NOTES ON WINEMAKING
Most wine books are based on other wine books. They show little originality, and are badly out of date. Some, for example, still recommend making champagne-type drinks in glass bottles; highly dangerous for the amateur; or say that storage of wine in plastic containers is unwise. I even saw one recently-published book recommending amateurs to use wooden casks for storage. This is really not on, and the persistence of such views is extraordinary. The odd way in which wine books are written probably accounts in part for the decline of home winemaking.
These notes are based on practical experience of winemaking over the period 1985-2008. No commercial winemaking book has been consulted.
Copyright Nigel Deacon, August 2008.
What you will need is plenty of space. You will also need a source of fruit, a few demijohns picked up for very little at a car boot sale, some airlocks or pierced bungs, and a couple of 2-gallon or 5-gallon containers with lids. Any winemaking shop, and many chemists, can supply the basic implements.
You will also need a modicum of patience and the odd hour or two of spare time. But remember that this is not an activity which needs lots of time. Once one is organized, the time required is quite minimal; in perhaps an hour or so once a month I make around 20 gallons a year plus 10 gallons of cider.
BASIC RECIPE FOR FRUIT WINES:
PREPARE THE FRUIT
STARTING THE FERMENTATION
Add cold water until the total volume is just over a gallon. Stir. Add tannin if the fruit doesn't contain any. (don't buy it-a few fruit stalks, stones or cores will do the job).
Sprinkle in some yeast, or add a cupful of mixture from another brew, stir again, and then cover. After a couple of days the fermentation should have started. Stir vigorously once a day for about 4 days.
Do not forget to label the jar. A snap-around label which fits around the demi-john handle can be made as follows from a piece of plastic from a detergent bottle or similar;
this can easily be transferred from jar to jar during racking, and sticky labels will adhere to it. Write in pencil, so that spillages don't render it unreadable.
CHOICE OF DRIED GRAPE
Raisins are dried red grapes. Their flavour is quite strong and results in the finished wine having a strong hint of sherry in its makeup. It is most noticeable when the other ingredients have weak flavours. If you dislike sherry, raisins should be avoided.
Currants are smaller dried red grapes with a very strong flavour. They are not generally recommended, but tolerable in elderberry brews.
Sultanas are dried white grapes. Their flavour is relatively weak (though not negligible) and is not carried over too much into the product wine. But again, unless one is aiming at something with the character of a sherry or port, 8 oz per gallon is enough. I find sultanas better than raisins or currants and use them for nearly all brews.
Those lucky enough to have fresh grapes available can use 1-2 lb per gallon instead of 8 oz. dried fruit. Grape concentrates can be used to produce excellent wines, but they are five or six times the price of dried grapes. One should not encourage extortion.
Pineapple juice is a good grape substitute; gooseberry less good.
AFTER 4 DAYS
After this time, get a teaspoon, remove a litle of the wine and TASTE it to judge how much more sugar is needed.
If it's still very sweet, leave for a few more days and try again.
Go through this cycle of tasting and adding more sugar until it tastes just sweet enough. Don't add too much; remember once added, you can't take it out.
Leave for a day or two (or longer - it doesn't really matter) until you have time to go to the next stage. This will allow any sediment to settle.
Then get another clean dry fermentation bucket and carefully POUR off the top layer into it, until the sediment at the bottom starts to transfer. You now have the half-made wine, minus most of the sediment, in its own clean container. Put the top back on.
Then sterilize a demijohn (carboy) with a weak solution of non-scented disinfectant and rinse out three times with a pint of water. A disinfectant smelling of chlorine is the most suitable; no need for Campden tablets. If you're sure the container is clean, rinse out with water only.
Using a large funnel, pour the clean half-made wine into the demi-john, which should become at least three quarters full, and immediately seal with an airlock. A good fermentation lock, which I prefer to a standard airlock, may be made as follows: Obtain a rubber bung with a hole in it; stick two layers of waterproof insulation tape over the hole, and make two small perforations with a pin or knife point in the tape. This bung will let gas out but will not let flies in; that's all you need. It is also totally silent.
For the first day or two, foaming may occur. When the fermentation starts to slow down, top up to one gallon. You can top up with water, or clear fruit juice (avoid citrus) - choose one with appropriate flavour - or you can use tthe leftovers from another half-made batch of wine.
If any foam or other debris reaches the bung, remove it with a small teaspoon.
NOTE ... chemical sterilisation isn't always needed with glassware. As long as the acetic acid bacterium is absent, a thorough cleaning with tap water will be enough. Acetic acid has a powerful smell; if you have a sensitive nose you can tell whether the glassware needs sterilising.
After a week or so, debris will be largely settled. When the fermentation stops (or nearly stops) and the wine starts to clear, remove the top layer into a second clean jar. I pour it, using a funnel; many winemakers use a siphon (difficult to clean, and rather slow). Top up with cold water. This process ("racking") is carried out as many times as is necessary, typically once or twice, until the wine is ready for bottling.
If you are concerned that racking dilutes the wine too much, top up with apple or pineapple juice rather than water. I keep a demi-john of half-fermented cider on the go for topping-up purposes, but you may not have the space to do this. Pineapple top-ups give the wine an excellent bouquet; a litre costs about £1 and contains enough for about 6 demijohns.
TYPES OF BOTTLE
If you use corks, leave the bottled wine upright for a day or two for the corks to harden, then cover with clingfilm and tape round. Lay the bottles down if you wish, but if they are properly sealed this is not necessary. But consider seriously using screw-top bottles; they are much simpler to deal with. *And note that for non-professional winemakers, sweet wines should only be bottled in plastic until you have more experience. Refermentation may cause explosions and flying glass unless chemicals are used to kill the yeast.
There are advantages to using plastic bottles:
They are also rather larger than standard 750 ml wine bottles; a gallon of wine consequently takes up less space in storage. They will store upright or flat, but should be allowed to stand upright for a week or two before use, to allow sediment to settle. If used more than once, the tops and the screw threads of the bottles may be sterilized in disinfectant; this is where bacteria can hide. If you decide to sterilise (by no means essential if you keep everything fairly clean and keep flies out) pour some disinfectant in a bowl, pour a little into each bottle and loosely screw on the top. Invert the bottles in the bowl and leave for a few minutes.
Glass bottles cannot be recommended for bottling sweet wines or for the production of sparkling wines or champagne, for reasons of safety. You have been warned.
Sparkling wines (or elderflower champagne-see below) are best drunk chilled; the fizz lasts longer and the taste is less sweet.
You don't need an apple press. Cut the apples into slices, discarding grubs and cores, place in bags in the freezer. Since water expands as it freezes this will pulverise the fruit very effectively. Remove when frozen solid; place in fermentation bin. Add about a gallon of cold tap water for each 4lb of fruit.
Add a few spoons of sugar and some yeast. As more apples become available, freeze them. I use whatever windfalls appear, slice them up and place them in the freezer each morning before going to work. Don't use a food processor; we are not making apple sauce.
When frozen solid, add the sliced apples in batches to the mixture. Add the rest of the sugar. Stir each day. Keep a label on the top of the bin to keep track of how much fruit/sugar have been added. When appropriate (a few days after the last addition) scoop out the apple debris with a cooking sieve (destination - compost heap, if you have one).
Pour the raw cider into demijohns and continue the fermentation. When it has almost stopped, siphon or pour the cider off the sediment, into clean jars, and top up. Store in demijohns; do not bottle until a month before required. At that point, pour into screw-top plastic bottles containing 1 heaped tablespoonful of sugar for each litre. Leave a two-inch gap at the top of each bottle. This will make it easier when opening and will avoid fountains of froth.
When using the cider, unscrew cautiously and slowly. It may take a few minutes for a bottle to de-gas sufficiently to pour it into a glass. As with sparkling wines, one can tell when the cider is ready to drink by the hardness of the bottle. Store them vertically, standing on a flat surface. Any bottles which fall over in store are on the point of exploding (the bottoms have bulged out); approach them with caution, slacken the tops and use promptly. If, on the other hand, you like non- gassy cider ( I prefer it) then don't add any sugar when bottling.
Two points:the cider should clear fairly quickly, but will not reach the full brightness of commercial cider (do not be put off by this; commercial ciders are clear only because they have been chemically adulterated and filtered); secondly, ciders are much better if made with acidic apples. Brews without them are rather bland. I usually include in my ciders at least one of the following to add acidity:
a)Crab apples, sliced & frozen as before. The amount can be anything from a handful to a couple of pounds per gallon depending on the must's acidity. b)Quinces of the "japonica" type; half a dozen per gallon; the seeds removed and the quinces frozen with the apples; c)Some under-ripe apples. These can be used as early as mid-July and need only be an inch and a half in diameter. d) Malic acid or citric acid (less good) bought from a chemist e)lemon juice.
If you use e) the clarity of the cider may be lower.
Other fruits (damsons, lemons, slightly underripe blackberries) can supply the necessary acid .
In the absence of proper cider-apples varieties (and very few have access to these), Bramleys or other cooking apples make a good brew. Eating apples can obviously be mixed in. Allington Pippin and James Grieve are good because of their high acidity; Laxtons are good because of their rich flavour but make poor cider used on their own. Other fruits can contribute; one of the best ciders I made contained 10% over-ripe peaches, and another good brew contained more plums than apples and was coloured bright red. Use what is available; there is no point in chasing ideal ingredients when improvization might produce a better result.
Add malt/hop extract to 5-gallon container; add two or three kettles of boiling water poured over. Stir in 2 lbs (or 1-kilo bag) sugar, then add cold water to make 5 gallons. Add yeast (specialized beer yeast, not wine yeast) sprinkled over the surface. Cover. It should be fermenting strongly in 24 hours. Leave it for about 10 days, covered, resisting the temptation to stir it each day. Beer is more prone to spoilage than wine because of its lower alcohol content, so it should not be exposed unnecessarily to the air. After this time, siphon into 5 demi-johns fitted with fermentation locks.
The beer will keep in this state for months without damage. It still contains residual quantities of yeast. To give it a good "head", bottle into screw-top half-litre plastic bottles, priming each while still empty with a level teaspoonful of sugar. I bottle just eight at a time, which takes about ten minutes.
FAVOURITE RECIPES FOR WINE
Remember that wine needs three things: Sugar, Tannin, Acid.
A non-alcoholic "elderflower champagne" can be made by adding to six elderflower heads a gallon of water and 1.5 lbs of sugar plus the juice and thinly pared rind of one lemon and one tablespoonful of lemon juice. Leave overnight, scoop out the debris, and pour the liquid into plastic screw-top bottles. This is ready when the bottles go hard; usually about a fortnight. Left for three weeks they will sometimes explode.. Do not leave them in a place where your popularity might be affected.
A lighter wine can be made by decreasing the amount of elderberries and substituting with apples. Elderberry/blackberry or elderberry /blackberry/apple mixtures are also very good. Elderberries are high in tannin so this need not be added separately.
I personally find that using more than 1lb elderberries per gallon makes a rather bitter wine, and prefer blends.
The wine which results is rich in flavour and bouquet; red to deep red-brown, and often resembles sherry. It can take a long time to clear, and I leave it for at least 3 years before drinking. The flavour of mulberries is strong, and this wine is one where raisins can be used without spoiling the flavour. Tannin additions are unnecessary. But not everyone will like this one; mulberries are an acquired taste.
Riper gooseberries have a stronger scent, and if used, this aroma carries over into the wine. It disappears on prolonged storage, i.e. several years in the bottle. Some types of gooseberry can be used to make wine of widely differing types: for example, a "hock", a rose, and a red can all be made from the red gooseberry "Lancashire Lad", depending on when the berries are picked.
Gooseberry champagne, made from unripe gooseberries, sugar, yeast, water and nothing else is excellent.
JAPONICA QUINCE WINE
DRINKING THE WINE
A further point is that undecanted wines are unsuitable for transporting in the back of the car if they are to be drunk that day. The sediment is disturbed and the wine when opened will be below its best. If a red, it may be undrinkable. If invited to a friend's and taking wine specifically for the meal (especially home-brewed), decant it first. And make sure that the host has not already decanted enough wine from his own stocks. He may prefer to use that and save yours for another occasion.
c)THE CORRECT TEMPERATURE
IS WINEMAKING WORTHWHILE?
Notwithstanding the previous remarks, the situation in English supermarkets has improved a lot over the past few years, and moderately priced decent wine from the Continent and elsewhere is more affordable than ever before. But cost is not the primary reason for home-brewing. Obviously we are not in competition with the Rheingau or the top French producers; some of their wines are unsurpassable and we must not get too impressed by our own efforts. But wines can be made, with a little effort, which compare well with all but the very best commercial wines. The process of gathering the fruit and setting the process going is an interesting one. And nothing can compare with the unique flavour of some of the best "country wines".
Cider apples make by far the best cider. The commonest fault with a home-made cider is that it is too bland. This is almost always due to a lack of acid and tannin. Remember that commercial cider apples are almost inedible when picked off the tree; they are extremely sharp, bitter, or both.
If you have no cider apples, you must adjust the mixture. I've said this earlier, but it needs repeating: the brew should be sweet but sharp to the taste. It's OK to use the basic 4lb of apples, set the mixture fermenting for a fortnight or so, remove the fruit, taste for acidity, and then to add crabs or other acidic fruit (damsons, a few quinces, crab apples) in a second batch or a few at a time. They are removed when the acidity is judged to be just right.
WINES WHICH NEVER CLEAR
Comments are welcome on any of the above. Email address: email@example.com
Nigel Deacon, Croft , Leicestershire. 7th edition. August 2008. Some minor revisions in 2023.
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