So, you have been reading online forums or talking with other kit winemakers and have decided that you would like to try your hand at tweaking a wine kit. Great! But, before you dive into straying from those instructions, take some time to consider what it actually is you are doing, and why.
While a number of experienced winemakers using wine kits do tweak their kit, it is not mandatory to do so to obtain a very nice wine. Always keep in mind that the manufacturer’s primary goal is to produce a wine kit that makes a good bottle of wine by just following the instructions. If they did not, they would have been out of business years ago. Additionally, some tweaks will void the kit manufacturer’s warranty.
As such, if you do want to try your hand at tweaking a wine kit, start off by deciding what your goal in doing so is. The most common reasons for tweaking a wine kit are:
1. Obtaining a Better Wine
Maybe the last time you made that Cabernet Sauvignon kit you felt it was lacking in mouthfeel, or the addition of medium-plus toasted American oak chips was a little too aggressive and you desired softer oak flavors of vanilla, so this time you want to try medium toast French oak. Whatever your reason, please note that even though you do have a chance of changing the flavor more to your liking, you also have a chance of changing it for the worse. When it comes to changing the process of making a kit wine, I prefer using the term “changing your wine” as opposed to “improving the wine” as we all have different tastes. The best example that comes to mind is that you might want more of a buttery taste to your wines, while I do not. With that being said, whether a wine is good or not is completely up to what you like. Whether you tweak or not, hopefully, you will find not only a wine that you like, but one that will be enjoyed by those friends and relatives with whom you plan to share it.
The second most common reason to stray from the directions, and the reason that has most often been my objective when tweaking the process, is for the sake of experimentation to see what various tweaks do to the flavor, aroma, structure, and/or body of a wine kit. When I first got started, I was so amazed by the quality of my resulting wines from kits when directions were followed that I had no desire to play with success. But after operating my winemaking supply store for several years, I started receiving enquiries regarding modifying wine kits to obtain various results. Thus, the evaluation of the tweaking of wine kits started so that I could offer informed advice based on first-hand experience.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Before we start getting into the details, if you find someone’s suggestion online for tweaking a wine kit to obtain the results you think you want, and you want to follow it, I am not advocating against that at all. The downside from this approach is that if there is more than one tweak involved in that winemaker’s recipe, you don’t learn what each tweak did to the wine, so you can’t necessarily apply that tweak to the next kit you make with any certainty of the results. That is why I like to follow the approach that I will detail in this story.
The first step, and this is maybe the hardest thing to do: Make several wines following the instructions that come with the kits. Don’t add anything, omit anything, or deviate in any way from the instructions. At this point, you may be thinking that doing this is a waste of time and money, but for those of you that remember your science classes in school, you always had a control group so as to have a baseline to help you analyze the results of your experiment. The initial tweaking that you do is just that, an experiment.
Secondly, after tasting the results of the kits you made by following the instructions, determine what you like and/or dislike, what you want more of and/or less of. In essence, “What is the goal of your tweaking?” Are you trying to add more flavor, modify the flavor, improve the structure, increase the body, improve the mouthfeel, replicate a certain commercial wine, etc.? This is an extremely important step, because when we are finished we want to be able to determine if we accomplished our goal.
Next, get a notebook. Record everything in the winemaking process in your notes — the measurable statistics, times, temperatures, etc. With this information stored in your notebook, it will be much easier to replicate a wine you enjoyed and avoid repeating the same errors in a wine you did not. In addition, if something appears to be “off,” having this information available will be extremely beneficial if you seek assistance from other winemakers. I will tell you that if you call my store with a question regarding your wine, the first questions we will ask are:
• What was the starting gravity of the wine and what is the current gravity?
• What was the temperature of the must when you pitched (added) the yeast?
• Did you sprinkle the yeast or re-hydrate the yeast (if you re-hydrated, what was the temperature of the water used to re-hydrate the yeast?)
• What is the ambient temperature of your winemaking area and is it fairly constant?
• If your wine was made from fresh fruit, what was the total acidity (TA) after adjustments?
As you can see, having this information at your fingertips is valuable. Also, if you make a tweak that turns out wonderful, having good notes so that you can repeat the tweak may be the saving factor in your ability to reproduce the wine.
Next, only make one tweak at a time, at least until you know exactly what any changes you are making will do. As previously pointed out, you want to be able to analyze the effects of each tweak. Did it fully accomplish your goal, partially accomplish your goal, or completely miss the mark? With this information, you can put yourself in a better position to decide what will be the next step. In addition, knowing what this particular tweak will do to your wine will help you decide when to use it and when not to. For example, a tweak that worked well on a full-bodied red might not be as valuable on a lighter-bodied red or a white wine.
While making one part of the process different, it’s important to control the other variables, i.e., temperature, time elapsed during each phase, type of water used, etc. In the long run, it should also save you money by not having to repeat the test and determine when each tweak will add value to which varietals and which brand of wine kit.
If you don’t want to use the same wine kit for your tweak kit and control kit, try to at least use the same brand. Also, at the very least, keep the styles similar, for instance if tweaking a heavy red like a Cabernet Sauvignon, another heavy red like a Barolo, Amarone, or Petit Verdot should yield similar results
Now that we have discussed why you want to tweak and I have put forth a recommended way to evaluate each tweak you make, we will discuss some of the most popular wine kit adjustments home winemakers make.
Yeast plays a significant role in wine character — some strains produce more esters that contribute fruity aromas like pear, citrus, apples, and berries, and other strains produce more phenolics with spicy notes like clove and black pepper.
All of the wine kits on the market today use dry yeast, with the most commonly used dry wine yeast being Lalvin EC-1118 in a 5-gram packet, which is enough for 6 gallons (23 L) of wine. Dry yeast isn’t used because it is necessarily superior to liquid yeast, but simply because dry yeast has better shelf stability and does not need to be kept refrigerated as liquid yeast does prior to use. And that gets to the reason why a single yeast strain is recommended for each kit wine — not because it is the only yeast that will ferment the must to make a high-quality wine, but because it is the most dependable and predictable for the majority of kit winemakers, who will span the spectrum in experience and knowledge on kit winemaking. If minor process errors occur, kit companies want a yeast that will still get the job done. But, if you have made many kit wines and understand the process of fermentation based on this experience, then you may want to experiment with different strains to influence the characteristics of the finished wine more towards your liking.
There are five primary yeast companies that package yeast in small, home winemaker-friendly sizes — Lallemand (Lalvin), Red Star, and Vintner’s Harvest make dried yeasts available in 5- or 8-gram packages, and Wyeast and White Labs produce liquid yeast. The manufacturer’s websites list descriptions of the characteristics of each strain and ideal fermentation environments to get a good grasp of what each will contribute to your wine. You can also visit https://winemakermag.com/resource/yeast-strains-chart to find a list of strains from each company with snapshot descriptions and specs in one spot. It is important to note that not all of the strains from some of these companies are packaged in small quantities for home winemakers (some strains are only sold by the manufacturer in 500-g packages intended for commercial wineries), however some larger home wine retailers purchase these large amounts and break them up for home winemakers.
If you can’t decide which strain would make the best wine for your taste, the obvious answer is to conduct bench trails by splitting up your single batch into multiple smaller-volume batches and fermenting each with a different strain. For more on conducting yeast bench trails, see https://winemakermag.com/technique/1390-yeast-trials-wine-kits.
Due to the high cost of purchasing and maintaining oak barrels, most home winemakers, as well as more and more commercial wineries, are avoiding them in favor of oak “alternatives.” These alternatives come in several forms: Oak powder (sometimes referred as “sawdust”), chips, cubes (commonly called oak beans), spirals, and staves.
Oak adds tannins to your wine and gives it more body, aroma, and flavor. As a general rule, oak is only used on red grape wines and certain white wines, as the oak flavor can overwhelm some of the more delicate and aromatic white wines and country wines; however, if used sparingly, oak can firm up any wine. The tannins in the oak add complexity as well as flavor and body. For example, if you feel that a particular kit wine is “thin,” adding a little oak, even to white wines, will give it a little more body and improve the mouthfeel.
When it comes to oak alternative products, three factors that must be considered are the form of the product, origin, and char level.
First, let’s consider the form. Deciding when to use which type of oak alternative is a place where wine kit tweak trials may prove beneficial. Each of the additives has a different surface-to-liquid ratio. As such, they will give up their flavors and tannins more quickly if the ratio is high. The powder will give up its tannins within one week, while a stave may take one year. In general, if you have more time to wait on your wine, alternatives with a lower surface-to-liquid ratio will be preferred. If you are in a hurry, then the powder or chips will better suit your needs. Keep in mind that you have more control over the effects of the oak the slower the impacts take, as it provides you with more time to taste the wine and judge when to remove the oak. Many winemakers also find that larger pieces of wood seem to introduce flavors and aromas more like those imparted by barrels, rather than just a raw wood taste sometimes associated with oak powders.
Where the oak comes from is also important. There are three primary locations in the world that produce white oak suitable for winemaking. Although there are many types of oak, only white oak is commonly used.
• French oak tends to be smooth and has some slight chocolate overtones.
• American oak tends to offer a more aggressive oak taste and contains more tannin. This makes it slightly more astringent than the French and the Hungarian. American oak can also show some notes of spice.
• Hungarian oak is not as smooth as the French and not as assertive as the American. It is often considered a compromise between the two.
The final consideration when it comes to oak is the toast level. There are four grades of toasting that are used in winemaking: Light, medium, medium-plus, and heavy. In addition to the source of oak, the level of toasting adds to the flavor and bouquet of the wine.
• Light toast primarily is used to add structure to a wine with noticeable tannin additions and shows off the fruit’s natural flavors and aromas.
• Medium toast generally imparts more vanilla overtones than the other levels of toasting and allows more of the fruit to show.
• Medium-plus toast is darker than the medium and has overtones of honey and roasted nuts, with a hint of chocolate, coffee, and spice.
• Heavy toast provides more caramel and pronounced coffee overtones, with notes of smoke, toasted bread, and dark chocolate.
Sugar can be added to accomplish two goals — raising the alcohol level of your wine or sweetening your wine, like a White Zinfandel. To raise the alcohol, the sugar is added either before fermentation begins or during fermentation, a process called chaptalization. If the level of alcohol desired is higher than the alcohol tolerance of the yeast strain, you will need to choose a more suitable yeast strain and provide sufficient nitrogen nutrients for the higher alcohol load to feed the fermentation. This is a subject that entire articles have been written about, so for more on boosting alcohol in your kit wine, see https://winemakermag.com/technique/modifying-wine-kits.
Adding sugar when fermentation is complete will sweeten the wine. This is also referred to as “back sweetening” the wine. If you are someone who likes a little residual sugar sweetness in certain styles of wine, then this is a tweak that may make your kit structured more to your liking. Bench trials to determine exactly how much sugar is necessary to reach your desired sweetness level is encouraged.
In addition to making a dry wine off-dry or sweet, back sweetening is sometimes done with the purpose of balancing acidity, however that should not be necessary when making kit wines as acidity should be in balance already. You need to be careful when back sweetening so as to not re-start fermentation, which can be avoided by adding potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate along with the sugar.
Changing or adding ingredients isn’t the only thing home winemakers can do to tweak the final outcome of a kit wine. Every wine yeast has a recommended temperature range, but fermenting at one end of the range compared to the other can have a pretty significant impact on the final wine. Wine kits usually recommend warmer fermentation temperatures, sometimes even warmer than is recommended by the yeast manufacturer. Part of the reason for this is that the warmer the fermentation, the quicker it will finish, and this is often viewed as a positive for kit manufacturers, as kits are often advertised for their ability to produce wine in a matter of weeks. However, if time isn’t an issue, you may wish to try fermenting at the lower end of your yeast strain’s recommended range.
For white wines, fermenting on the cooler end of that range is traditionally thought to give a wine greater complexity. Fruity and floral aroma compounds known as esters are also better retained in cooler fermentations. And while red wines made from grapes are often fermented warmer to help color extraction from the skins, some winemakers believe more complexity can be achieved with cooler temperatures in reds as well. Most kits do not include skins, so color extraction is not an issue when making wine from kits, and cooler fermentations may be something you’d like to experiment with.
Playing with fermentation temperature can be a great learning experience. Just like other tweaks, however, doing temperature experiments is best when no other aspects in the kit winemaking process are tweaked so you can be sure what impact the temperature played.
The potential tweaks that have been outlined in this article are the most popular tweaks that customers ask me about, however there are certainly many more that home winemakers could try, including tannin additions (other than with oak alternatives), fining options, or enzymes added during fermentation to release bound aromas.
Since 2001, between my employees and me, we have made close to 400 wine kits, with 90% of those made according the manufacturer’s instructions. The primary reason that we don’t make adjustments to many wine kits is because a good to great bottle of wine is the result when instructions are followed to a T. Over the years I have received 36 medals in the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition — 34 of my medals are from wine kits made by following the instructions. One medal is from a tweaked wine kit, and one from frozen California grapes. The simple fact is that wine kit manufacturers spend a tremendous amount of time and money ensuring that their products are of high quality right out of the box, no tweaks necessary.
On the other hand, if you want to see if you can adjust a wine kit more to your personal preference by tweaking it, go right ahead. Just remember that winemaking is displaying patience. When tweaking, determine your objective, keep good notes, and