Most books about home winemaking feature sections on “Making Red Wine” and “Making White Wine.” But when real, live vintners, amateur or professional, clean out their fermenters and get down to business, they’re not making red or white — they’re making Zinfandel or Riesling, or aiming to put together a Bordeaux-style blend. Maybe you’ll be satisfied if your first batch of wine tastes like, well, wine; but from the second harvest on, most home winemakers want their Chardonnay to taste different from their Sauvignon Blanc and want their Syrah to be just as Syrah-like as the ones at the local wine shop.
While a lot of the steps in successful winemaking are similar across the board — any vinification requires cleaning equipment, monitoring the fermentation, avoiding oxidation, controlling temperature, etc. — different varieties have their own idiosyncrasies, imperatives and options. The more you respect the individuality of a grape variety in your cellar practices, the more the end result will resemble what you had in your mind’s palate before you started. If you make Pinot Noir the same way you’d make Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine probably won’t taste like either one; ask some of the California winemakers who made that exact mistake a couple decades ago.
Were are some observations and suggestions about handling ten of the most popular grape varieties, both in the commercial marketplace and the amateur garage, gathered by talking with pros across the country (my job) and observing things in my own garage (my idea of a good time). The focus is on what’s unique, noteworthy, or troublesome about each grape, which techniques might work and which might not — things that can help you get the stylistic results you want.
Sangiovese from Italy comes in many guises, from light and quaffable to complex and ageworthy. But it never shows up as a blockbuster — the kind of thick, inky, smash-mouth wine you might expect from a Napa Cabernet or an Aussie Shiraz. If your goal is making, or drinking, a wine with medium body, refreshing acidity, bright fruit and good balance, Sangiovese may be just the ticket. The reason it shows up on so many restaurant wine lists is that it’s one of the planet’s most versatile and agreeable food wines.
On the other hand, Sangiovese isn’t the easiest grape to work with. On the wrong site (too cool) with the wrong crop load (too heavy), Sangiovese’s natural ability to generate acid and tannin can yield wines that are thin and mean. In the cellar, think of Sangiovese as a little bit like Pinot Noir: delicate, not macho; requiring understated treatment, not arm-twisting; and with the final result highly dependent on the quality of the fruit, not winemaking tricks.
Compared to some varieties, harvest numbers are likely be on the high side in total acidity (TA) — 6 to 8 grams per liter (g/L); on the low side in pH — between 3.2 and 3.6; and on the modest side in sugar accumulation — 24–26 °Brix, not the elevated levels some Cabernet or Zinfandel grapes reach.
A day or two of cold soak before starting the fermentation is a good option, allowing a peaceful head start on the extraction of flavor and color. Protect the must from oxygen and airborne debris with plastic sheeting and a blanketing layer of carbon dioxide (CO2), and keep the temperature cool, down around 55 °F (13 °C). Sangiovese grapes that have been over-cropped or sun-bleached can show color deficiencies. You might want to use ColorPro or some other color extraction addition, or — better yet — drain off 5–10% of the juice a few hours after crushing and turn it into a rosato (which is Italian for rosé), increasing the color intensity of the main batch.
A number of commercial wineries are high on BM-45, a strain isolated in the Brunello di Montalcino district in Tuscany, for Sangiovese fermentations; others I’ve talked to mentioned BRL 97, the Rhône isolates L2226 and L2056, and good old Pasteur Red. Fermentation temperature should get up to around 85 °F (29 °C) for a day or two to ensure good extraction of flavor, color and tannin, but don’t overdo it.
Keep punchdowns gentle, not beating up the fruit. If you are worried about excess tannin, think about doing a délestage or rack-and-return halfway through the fermentation, separating the cap from the juice or wine, exposing both to air, then putting them back together in a new fermenter, losing most of the seeds in the process.
After fermentation, Sangiovese has a tendency to pick up oxygen, so make sure containers are topped up and avoid splashing and aeration during racking. Don’t expect simple, straightforward development in the cellar. The wine is likely to go from rough and closed to fruity and promising and back again in no discernible pattern.
If the wine develops obvious problems — signs of hydrogen sulfite (rotten eggs) or volatile acidity (vinegary aromas) — make sure to take action. But otherwise, have patience, and the wine will come around.
Sangiovese frequently benefits from a small addition of another red, but mixing in very much of anything will quickly create a very different wine with much less “Sangiovese” character. Blending with Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot — is a common strategy for “Super-Tuscan” wines, but these varieties are the quickest to overwhelm Sangiovese’s restrained personality. Syrah and Zinfandel provide less muscular, more forgiving alternatives. Additions should generally be in the 5–15% range.
Oak can also overpower this grape in a hurry, so go easy on the chips or use one or two-year-old barrels.
After a light filtration, bottle your Sangiovese in nine to twelve months. Expect it to develop further in the bottle; don’t be surprised if it gets better over five to ten years.
2. Sauvignon Blanc
Maybe the fans of Sauvignon Blanc have chips on their shoulders — most likely not oak chips — from always having their wine in second place compared to Chardonnay. But they make a pretty good case that Sauvignon Blanc has a much more well-defined, instantly recognizable profile of aromas and flavors, and that it’s a more versatile food wine. (Even detractors admit they can pick it out in a crowd.) Chardonnay is more of a winemaker’s wine, drawing its intrigue from oak and lees and malolactic manipulation; Sauvignon Blanc comes off the vine, gets fermented, goes into a tank and four months later it’s in the bottle.
Sauvignon Blanc is light and lively enough to pair with appetizers, seafood, even salads, but focused and zingy enough to stand up to hearty, spicy fare. Take your pick: white Bordeaux, Sancerre, New Zealand, California, South Africa — there’s bound to be a bottle of wine that goes with anything.
Sauvignon’s character depends a great deal on climate. In cool climates like New Zealand’s, Sauvignon Blanc is generally characterized by high acidity, citrusy aromatics, forceful fruit and a telltale grassy/herbal/gooseberry streak. In slightly warmer zones, the norm is moderate acidity, rounder fruit with melon and tropical elements, floral aromatics, and much less grassiness. When making your own, be aware that you can’t force warm-weather grapes to have cool-weather character; you have to go with what Nature gives you.
Generally, grapes should be harvested in the 22–25 °Brix range (leading to finished wine in the 12–14% alcohol range). Harvest pH should normally be 3.5 or below; total acidity (TA) should be at least 7 grams per liter (g/L), and harvest TA numbers up toward 8.5 or 9 g/L are not necessarily a problem. You want brisk acidity in this wine.
Some of the best Sauvignons around take advantage of a little skin contact. maybe a couple of hours between crushing and pressing, gaining complexity in flavors. If you decide to try this, maybe do only a portion of the grapes this way. And in any case, make sure to settle the juice 24–48 hours to clarify it before commencing fermentation. Also, keep the juice cool, down below 60 ºF (16 °C), and covered with CO2.
If you have a barrel’s worth of juice, first-rate Sauvignon Blanc can stand up to barrel fermentation, in new or used wood. More likely, glass and stainless are the way to go throughout the life of the winemaking, maximizing freshness and fruit by controlling temperature — down in the 50s °F (around 13 °C) — and oxygen throughout. You can also mimic barrel fermentation with a few oak chips tossed into a carboy fermenter.
Yeast options that come up in commercial settings include VL3 and VL1, D47, R2 and QA23. The qualities you want are an ability to ferment at cool temperatures and to work slowly. Sauvignon Blanc rarely gets put through a malolactic fermentation, though a few notable ones made from intensely-flavored grapes do; mostly, malolactic seems at cross-purposes with the nature of the grape. As an alternative way to increase mouthfeel texture, stirring up the lees every week or two can make a visceral difference. Oak aging for this grape is rare, except for full-blown or warmer-weather styles.
Sauvignon Blanc most places tends to be a solo act, but it does get blended with Sémillon routinely in Bordeaux, and there’s no reason you can’t experiment in your garage. Good candidates are Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, where the zinginess of the Sauvignon balances the fatness of its partner, or an aromatic variety — Riesling, Viognier, Muscat, Gewürztraminer — to add floral overtones and even more sparkle.
Cold stabilization is standard commercial practice, and worth doing at home if possible, even two or three weeks in a normal-temperature refrigerator can make a difference. So can a light, 2-micron polish filtration, giving the brilliant clarity you’d expect from a commercial version. The great part: Sauvignon Blanc is a quick turn-around (3–5 months from harvest to bottle), and ready to drink by the spring.
After a meteoric rise in popularity through the 1990s, Merlot’s reputation has taken a lot of hits. Critics, sommeliers and consumers discovered that a lot of what came onto the market was pretty generic stuff, a little too far on the soft side, a kind of “Cabernet Lite” that didn’t have much character of its own. Then came the movie “Sideways,” based on the 2004 novel by Rex Pickett, frontally mocking the grape while granting cult status to the un-Merlot, Pinot Noir.
Meanwhile, Merlot continues to sell by the truckload, flourishes as the workhorse grape in Bordeaux, and fills some very tasty bottles in several places across the United States.
The difference between good Merlot and ordinary Merlot is the usual formula for separating wine wheat from wine chaff: good sites, controlled yields, careful winemaking and putting a premium on balance. Even from your humble garage, Merlot can produce flavorful, solid-bodied wine that’s arguably a more versatile food match than any of the other Bordeaux grapes.
Like the other Bordeaux red varieties, underripe Merlot can have a mean green streak, with green bell pepper notes, and a certain amount of warmth is needed to get it ripe. On the other hand, hot-weather Merlot — or Merlot left to hang on the vine forever — can get flabby and insipid, with its fruit complexity all turned into sugar. Somewhere in between, where the grapes have just a hint of herbal character alongside the core of cherry fruit, is ideal.
Make sure to get reliable harvest numbers, and make whatever adjustments are needed to get the initial wine chemistry into balance. Out of balance Merlot is less than pleasant.
Ripe Merlot usually clocks in at around 24–27 °Brix, which leads to dry wines in the 13 to 16% alcohol by volume (ABV) range. If the sugar content is higher than this, think about adding acidified water. Merlot pH is usually 3.5 to 3.8; if it is closing in on 4, add some tartaric acid to bring this into its proper range. Numbers for total acidity (TA) are usually in the 5 to 8 grams per liter (g/L) range.
Remove the stems and crush the grapes gently to avoid damaging the seeds. Too much stem and crushed seed will lead to the extraction of unpalatable bitter compounds.
A day or two of cold soak before inoculating helps get the process started. Keep the temperature low — around 50 °F (10 °C) – to discourage the growth of spoilage microorganisms. Once fermentation starts, punch the cap down 3 to 5 times a day.
Use one of the many robust red-wine yeasts on the market, or a combination of a strain that emphasizes fruitiness (like RC212) with one of the Bordeaux isolates (Bordeaux Red, also known as UCD-725, or MT) that help develop tannin structure. Merlot wants a vigorous yeast, but don’t overload it with nutrient; use a half dose and spread it out into two additions, to make the yeast work harder and produce more complex results. Merlot is usually pressed at dryness, although extended maceration is an option.
Put your Merlot through a malolactic fermentation and, if possible, put it in a barrel. Oak chips in carboys can add interesting flavors, but barrel aging gives red wine a roundness and integration that can’t be simulated — and Merlot benefits tremendously from the effect. It’s possible to make fruity, everyday Merlot in carboys, but it takes a barrel to get more substance. Plan to hold off bottling until after the next harvest.
In Bordeaux, Merlot’s homeland, there’s hardly a bottle of red wine made that does not represent some kind of blend, and Merlot is almost always in the mix. A small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc can stiffen its tannic backbone; a little Malbec or Petit Verdot can deepen the color.
The other way around, a portion of Merlot can take the harsh edges off a Cabernet. Merlot also figures prominently in Super-Tuscan blends with Sangiovese. Merlot and Zinfandel? Why not do a trial and see? The Merlot you turn out probably won’t age for your grandchildren’s cellars. But it can provide you with company-quality wine for several years.
Syrah’s roots in France’s Rhône Valley go back for centuries, possibly to Roman times, and it remains the region’s superstar red. With a name change to Shiraz, Australia built its wine industry from the 19th Century on around the variety. California had Syrah vines by the 1880s, but the real Syrah wave started with new plantings in the 1970s and has yet to crest.
Unlike Pinot Noir, Syrah can do well in warmer climates, even including parts of California’s Central Valley; unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah can thrive and ripen in cooler areas, like the foggy Carneros district of Napa/Sonoma. Finding color, tannin and alcohol is rarely a problem, and Syrah works in a delightful range of styles, from drink-it-today fruity to structured and ageworthy. Besides making great wine on its own, Syrah is such a versatile blender that I make a few gallons every year, even when that’s not my focus — just in case.
Desirable harvest numbers for Syrah are typical red grape numbers — sugars in the 23 to 26 °Brix range, pH in a range between 3.3 and 3.8, titratable acidity (TA) between 5 and 6.5 grams per liter (g/L). Good Syrah can be made from grapes at the high end of sugar and pH readings; premium California Syrah is often harvested at 26–28 °Brix and/or pH values in the 3.8 or even 3.9 range. If your Syrah comes in with extremely high sugar or low pH, you may want to add water or acid; and remember that high pH wines need extra care to combat microbial spoilage.
Many commercial wineries do a cold soak on Syrah, a period of from one to three days after crushing in which no yeast is added and the must is kept at a cool temperature, down around 55 ° F (13 °C). The recent upsurge in high-end Syrah winemaking has focused attention on a number of yeast strains, most of them isolated in the south of France, including the Syrah (SYR) strain, D80, ICV D21 and L2056. To build in complexity, try separating your Syrah into two fermenters and using two yeast strains.
Given Syrah’s aptitude for blending, the variety is often co-fermented with other grapes that will eventually end up in the same bottle; and Viognier skins are sometimes added to a Syrah fermentation to boost aromatic intrigue and perhaps help stabilize color.
Syrah needs a warm fermentation — at least a day or two with a temperature in between 80 and 90 °F (27–32 °C) — and it’s worth taking some trouble to get there. (You can use electric blankets or specialized carboy heating pads.) In general, the bigger, more extracted the style you’re aiming for, the longer your must should spend at warmer temperatures.
A common fermentation variation is délestage (if you’re in France) or “rack and return” (if you’re in Australia). The technique involves separating the floating cap from the juice/wine in mid-fermentation, exposing both portions to air for a few hours, then re-uniting everything in a new fermenter, losing a lot of the seeds before they can contribute harsh tannins to the mix. Another variation, common in Australia, is to press Syrah just before it goes dry, when the unfermented sugar is down to 2–5 ºBrix, and finish the fermentation in barrel or tank, thus emphasizing round fruit. Producers looking for fuller extraction sometimes put Syrah through extended maceration, leaving the wine on the skins for an additional period of weeks after dryness, covered and blanketed with protective gas to prevent spoilage; this isn’t the easiest thing to do at home.
Syrah loves oak aging, in either French or American wood (or with French or American chips); but go easy, since too much oak sweetness can make the final wine one-dimensional. Wines aimed stylistically at young drinking should get six months in barrel; wines designed to age may go up to 18 months in wood.
Blending is Syrah’s strong suit, though it makes perfectly delightful wine on its own. Other Rhône varieties are natural partners, as is Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s amazing how much a relative pinch of Syrah — less than five percent — can do to fill out the palate of almost any red wine that seems a little hollow in the middle.
A clean-up filtration (at 5 microns) will make your Syrah prettier in the glass — five years of bottle age will make it even better.
5. Pinot Gris/Grigio
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are just two names for the same grape; for that matter, it’s also called Grauburgunder in Germany and Ruländer in northeastern Italy. Before the European Union sorted out its grape names, it was called Tokay in Alsace. Any grape going by that many names has to be worth a try.
The most common alternatives, Gris and Grigio, have more or less come to denote the two ends of the stylistic spectrum — Pinot Grigio (mainly from Italy) tending to be lean, bright and refreshing, and wines labeled Pinot Gris (from France and Oregon) tending to be fatter, rounder and fuller-bodied. Nothing legally binding about this terminology, just the evolution of marketing.
Especially as Pinot Grigio, this versatile member of the Pinot clan is currently the fastest-growing white varietal in the United States, drawing both on imported and domestic production. Like any wine on a roll, a lot of the newly-popular Pinot Grigio is plonk, over-cropped, watery and forgettable. Done right, however, it can be just the ticket — and a great wine to pair with many foods.
A cooler-climate grape source will yield a “Pinot G” with more fruit intensity. Feel good if your grapes come in with plenty of natural acidity, up around 8 or 9 grams per liter (g/L) total acidity (TA); the level will drop during fermentation and processing, and you want this wine to have an edge. With all this acidity, the pH of the must will likely be below 3.5. (When making sulfite additions, but sure to take the pH of the wine into consideration.) The sugar content should be in the 22–23 °Brix range, for a finished wine with around 12% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Because the skins often show a bit of brownish pigment (thus the “grey” part of the name), skin contact after between crushing and pressing is almost never practiced; commercial wineries who have the proper equipment almost always use whole-cluster pressing to avoid an unsettling hint of pink in the wine.
If your aim is a more angular Grigio style, adding lysozyme while the juice settles and clarifies helps prevent malolactic fermentation later on; if you’re going Gris, skip that addition.
Either way, ferment the wine cool, somewhere in the mid-50s °F (around 13 °C). Pinot G is a semi-aromatic variety, so cooler temperatures help hold onto some of the evanescent esters that can increase the wine’s charm. Some bigger-style Gris versions are barrel-fermented in neutral oak; slightly higher temperatures trade some loss of aromatics for improved mouthfeel. Yeasts that commercial winemakers have had success with include VL1, VL3, D47, QA23, Epernay II and M2, a South African isolate.
When fermentation is complete, you may (Gris) or may not (Grigio) want to encourage a malolactic fermentation. Aging should take place in either neutral oak, glass or stainless steel, not new oak that will overpower the wine. For non-malolactic, non-barreled Pinot Grigio, stirring the lees every couple weeks does wonders to improve mouthfeel. Since the grape tends to pick up oxygen easily, potentially adding a brownish cast to the wine, be careful to avoid air exposure during racking.
A hint of residual sugar in a Pinot G can enhance the fruitiness of the variety. Commercial wineries shoot for 0.3–0.5% residual sugar by stopping the fermentation with chilling and adding sulfite. At home, it’s easier to let the wine ferment to dryness, then add sugar syrup and stabilize with potassium sorbate (although you can’t do this if the wine has undergone a malolactic fermentation).
Pinot G purists rarely blend in anything else, fearing the delicacy of the grape will get lost in the shuffle. But if your Pinot G seems a little wimpy, adding a dash (less than 10%) of an aromatic white (such as Riesling, Muscat or Viognier) can perk it up considerably.
Cold stabilization — at least two weeks at 40 °F (4.4 °C) should do the trick — and light filtration are standard finishing steps. Pinot G, whether Gris or Grigio, is almost always a quick turn-around wine, out of the cellar and into bottles within six months and available for drinking as soon as spring hits its stride.
Zinfandel is the ultimate home winemaker grape, the one that generations of garage novices have started with. Maybe it’s nostalgia for some (real or imagined) family tradition — the grandparents making wine in a tub in New Jersey during Prohibition and so on. Or maybe it’s just that Zinfandel’s wild, rustic streak seems like a better place to start than aiming for something full of elegance and finesse. It’s the shortest route to kick-ass wine.
Compared to some varieties, Zinfandel grapes don’t cost an arm and a leg, and they can be made into wine in a broad range of styles — from perfect pinks to summer quaffers, from balanced clarets to jammy, over-the-top fruit bombs. And it’s the all-American blender, happy to share space with almost anything.
Zinfandel grows in a lot of places in California, mostly warm ones. Everywhere it shows two notorious characteristics in the vineyard: a tendency toward uneven ripening, with single clusters containing both raisins and green berries, and a tendency to make amazing sugar jumps right at harvest time, rising two or three degrees Brix overnight. You want harvest numbers to look like normal red wines; you’re best off with sugar levels around 24–26 °Brix, with a pH under 3.6 and a total acidity (TA) over 0.55. You may, however, find grapes with a pH near 4.0 and sugar levels near 30 ºBrix. These bad habits mean you need to be careful in sorting through bunches to discard anything that’s way under-ripe or over-ripe; and if your grapes have gone ballistic from a heat spike, rein in the sugar (and therefore the potential alcohol) with that other all-American blender, acidulated water.
If you do attempt to make wine from juice over 26 °Brix, keep in mind that the yeast will need some help — in the form of yeast nutrients — with the high-alcohol fermentation. And, keep in mind that excessively alcoholic — or “hot” — wines are not balanced and are not pleasant.
When making Zin, there is no particular need for a cold soak, but it is hard to resist the temptation to pull off some juice for a rosé or blush wine. Full disclosure: I once made a version of White Zinfandel in my garage, residual sugar and all and it was terrific.
Zinfandel winemakers don’t seem to worry about yeast strains as much as some others; just make sure your yeast can tolerate alcohol. Workhorses like Pasteur Red and Fermirouge are fine choices; RC 212 is a nice option if you’re looking for a young-drinking, summer-weight Zinfandel style. Get the fermentation temperature well up into the 80s °F (~28 °C) for at least a couple days toextract all the goodies. You’re not likely to extract too much tannin: the balance problem, to beat a dead horse, is more likely to come from excess alcohol. Punch the cap down a couple times a day during active fermentation and press the Zinfandel when it’s dry.
After primary fermentation, inoculate your wine with a malolactic culture and make sure your Zin goes through a full malolactic fermentation before bottling. (Check with a test kit, if needed.)
Zin is happy to soak up oak, particularly American, during barrel aging. But this is another variety that becomes monochromatic when over-oaked; the sweetness of the wood amplifies the naturally sweet impression of all that fruit. Use a mix of old and new oak, or let your wine spend only a few months in new oak, or mix oaked and unoaked portions into a final blend. Six to twelve months should do it, depending on how fresh and how structured a wine you’re aiming at.
Zinfandel rose to prominence by way of classic California field blends, where Zinfandel almost always was inter-planted and co-fermented with some combination of Petite Sirah, Carignane, Syrah, Alicante, Grenache or whatever. Most commercial Zins today have at least a dollop of something thrown in. Zin fits nicely into Rhône blends and complements Sangiovese and even Bordeaux varieties. Warning: once you add about 20% of something, it will stop tasting distinctly Zin-like, though it may taste delicious.
Light filtration is a good finishing touch. Though few Zinfandels are built for long-term aging, well-made examples will hold well for five to seven years — while you’re figuring out that finesse thing.
Riesling has long been regarded by many wine writers and critics as the greatest white wine variety — even when nobody else wanted to buy it. Recently, however, Riesling’s fortunes are on the rise, with wines from a number of New World sources — Australia, New Zealand, upstate New York, Ontario, British Columbia, Washington state — joining the traditional German, Austrian and Alsatian benchmarks on shelves and wine lists.
It doesn’t hurt that Riesling is an incredibly versatile food match, going beyond the obvious seafood pairings to complement spicy, peppery cuisines and hold up nicely to anything pork. The off-dry style dominant in the United States is now flanked by an upsurge of fully dry Riesling, wines that combine the grape’s beguiling aromatics with spine-tingling acidity. Dry or otherwise, Riesling delivers unparalleled fruit intensity — peaches, apricots, sometimes even red fruits like raspberries, laced with honey and perfumed with flowers. And if that’s not enough, Riesling is almost universally regarded as the most site-sensitive, transparent vehicle for showcasing terroir.
In dealing with Riesling, cool is the watchword from start to finish, from where it’s grown, to how it’s made, to how it tastes. Look for grapes from cool-climate regions, and keep the temperature down under 60 ºF (16 °C) from the time they’re picked till the time the wine is bottled.
Harvest numbers for Riesling can sound alarming compared to, say, Chardonnay, with very low sugar and pH and unusually high total acidity. Typical harvest sugar content ranges from 18 to 22 °Brix, for wines with a resulting 9 to 12% alcohol by volume (ABV); pH ranges from 3.0 to 3.3, and pH below 3 is not unheard of. Acid ranges from 8 to 10 grams per liter (g/L) or even a bit higher. Don’t worry about that acidity; it will drop a bit during fermentation and later, cold stabilization. Also, it’s part of what makes Riesling sing. On the other hand, be aware that low pH wines require less added sulfites for stabilization. (Use the Sulfite Calculator at WineMaker’s website, found at www.winemakermag.com, for guidance.)
Crush the grapes and press them off immediately. Riesling is made with a minimum of skin contact. Many commercial wineries employ whole cluster pressing. After settling and clarifying the juice, add a yeast strain that works comparatively slowly, tolerates cool temperatures well, and preserves the delicate aromatic characteristics of the variety. Common choices are VL1, Epernay II, D47, QA 23 and the various Wadenswill yeasts from Switzerland. Since you aren’t going to put your Riesling through malolactic, think about treating it with lysozyme early on for some insurance.
By whatever means necessary, keep the fermentation cool, down around 50–55 ºF (10–13 °C); don’t chill it to a stop, but let the fermentation take its time, two or three weeks.
If you are aiming for an off-dry style, the easiest, most reliable method at home is to ferment the wine dry, neutralize the remaining yeast with potassium sorbate. (Remember, to avoid geranium-like off aromas, you would never add sorbate to wine that underwent malolactic fermentation.) Then add in either sugar solution or a portion of the original juice that wasn’t fermented. (Truly sticky dessert Riesling is another story.)
Age Riesling in glass or steel; German traditionalists sometimes use very large, totally neutral oak barrels, but most home winemakers didn’t inherit barrels from their grandfathers.
Riesling shines by itself as a single-variety wine, but adding a small dose of it to other dry whites — Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris — can have a remarkable effect. Cold stabilization — at least a couple weeks in the refrigerator — and a polish filtration make for a clean, dazzling final wine.
Riesling has it both ways when it comes to timing: you can have it in the bottle three months after harvest, but continue to enjoy tasting its evolution for years to come.
Overall, the keys to great Riesling are keeping it cool all the way through the process and making a “clean” (no MLF or oak) white wine.
8. Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir has the reputation of being finicky in the cellar. But don’t let the mythology about what a difficult wine Pinot Noir can be discourage you from trying. After folks got the hang of how to grow it and how to make it, the wines have gotten better and better — not to mention famous. (It grows best in cool climates and responds better to “gentle” winemaking techniques than more aggressive, interventionist programs.)
Making your own Pinot Noir does, however, require some attitude adjustment. Good grapes are going to be expensive. Every vintage, every vineyard is going to be different. The wine won’t be huge or inky, it won’t knock you out of your chair. Pinot Noir is all about delicacy, finesse and complexity — which add up to its own kind of power.
Cool-climate grapes are a must (pardon the pun). If you can’t find them fresh, use a frozen source. Harvest numbers should be different from the Bordeaux-variety norm: 23 or 24 ºBrix is plenty of sugar, TA should ideally be up at 7 or 8 grams per liter (g/L)and the pH should be down under 3.5.
Crush the grapes as gently as you can, and maybe take a portion of the clusters — 10% or so — and put them in the fermenter under the crushed berries. The fermentation that goes on inside the berries (called carbonic maceration) is a Beaujolais technique, but a bit of it adds dimension to many good Pinots.
A two day or three day cold soak, with the temperature down under 60 ºF (16 °C), is a near-universal Pinot winemaking practice. Letting the skins soak in juice at low temperature and without much ethanol allows for early color extraction. Since Pinot Noir lacks one of the pigment compounds found in other red grapes, it can produce wines with much less color density. Some of the newer French clones produce smaller berries and thus a bit more color, and adding a color extraction enzyme is another way to boost redness. You can also drain off a bit of the “white” juice early on, intensifying the wines color by increasing the skins-to-juice ratio. (Of course, this results in less wine.) But mostly, remember this is Pinot Noir: it’s not supposed to be opaque, it’s supposed to be pretty, seductive, dancing with light.
Ferment Pinot Noir warm, in the high 80s °F (29–31 °C) for at least a couple days. Two commonly-used yeast strains are Asmanshausen, which can promote structure, and RC212, which emphasizes varietal fruitiness. Some of each is a good strategy. And if you feel lucky, Pinot Noir might be one place to try a bit of wild yeast fermentation: let Nature take her course for a couple of days, possibly enhancing the range of aromas and flavors, and then inoculate with a commercial strain to finish the job. (If you like your wines squeaky clean, don’t try this at home.)
After pressing and going through a malolactic fermentation, Pinot Noir loves to cuddle up to oak, most often of the French variety. The amount of new oak, in barrels or chips, that the wine can absorb without getting buried depends on the fruit you started with; there’s no substitute for tasting all along. If you are using a small, new barrel (15 or 30 gallon/57 or 114 L size), you may want to rotate your Pinot out and into something neutral after two or three months.
Be prepared for your Pinot to develop every way except in a straight line. Pinot Noir is notorious for tasting like strawberry Kool-Aid one day and battery acid a week later. If the wine is showing real faults, fix them; but approach Pinot with patience and an open mind. Part of the fun of making it is the surprises.
Commercial Pinot is rarely blended; or rather, few commercial wineries admit they do any blending. You’d be amazed how many Burgundies and high-priced domestic Pinots have a few splashes of Syrah in them. It’s your wine, so do what tastes best. Rhône grapes work well, as do grapes that make medium-bodied wines-Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Zinfandel.
Clean it up and bottle it right after the following year’s harvest. And then get ready for it to keep changing in the bottle for the next few years. If you start with good fruit and make the most of it, there’s no reason not to try Pinot Noir.
Chardonnay has so much selling power, so much market share, that it hardly gets any respect any more.
Nonetheless, this grape makes a fine bottle of wine. One reason for its massive popularity (and widespread planting) is that Chardonnay is extremely malleable in the cellar. The inherent aromas and flavors of the grape are really quite simple, mainly variations on apple, and not nearly as aggressive as, say, Sauvignon Blanc or as heady as, say, Riesling. The variety’s modesty tempts winemakers to work their magic to pump it up, resulting in some of the over-oaked, over-malolactic, faux-tropical self-caricatures from California.
With exceptional fruit, the full Chardonnay program can make magnificent wines — and next time you have a spare $200 bucks, you should try one from Puligny-Montrachet. More likely, especially with the grapes available to home winemakers, Chardonnay works better with a light touch and a goal of making a crisp, clean food wine, not a monument. The trend toward lighter, leaner Chardonnays is a force in the commercial market, too.
Cool-climate grapes are highly desirable, both for the greater fruit intensity they offer and for higher natural acidity. It’s possible to fix Chardonnay grapes that come in with a total acidity (TA) of 5 grams per liter (g/L) and a pH of 3.75 with a big addition of tartaric acid, but it’s much better to start with a TA of 8 g/L and a pH down at 3.3. High sugar/high alcohol Chardonnay is also problematic.
Lots of high-end commercial Chardonnay gets whole-cluster pressed to maximize the fruit, but a small amount of skin contact — a couple hours at low temperature — can add some complexity. Settle and clarify the juice for a day or two and get a fermentation going. With thousands of Chardonnay producers out there, the range of yeast choices is bewildering: the basic choice is to pick a relatively neutral strain (like EC1118) and let the fruit express itself directly, or choose one or more of the strains optimized to generate tropical and other exotic characters.
For a brighter style, cool fermentation in the 50s °F (~13 °C) in glass or steel is the way to go. For a richer wine, barrel fermentation at ambient temperature is common Chardonnay technique. One variation is to ferment Chardonnay in brand new oak and then age it in stainless, with just the kiss of oak flavor retained; then the barrel goes off for duty with red wine. Another variant is so put some oak chips into carboys during fermentation, adding a tad of flavor and mouthfeel to the result.
Once the primary fermentation is complete, decide whether to put the Chard through a malolactic fermentation. If the wine has plenty of acid, a malolactic can make the wine bigger and rounder and add to the aromatic mix; if the wine has meager acidity, putting it through ML can send it straight to flabby.
In deciding on malolactic and wood options, my advice is to start modest, lean and clean the first time around, to learn what comes naturally from your fruit source. The next harvest, and the one after that, try upping the ante, if a big style is
to your taste.
Many Chardonnay producers insist on French oak. Counter-examples using American oak abound, including Ridge Vineyards in California, which has been making award-winning Chardonnay with 100% American oak for decades. It’s a matter of taste.
Precisely because Chardonnay’s intrinsic character is so restrained, it’s a great blender. The addition of a small amount of an aromatic white is how Kendall-Jackson made a fortune selling supermarket Chardonnay. Chardonnay can make interesting blends with large percentages of more assertive varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Gewürztraminer. The mix may not taste like Chardonnay, but it may be yummy.
Like any white, Chardonnay should be cold stabilized — to allow tartrate crystals to precipitate, so you don’t get “glass” at the bottom of your bottles — and light filtration to enhance clarity.
On the glass or stainless track, Chardonnay can be ready to bottle in six months; on the barrel track, a year is a better estimate.
10. Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon remains the dominant red grape in the marketplace and a perennial favorite among home winemakers. But the critical acclaim, verging on worship, for powerful, highly-extracted Cabernets can lead amateurs down a slippery slope. Chances are that the Cabernet grapes you can actually get your hands on won’t make $250 cult wine; instead, they’re likely more suited for balanced, very drinkable, and still ageworthy wines — the kind of wines, called clarets, that made Bordeaux famous. (If you do want to make a cult-style Cab — and can get grapes that are up to the task — see “Cult Wines,” by Wes Hagen, in the August-September 2007 issue of WineMaker.)
Because Cabernet is so widely grown, a lot of it is indifferent stuff — after all, by definition, half the grapes are bound to be below average. So it’s worth investing some time and trouble to find a good fruit source, ideally from a region or even a grower that produces Cabernet you like to drink. If your taste in Cabernet has been formed through enjoying bottles from Long Island, fruit from Lodi could be downright scary, and vice versa.
The recent trend toward higher-alcohol reds means that Cabernet grapes are being harvested at higher sugar levels than they were a decade ago — even grapes that don’t have the fruit concentration to support elevated alcohol. Get good readings at harvest, and take steps to correct anything out of range — sugar levels over 27 ºBrix, pH at 3.9 and climbing, total acidity (TA) down under 5 grams per liter (g/L). It’s true that some commercial wineries excel with wines that carry these kinds of edgy numbers; your odds aren’t as good.
Crush as you would for most reds. Because Cabernet berries tend to be on the small side, it is rare for a fermentation to lack in tannin or color; the high ratio of skin to pulp takes care of that automatically. Save the tannin additions and color enzymes for wines that need them. If you are shooting for a “blockbuster” Cab, you could perform an extended maceration — leaving the wine on the skins beyond the end of primary fermentation — perhaps for a couple weeks.
Ferment Cabernet with robust red yeasts: old standbys like Pasteur Red and Fermirouge work fine; Bordeaux isolates like Bordeaux Red and MT are widely used; you might throw a Rhône yeast like D80 into the mix. Get a warm fermentation going and press when dry. Don’t overdo it with big nutrient additions, flaming high temperature and unnecessarily rough punchdowns. Cabernet is a forgiving grape that can take more punishment in the cellar than, say, Pinot Noir, but it doesn’t have to be forced to be big.
Once primary fermentation has finished, inoculate the wine with a malolactic bacterial culture and let the malolactic fermentation run to completion.
Barrel aging in French or American oak is standard practice, though chips in carboys can make very drinkable wine. A year in barrel with two or three rackings should round off the knees and elbows Cabernet can exhibit. Cabernet can absorb more new oak than most varieties, but even Cab has its limits — be sure to keep tasting for balance.
Small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon — up to ten percent — can do wonders for other wines that are tasty enough but lacking in force. In the other direction, Cabernet can often benefit from a junior partner in a blend, something (Zinfandel? Sangiovese?) that can brighten it up or something (Merlot?) that can make its palate complete. And, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the main grapes in a traditional Bordeaux-style red blend — often the dominant one. (The others are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere.)
Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t guaranteed to age well — but it’s a good bet.