So Many Choices
Unless you confine your winemaking to kits, you will confront a dizzying array of choices in the winemaking hobby. They will affect your timing, technique, and materials. I have decided to make dry wines with few variations. We use our equipment three times a year congruent with the local harvest in the area of the Upper Hudson Wine Trail, the shipment of wine grapes from California, and the spring delivery of Chilean grapes. Oh, and the occasional kit. Winemaker magazine will present you with an array of choices that you may want to consider, which I’ll briefly put my personal touch on here.
When to Harvest
You can harvest early for sparkling wine, later for table wine and wait until winter for ice wine. If your alarm didn’t go off and you wake up and it’s late October, it might be OK. At my first winemaking class, I was instructed to bite into the seeds in the vineyard to note the color, taste, and amount of crunch. (Brown seeds are an indicator of grapes that are ripe.) That will help determine the optimal harvest time. You harvest sooner and perhaps add sugar to counteract excess tartness or wait until much later and add acid to avoid flabbiness.
This should be fairly straightforward and yet, when you look at the global wine experience, it’s not. Typically, you would like to crush the grapes and remove as many of the stems as possible since the tannin in the stems is harsher than that in the skins and in the uncrushed seeds. OR you could leave the stems in as some red wine vignerons in Burgundy are now doing. White winemakers often leave stems in to make crushing the slippery grapes more efficient. They press before the stems have a chance to cause any mischief. OR you could ferment the whole clusters as you would Gamay grapes for a Beaujolais Nouveau. OR if you have friends with clean feet and some of last year’s wine, you could go for the full Bacchus route. The old wine is for the participants. This year a local restaurant may host our autumn grape stomping.
I like to buy commercial yeast and add it to a good supply of nutrients. Yeast varieties can influence the flavors in the finished wine, but there is no substitute for good grapes treated well. I used to sprinkle the yeast on the must and let it get heavy and drop to the bottom. When I mentioned it to an enologist, he guessed correctly that I was a homebrewer. Here also, you can do what you like. There is yeast in the air, on the grapes, and certainly in the winery. I meet regularly with a group of Old World winemakers who laugh at the idea of paying for yeast since it is already on the grapes. (Of course, we’re not exactly sure that the yeast on the grapes will give us a good outcome.) I’m not going to wait six months to see if my favorite yeast won the crapshoot. My opinion: spend the five bucks.
Most home winemakers just let the grapes speak for themselves. New World winemakers often are compelled to make your next bottle of Kendall Jackson Reserve Chardonnay taste identical to your last bottle and often professionals have to intervene. Most amateur winemakers will consider using oak at some point to enhance the body and flavor of the wine. How about pine resin? The Greeks have used pine as a flavoring for years and produce a few varieties of retsina – a refreshing change of pace from traditional wines. People can and will make wine out of any fruit or vegetable. Rhubarb and dandelions can make very palatable wines. You should feel free to explore but I don’t think that wine is the answer to the 200 pounds of zucchini in your backyard. A friend commented that one of my wines wasn’t “plummy” enough. His suggestion: Put plums in it.
Do you want to ferment your wine warm in order to get the most extraction from solids and make a “bigger” wine or ferment cooler to preserve more of the fruit? What’s that? You want both? Maybe you should split the batch in half and ferment half warm and half colder and then blend them.
Stainless steel and oak are top choices for fermenting but they are not the only option. Food grade plastic containers can be more manageable for the home vintner. Barrels other than oak are seeing limited use as well. So is concrete.
I have a love/hate relationship with my small oak barrel collection. When they give the wine a distant scent of vanilla and help to condense the wine to an elegant but voluptuous mouthfeel, I love them. When I detect an off odor, then the accusations fly. The barrel will claim it was mistreated at worst or at least neglected. I threaten to turn it into a planter and start corrective action but I may never completely trust it again. I don’t have empty barrels. It’s annoying to plan your winemaking life around the barrels, but I don’t bottle wine usually unless I have something else to put in the barrel. Here it helps to have both spring and fall winemaking.
Here too, you have choices. A winemaker of world class Chianti told me he changed barrels during the winter, draining each one, briefly drying it and refilling it. I do something similar. Other winemakers drain and rinse the barrel and let it dry out until they need it for next year’s batch.
Want another choice? One of the earliest wine regions on record – Georgia (think Eastern Europe) traditionally used kvevris or clay storage vessels that are buried in the ground with fermenting grape juice in them. They are left that way for years.
My final suggestion is to find a style of wine you enjoy and work on perfecting that.