Weird Wines & Fish Tanks: Wine Wizard

My friends have been asking me weird winemaking questions. I can’t answer them. Can you?

  1. If a yeast packet says it makes 1–5 gallons (3.8–19 L) of wine, what would be the difference between using it for 1 gallon or for 5? Will using it for 1 gallon give the finished wine a higher alcohol content, or maybe just give it a yeastier taste?
  2. Can I add yeast to Mountain Dew or Sprite to make it into a “wine”?
  3. Could I make wine in an aquarium or would the glue cause a problem?

Dean Mehrkens
Thief River Falls, Minnesota

What great questions! I haven’t had so many, shall I say, interesting queries come across my desk in a long time. Let me address each one in turn.

  1. If you use a 1-5 gallon (3.8–19 L) yeast packet for 1 gallon as opposed to 5 gallons, it is likely that your fermentation will proceed faster, have a more yeasty aroma and go to completion (go “dry”) more quickly. It’s also likely that the fermentation will occur at a higher temperature because yeast generate a lot of heat when they’re working fast and furiously. When concentrated in a small area — say, in 1 gallon as opposed to 5 — the density will cause the temperature of the wine to rise. As long as you ferment to dryness (which means all of the sugar is consumed by the yeast), more yeast in solution won’t cause a higher final alcohol content, because that’s determined by the initial sugar concentration of your juice, regardless of volume. However, if you’re starting with a very high initial sugar (over 26 °Brix), adding more yeast may give you a higher final alcohol level. This works because a stronger fermentation will result, and the yeast may be able to ferment it all to dryness. If you had a high-sugar must or juice to begin with, the yeast may be stressed by the sugar level (and by the resultant increased alcohol concentration) and might die before the fermentation is complete. This shortcoming would leave you with residual sugar as well as a lower alcohol level. If you have a challenging fermentation and dryness is your aim, I would suggest using the higher dose rate. Some conditions that can contribute to a less-than-ideal fermentation include: high initial sugar (over 26 °Brix), cold temperatures (under 60 °F or 15.6 °C at inoculation), damaged fruit, and moldy or infected fruit or juice.
  2. Whoa. Sprite or Mountain Dew? I’ve never heard that one before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. It’s just that when I think of commercial soda my Magic Eight Ball says “Signs Point to No.” Let me enlighten your fellow readers as to why these beverages (full of fermentable sugar, to be sure) make far from ideal “musts” for winemaking. The number one reason would have to be pH. These drinks are far too acidic to support a healthy yeast population. They also are carbonated, and the osmotic pressure from the carbonation would kill the yeast. These drinks also contain none of the nutrients (such as amino acids and other nitrogen sources) that are necessary for yeast growth and reproduction. Last (but not least), soda pop drinks, especially the ones you’ve mentioned, have no natural tannin, aromatic compounds or phenolic compounds to give structure, flavor and body. We expect wine to taste a certain way and soda drinks supply few, if any, of these compounds. If you de-acidified the soda, de-gassed it to make it flat and then added nutrients, you might be able to ferment it into something alcoholic. Whether it would then be drinkable would be a decision that I would, most happily I might add, leave to you.
  3. “This is the dawning of the age of Aquariums…” Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right. Well, no matter, because my advice is to refrain from serving eviction papers to your aquatic friends and use something strong and food-grade in which to ferment your wine. The glues and materials used to make aquariums are designed to stand up to a cool-water, neutral-pH and alcohol-free environment. Aside from the materials not being appropriate from a chemical and food safety perspective, also think of it this way — winemaking, especially red winemaking, is a pretty violent process. Winemaking containers are made from stainless steel, thick oak or sturdy plastic for a reason. I’d hate to think how disappointed you’d be if, at the height of a raging fermentation, the contents of your tank spilled all over the floor.

Why does red wine give me a headache, but white wine doesn’t (assuming I haven’t had too much of either)?

Jack Anders
Richmond, Virginia

The “red wine headache” is one of those wine questions that lies somewhere between legend and reality. However, there are some real answers. I’ll lay them out and you can decide for yourself. Many people immediately fault sulfites as the culprit and mistakenly assume that red wines have more SO2 (sulfur dioxide, which when in solution forms “sulfites”) than white wines. The opposite is actually the case, because most winemakers add more SO2 to white wines than to reds. White wines need more protection from oxygen than red wines do, and sulfur dioxide acts as an antioxidant.

Some folks, however, really are allergic to sulfites or lack the ability to digest them. About 0.001 percent of the population lacks the digestive enzyme sulfite oxidase. These people can’t process sulfites, commonly found in foods like lunchmeat, sausage, cheese, dried apricots and even beer. A headache can be one of the symptoms of sulfite allergies, but this is most likely not the cause of your malady.

Some studies point to histamines in wine as being the cause of allergic-type reactions, especially headaches. Histamines are ubiquitous in the body and common to most plants, animals and microbes. They are involved in many regulatory functions, including the response to allergens. They also are found in food products, especially those that are fermented. Some histamines make blood vessels expand or contract, causing pressure in the head, and ultimately a headache. Histamines are more common in red wines than whites, and this could be the culprit of your red wine headache.

Whether it’s histamines, sulfites or neither, the bottom line is that you should go with what feels best. If red wines keep giving you problems, there are plenty of great white wines to try!

For more of the Wine Wizard’s wisdom, pick up the latest issue of WineMaker magazine, now available at better home winemaking retailers and bookstores.