One of the things that makes wine irresistible is the endless variety: every grape, every region, every vintage, every bottle tastes a little different from the last. And so while there is no crime in getting better and better at making one wine or one style, there is much to be learned — and much pleasure to be had — in playing the field.
This article is a little like those books you can get about “20 Great Trips to Take Before You Die,” or “The 100 Novels Every Literate Person Has to Read.” These are the 15 wines you should make before you die. Any home winemaker who covers all these bases, or a similar list, surely deserves the Winemaker First Class merit badge. Every one of these fifteen winemaking projects will teach you something — about finding good grapes, about techniques and technology, about when to intervene and when to get out of the way. And you will avoid ending up with nothing to drink but 64 cases of your own Syrah.
One apology: The only reason no hybrid grape varieties are on this list is that out in vinifera-happy California, I can’t get my hands on the grapes. I’d rather not give advice about making wines that I have not made myself, so feel free to add a Chambourcin or a Vignoles to your own list.
Wines With a Light Touch
First-time home winemakers are often tempted to shoot for Big Wines, muscular reds that pack a punch and gobsmack their friends. We will get to those in a minute. Experienced winemakers will tell you that the real art in winemaking is in creating lighter, more delicate wines, the ones that reveal their inner selves without heavy-handed oak or artifice.
1. Unoaked Chardonnay
Because of its generic, kinda-sorta apple-y flavor profile, Chardonnay almost begs to be tarted up by winemakers with all manner of well-meaning enhancements. Resist the temptation. Find some cool climate grapes, make sure the acidity is in the brisk range, ferment them cool (under 60 °F/15 °C) and slow (with a reliable but not aggressive yeast) and long (stretch it out three or four weeks), prevent malolactic fermentation activity with lysozyme and SO2, and do everything in glass (or stainless). Forget the oak, rack every six weeks or so, and stir the lees while you still have some. Clarify with Bentonite or sparkalloid, do a light filtration, and bottle it in March. Drink it all summer for its brightness and refreshing transparency.
This stripped-down wine is like a perfectly roasted chicken: simple, satisfying, no frills, no tricks, nothing but net. It goes at the top of the list because it’s harder than you think to restrain yourself from mucking it up.
2. Dry Riesling
Chardonnay may be the world’s largest-selling white wine, but Riesling takes the cake for elegance, fruit intensity, complexity and reflection of its place of origin. Riesling does lend itself admirably to an off-dry style, but most of the world’s Riesling is made dry, or at least as dry as its shimmering acidity will allow. Dry Rieslings still flaunt all those lovely aromatics, but with a backbone of acidity that can be downright thrilling.
Grapes or juice need to come from a pretty cool climate, and if grown properly, don’t need to develop swaggering sugar levels: Brix in the low 20s is just fine. Keep the fermentation temperature low by any means necessary, prevent malolactic, and keep it away from anything but ultra-neutral oak. Lees stirring can accentuate body. It’s another wine best bottled early, preserving all those evanescent esters, but also one that ages better than many reds, homemade or otherwise. And it’s amazing what a splash of Riesling will do to perk up your other whites.
3. Pink Wine
Any time you have red grapes, you should make at least a little pink wine. Pink wine — or if it sounds more serious, rosé, which is French for pink wine — comes in endless tints and hues, all gorgeous to look at and through. Make it bone dry and zingy, or mellow and fruity, or a tad off-dry and still refreshing. Because they get bottled early, pinks have their own range of aromatics: estery, floral notes like white wines, summery red berry fruit that disappears in bigger reds, and just a hint of skin phenolics. That array makes pinks the most food-versatile category of wine, as well as the harbinger of reds to come.
The most common pink technique for home winemakers is the saignée method (which definitely sounds better in French, since it means “bleeding” in English). Crushed red grapes sit a spell, anywhere from a couple hours to overnight, and then a small portion — 5 to 10% — of the now-colored juice gets drained off for the pink program. If you have 250 pounds of grapes, you can make a case of pink wine along with six cases of red, and drink the pink while you wait for the red. If you are working with more than one red in a harvest, pull some juice from each, and a quart or two from any white you’ve got, and make a real cross-section of the vintage.
Treat the pink juice like white wine: cool temperature fermentation, white wine yeast, prevent the malolactic, rack it early and often, clean it up and bottle it by March.
4. Picnic-Weight Red
If you’re going to make red wine, might as well make a monster, right? Only if that’s all you ever want to drink. For warm weather, for picnics, for casual fare in the backyard, for lighter food, and just for sipping when a big red is too much, make a light, juicy, fruity, picnic-weight red. It doesn’t undermine your macho winemaker credentials; it displays your fun-loving side.
Some grapes naturally lend themselves to picnic-weight wines: Gamay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Dolcetto and most of the low-tannin hybrid reds. But a bigger swath of red varieties can be coaxed onto the picnic path: Zinfandel, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Barbera and on and on.
The three main routes to lighter reds are:
1) Modest starting Brix (or judicious additions of water).
2) Slightly lower than usual fermentation temperatures, down in the high 70s Fahrenheit (25–26 °C), not the high 80s Fahrenheit (30–31 °C).
3) Pressing early, when the Brix is still up at 6 or 8 °Brix. Both fermentation techniques extract all the color you need, which comes out of the skins early and at lower temperatures, and limit the extraction of tannins, which require more time, higher temperature, and rising ethanol. The strategy is akin to making a saignée rosé, only further along the red continuum.
A picnic red varietal wine or picnic-weight red blend should go through malolactic and encounter little or no oak influence. Four to six months in a neutral barrel is perfect, but glass or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) carboys work also just fine. I have a 10-gallon (38-L) batch of scraps left over from larger lots of Grenache, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir (the wine will be called GDP) in my garage as I write this story (early March . . . and it will all be bottled and drunk by June).
While you’re sipping these lovely lighter-weight wines, let’s talk about the big red wines. Dozens of red grape varieties make nifty wine, and if you can get your hands on good Petit Verdot or Touriga Nacional or Lemberger, go for it. The grapes for this quartet of wines and styles are easy to find, easy to work with and plenty of fun to drink.
The grape’s origins are as Crljenak Kaštelanski (aka Tribidrag) in Croatia, and that it’s grown all over Puglia as Primitivo, but Zinfandel from California is still the closest thing we have to a modern national grape in the United States. And no other vine is so central to the history of home winemaking in the US, starting with the trainloads of grapes that headed east during Prohibition. Every home winemaker living in the US needs to make Zinfandel at least once. And even if you don’t live in the US you should still give it a try!
Zinfandel always delivers plenty of flavor and decent color; the parameter to worry about is sugar and alcohol, which can easily get out of hand. Zinfandel clusters tend to ripen unevenly, combining everything from pink berries to raisins in a single bunch. The upshot is that the only Brix reading you can trust is the one you take a day after the fruit is crushed, when the sugar has had a chance to “soak up.” And in pursuit of completely ripe fruit, a lot of Zinfandel hangs on the vine till the Brix is through the roof, making for alcoholic wines and stuck fermentations. Try to get grapes with reasonable sugar levels, and don’t be afraid to water the Brix down to 24 or 25 degrees. (If you want to make a 16% alcohol Port-like Zinfandel bomb, be my guest.)
Barrel aging is preferable, but carboys with some oak chips work, too. Zinfandel takes well to blending with Rhône varieties as well as Bordeaux varieties. Americans, drink it with pride on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
6. Petite Sirah
Speaking of blending things with Zinfandel, a heap of the best California Zinfandels include at least a splash of Petite Sirah. These two varieties, along with Carignan, Syrah, Alicante and who knows what, used to make up the “field blends” that were common in California before Prohibition and later phylloxera forced massive replantings that changed the vineyard mix. Bred in France as Durif, the variety bombed there but flourished in sunnier California climes.
Having a jug or two of Petite Sirah around in any winemaking season is a handy thing, any time some other wine needs a hit of color or a little more backbone. But Petite all by itself is a fine project. If the grapes are overcropped and you beat them up in the winery, you can make truly mean wine, but with ripe fruit — ripe flavors, not massive sugar — gentle crushing, a good, extractive red yeast, gentle punchdowns and some time in (even a small) barrel, Petite shows off a deep, lush, blueberry-and-plum infused side. It is not finicky, ages well, and delivers an aromatic/flavor profile more interesting than most Syrah.
7. Rhône Red Blend
Strictly speaking, North America cannot grow Rhône grapes, since the continent is not part of the Rhône Valley. But then, the folks in the Rhône are making wines from grapes that originated in Spain, as Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan) and Monastrell (Mourvèdre). It’s a world style, on multiple continents and in all four hemispheres, because the wines are yummy.
Every one of the Rhône varieties — the three Spanish ex-pat grapes, Syrah, Petite Sirah (bred in the Rhône, with Syrah as one parent), Cinsault, Counoise — can be and is made all by itself. But they all blossom in combination, and any two or three on the list can share bottle space in tasty harmony. Some have more color, some more tannin, some more red fruit, some more black fruit; hey, it’s a party. And as the denizens of the Rhône do, there’s no crime in splashing in a bit of something white, maybe Viognier or Roussanne or Marsanne, just to up the aromatics. For gaining experience in blending, the Rhône is your playground.
8. Cabernet Sauvignon/Meritage (Bordeaux) Blend
Cabernet Sauvignon outsells all other reds, so it’s often the grape with which home winemakers start. It’s an easy choice in some ways: easy to grow in a lot of regions; easy to find grapes for home processing; and easy in the cellar for extracting lots of color and tannin, since the small berries pack lots of skin. But like the ubiquitous hamburger, not all Cabernets turn out to be satisfying. In my experience judging home winemaking competitions, the highest percentage of weirdly-flavored, off-balance entries are Cabernets.
If the grapes are underripe, either from over-cropping or insufficient heat, they can be mean and green, aggressively tannic, acidic and astringent. If the grapes are overripe, common enough in California these days, they may require water additions to get the sugar and alcohol under control and beaucoup de tartaric acid to drop the pH within reason, plus lots of sulfur for stability. If Goldilocks agrees that the grapes are just right, you still need to be careful not to extract too much of Cabernet’s bounty, particularly tannin.
Strategies for restraint include constant tasting during fermentation, with the option of pressing early to halt tannin overload; gentle punchdowns aimed at moistening the cap, not pulverizing it; and especially blending Cabernet with one of its many Bordeaux grape cohorts—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère. That way lies complexity, and some insurance, at least until you get really comfortable with this grape.
This part of the list focuses on grape varieties that are popular and well-beloved, but that often present challenges in the cellar, threatening to go out of balance and not taking too kindly to aggressive winemaking. All of them require careful attention to measuring their grape chemistry when they arrive and tasting regularly as the fermentation proceeds, to make sure some sharp elbow doesn’t stick out at the end.
9. Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir has a reputation for being incredibly difficult to make, a reputation earned when a generation of California winemakers in the 1960s and 1970s did a miserable job. Once you get the hang of it, however, it’s easy as pie.
Requirement one is getting good grapes, grown in a fairly cool climate, moderately cropped, and harvested at a reasonable, not stratospheric, Brix. It’s a site-sensitive variety, and not all Pinot plantings are equal. Unless you grow your own in a magical spot, you should expect to pay some serious money for good Pinot; premium California North Coast Pinot goes for $3 or $4 a pound these days, if not more.
Requirement two is gentle handling in the cellar (the part they got wrong in the bad old days). Use whole berries if you can get them, gentle crushing if you can’t; don’t throw enzymes at them to extract color they don’t have; don’t beat the stuffing out of them in punchdowns; taste them regularly and press a bit early if the tannins start to burn through. It may not taste like your favorite fancy Pinot, because you didn’t have those exact grapes. But be nice to your Pinot and it will be nice to you.
Barbera makes great, hearty, everyday drinking wine, gutsy enough to stand up to most anything but still medium-bodied and not overpowering. It’s one of the best food wines around, because it almost always brings more refreshing acidity to the table than most reds.
And therein lies the rub: you can end up with way too much acid, a wine that makes you pucker instead of purr. Rather than resort to de-acidification, Barberians try to muster the patience to let the grapes hang on the vine till the acid drops into a reasonable zone — which for Barbera could be 8 grams per liter — before harvest. Generally, the acid will drop a bit during alcoholic fermentation and a bit more during malolactic, and with a year or more of aging, the bright acidity will be an asset, not a fault.
There’s a catch, of course: waiting that long to pick may result in inflated Brix, which usually calls for the water treatment. Barbera at 15.5% alcohol is not a pleasant thing.
Another medium-bodied red, grown all over Spain and Portugal (as Tinta Roriz), Tempranillo is capable of developing with age and is versatile at the table. Yet in almost every growing region, from Spain and Portugal to California, Tempranillo tends to show up with too much of two things: a potential excess of tannins, and alarmingly high pH, possibly due to the variety’s propensity to suck potassium from any soil.
Dealing with tannin overload is fairly simple: taste your way through fermentation, go easy on the punchdowns, press early if you need to, and fine to remove some tannin later on if it’s overly astringent. The pH problem can be more daunting. If the grapes hit your cellar with a pH of, say 4.1, not unheard of, it may not be possible to knock it down to a comfy 3.6 through sheer acid additions, which will make the wine taste like lemon juice. You can take your chances with a high pH wine (and add sulfur accordingly); you can blend with a lower pH wine, which is often done in Rioja, with Grenache and Mourvèdre as good candidates; or, in extremes, you can run your wine through an ion exchanger, tanking out potassium ions and slipping in hydrogen ions, and get a big drop in pH for a slight rise in perceived acidity.
If you’re in luck, you won’t have to do any of this.
Rounding out our list of medium-bodied, food-friendly wines with potential balance problems is Sangiovese, the workhorse grape of Tuscany in all its many guises. If California’s early experience with Pinot Noir was unfortunate, the meteoric rise and fall of Sangiovese in the 1990s was pitiful, thanks again to winemakers behaving badly. If you try to force Sangiovese into a Cabernet mold, you get wines with too much tannin and too much alcohol; the floral aromatics get lost; and trying to fill the gap with oak makes for wine that tastes a lot like lumber.
Sangiovese is delicate; treat it like you would Pinot Noir. Gentle handling should be the order of the day; do not jump through enzymatic hoops to extract color that isn’t there; used or neutral oak is best. Blending Sangiovese with small amounts of all kinds of things — Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel — can be delicious, but be sure it is only in small amounts; 20% Cabernet will make your Sangiovese taste like a Cabernet, which isn’t the goal here.
Dry table wines are the meat and potatoes of most home winemakers — even vegan home winemakers. But that’s not the whole wine universe, and every dedicated home winemaker ought to take at least one fling at three other styles: fortified (like Port and Sherry), sweet (sticky / late harvest / dessert), and sparkling. The wines are a ton of fun to drink, and will stretch your technical range.
13. Port / Fortified
Fortifying wine with added alcohol rose to popularity a few centuries back for practical reasons: higher alcohol meant wines had more microbial stability for periods of shipment and aging. With a little sugar on board as well, they also proved to be mighty tasty.
Most fortified Sherries get that way by the addition of alcohol after fermentation completes; Ports and similar wines from other places (like Banyuls) traditionally get made by stopping fermentation midway through with a big alcohol addition, which knocks back the yeast and leaves a good smack of residual sugar. Serious Sherry involves the action of specialized surface yeasts (known as flor), a technique way above my pay grade. Port is far simpler.
True Port can only be made in Portugal, from a prescribed list of grapes, but a Port-style tribute wine can be made from just about any substantial red or combination. The most popular choices in the US seem to be Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The official method is to get a fermentation going, and when the sugar is down around 6 °Brix, bring things to a halt with enough clear neutral spirits to raise the overall alcohol to 18–20%. The lazy boy method is to let the wine ferment dry, and then add back in a few percentage points of alcohol and some sugar. This latter approach also allows you to make a red table wine and divert a couple gallons to the Port program. Next time somebody serves you chocolate, serve them some of your Port.
14. Something Sticky Sweet
My friends protest that they don’t like sweet wines, until I serve them a good one, and they melt. Humans are wired to like sweet things, from mother’s milk on; it’s the dry wines with acid and tannin you have to learn to love.
Tasty dessert wines, with or without the benefit of Botrytis cinerea, the Noble Rot, can be made from a broad range of white grapes. Unlike Port, where the sweetness is matched with high alcohol, late harvest style whites tend to balance the sugar with higher acidity and keep the alcohol low.
If you don’t have the technical arsenal of a commercial winery, this takes some work. You have to stop the fermentation part way through, maybe when the sugar is down around 6 or 8 °Brix and the alcohol is around 8 or 9%. The exact numbers, of course, depend on how the grapes come in. But well before it goes dry, call a halt to the ferment with sulfur and chilling, and, unless you are a miracle worker, with an addition of potassium sorbate to inhibit the yeast. A dose of lysozyme to prevent malolactic is also a very good idea. All these measures will take a couple days to do their work, so the Brix will creep a point or two lower. Tweak the sugar and acidity as needed. Then promise your friends sweet wine won’t hurt them.
15. Something Bubbly
Sparkling wines are a ton of fun to drink, but converting your garage to a facility for making hard-core méthode champenoise bubbly is a bit daunting. My hat’s off to those brave souls who do a second fermentation in the bottle, spend months riddling the little dears, and freeze the necks and pop the plugs of dead yeast with split-second timing.
But there are other paths to sparkling wines at home, even if lesser ones. The simplest route is to get those bubbles in there just by pumping them in. Make a batch of white wine, or a blend, using traditional Chardonnay or maybe something more aromatic, like Muscat or Gewürztraminer, and try to keep the alcohol low and the acidity pretty bright. Ferment it dry. Dose with potassium sorbate to kill off any viable yeast, and add a pinch of sugar to balance the tartness that carbonation will add. Filter the wine to get it squeaky clean, and put it into a homebrew keg. Hook the keg up to a tank of CO2, put the wine under pressure, and put both the keg and the tank in a cold box for a couple weeks. The chilled wine will absorb the CO2, and you can either bottle the result or just dispense it straight from the keg.