked tannin, and while I could have simply added powdered grape tannin, instead I added two tablespoons of dried elderberries to also increase its fruitiness.

Dried Elderberries

Long ago I picked some very ripe elderberries one morning at a time when the temperatures outside were hitting triple-digits by noon. When I got home, I had some free-run juice from the berries being crushed a little by weight and bouncing on the dirt roads. I drained off the juice and froze it. I then spread aluminum foil on our picnic table and spread the berries on it in the blazing sun. About two hours later I turned them with a spatula, and after around six hours they were hard and dry. I stored them and used them the following winter to make a wine and add color and tannin to several other batches. The free-run juice was used in another wine (can't recall which).

The wine made from just the dried elderberries was exceptional, as the change in flavor from wine made of raw or cooked berries, was dramatic. The aroma of the wine was so much like a blackberry it was uncanny. It completely lost the essence of elderberry that makes wines from it so recognizable.

A one-gallon batch of wine I made from too few blackberries lacked the color and rich flavor I desired, so I added 2 ounces of the dried elderberries to it while it was bulk aging. It never refermented and later required two additional racking to remove bits of pulp that came off the berries during the six months they were in there, but it was one of the best blackberry-based wines I have ever made.

Weather Effects

A winemaker recently complained, "A big storm front blew in with snow, high winds and plummeting temps. The yeast just quit, I mean not a bubble for a whole day. After the storm passed it took off again like it had never skipped a beat."

I answered, "When you say 'not a bubble,' I assume you mean through the airlock. That would be because your storm rode in on a high pressure system and the high pressure pushed in on the liquid in the airlock and essentially plugged it up. When the system moved past, the plug was removed and the bubbling resumed. You'll probably really need to degas that wine, as the CO2 had to go somewhere."

Then the winemaker replied, "It was in an open 5 gallon bucket and what I mean was that there wasn't a single bubble appearing on the still surface of the must. All the foam was gone and all that floated on the surface was some of the spice. A still, smooth surface with not even those little pin prick bubbles. The next day it was rolling right along again."

And so I explained I had assumed it was under airlock because this is really not that uncommon an occurrence. But in reality, the same phenomenon probably caused the effect -- the high pressure system that rolled over the Midwest. The pressure pushing down on the surface created a layer of density (strata) not unlike a thermal divide that effectively "capped" the must --CO2 could not penetrate it to escape. However, the pressure may have extended down through the whole must, creating a density the yeast found uncomfortable and so they simply went dormant and did not produce any CO2 (or alcohol) during the passage of the front. I think the latter is more likely.

Another winemaker reported, "I had a major eruption of my Elderberry when [Hurricane] Ivan came through last year. Matter of fact all my wines that were in carboys over-flowed. Not too sure of the meteorological reasoning but what I do know is it made a mess!!!"

To this I explained, "A hurricane is an extreme example of a low pressure system, which pulls the higher pressure in the carboy outward through the only opening -- the airlock."

December 16th, 2005

A recent email concerned a batch of plum wine that apparently stuck on the fifth day of primary fermentation. The writer assumed this was because the natural sugar in the must had been consumed, so he added refined sugar and Campden tablets. When he wrote to me, 24 hours had passed without change and he was worried.

I was not able to respond for several days, and when I did I said I suspected the must had started refermenting, as this is often the case. I was quickly notified that there had been no change in the must. The writer had visited a local homebrew shop that day and picked up a packet of Red Star Premier Curvee yeast to attempt to restart the fermentation. He noted that the shop owner told him it was not necessary to add yeast nutrient or energizer.

When Fermentation Stops Too Soon

When fermentation stops earlier than expected, it is entirely possible that the must has completed fermentation. In this case, it had been only five days, but it has happened to me in as little as three days. So, it is a good idea to float a hydrometer and see what the specific gravity actually is before panicking or adding more yeast. If it is below 1.000, then consider it done.

If the must obviously has not completed fermentation, there must be a reason it has stopped fermenting. It could be that the yeast has a low-alcohol toxicity level, has produced sufficient alcohol to reach that level, and has died out as a consequence. This is entirely possible when recipes call for 2-1/2 to 3 pounds of sugar per gallon, enough to make 15 to 18% alcohol and the yeast has a toxicity threshold of 13%. Recipes such as this are engineered to make a sweet wine, but if that is not your goal then you have no choice but to attempt to restart fermentation and deal with a high-alcohol wine later.

In this case, the recipe calls for adding part of the sugar up front and the rest later on during the fermentation process. It makes a sweet wine, but does so gradually. So, it is possible the yeast used up all the available sugar, simply stopped fermenting, and also began dying off when no more fuel (sugar) was detected. When more sugar was added, the yeast had to (1) adjust to the new environment, and (2) begin rebuilding its population to the point where fermentation would be obvious and detected. If the fermentation did not start on its own, then a new yeast culture would need to be introduced.

Premier Curvee is a very good wine yeast and is typically used to restart a stuck fermentation. It is always a good idea to make a yeast starter solution first and add that to the must, but this is especially so when restarting a stuck fermentation. The new yeast need time to get accustomed to the environment, which already contains a good deal of alcohol. You can search this page for "starter solution" if you don't know how to do this.

As for the homebrew shop owner's advice on not adding nutrient or energizer, here I take issue. If you are using wine grapes (or native grapes) I would agree with him (or her), but here one is making plum wine. Plums do not have the same mix of natural ingredients that grapes have and I would (and do) always add yeast nutrients to it (to any fruit must, actually).

I generally do not add energizer to musts unless they are sluggish or stuck. That is really the major reason they make it -- to energize a sluggish fermentation (usually because the yeast need more nitrogen). If it turns out the fermentation is stuck above s.g. 1.000, then add ¼ teaspoon of energizer per gallon -- no more than that. But the plum wine recipe used here does call for energizer up front -- because it is a high-sugar recipe and almost certainly a high-alcohol one at that.

As it turns out, the new yeast was not needed. When the winemaker checked on his must, he noticed it was finally bubbling away. It took five days for the yeast to adapt and rebuild their population to an adequate level, but they did it. There is still danger that this fermentation could slow and stop before finished, as the recipe used called for a good deal of sugar. But at least the winemaker now knows what to do should it stick again.

Sweet Plum Wine

Here is the recipe the winemaker mentioned above used. I am not certain how he used it (you will see why at the end), so I will simply publish it here as it appears on my site.

Normally, I do not like to publish recipes calling for 3 or more pounds of sugar, but this recipe is an exception. The creator of the recipe, the late Dorothy Alatorre, was for decades an icon for the home winemaker in San Antonio. Her recipes were not always conventional, but were well reasoned and purposeful. This recipe makes a high- alcohol, sweet-to-dessert wine that will age well and possesses the potential for developing a port-like character if the fruit quality excels and the final chemistry is favorable.

Sweet Plum Wine

  • 6 lbs plums
  • 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 lbs fine granulated sugar (see Note, below)
  • Water to bring to one gallon
  • 1-1/2 tsp acid blend
  • 1 tsp pectic enzyme
  • 1/2 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 1/2 tsp yeast energizer
  • 1/4 tsp grape tannin
  • wine yeast

Put water on to boil. Wash the fruit, cut in halves to remove the seeds, then chop fruit and put in primary. Pour boiling water over fruit. Add half the sugar and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Cover and allow to cool to 70 degrees F. Add acid blend, pectic enzyme, tannin, nutrient, and energizer. Cover the primary and wait 12 hours before adding yeast. Recover primary and allow to ferment 5-7 days, stirring twice daily. Strain, stir in half of the remaining sugar to dissolve, siphon into secondary, and fit airlock. Rack after 30 days, add remaining sugar, stir well to dissolve sugar, top up, and refit airlock. Rack every 30-45 days until wine clears. Wait two additional weeks, rack again, stabilize wine, and bottle. This wine can be sampled after only 6 months. If not up to expectations, let age another 6 months and taste again. I have aged this wine up to four years and the result was exquisite, but that was only because the wine got covered with blankets in a closet and was forgotten. I suspect it was ready long before it took on its heavenly quality. [Author's notes and adaptation from Dorothy Alatorre's Home Wines of North America]

Note: If you have enough plums, make several batches of wine varying the sugar content (3-1/2 lbs, 3-1/4 lbs, 3 lbs, etc. -- the wine will be dessert-sweet until you get to about 2-3/4 to 2-1/2 lbs, but progressively less and less). Be sure to mark the bottle labels so you'll know which batch is which. In this way, you will later be able to determine which sugar content best suits your own taste.

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