Great Wines from Kits

Do you think it’s hard to make wine? Maybe that’s because of your winemaking neighbor — the one who grows his own grapes, built his own oaken press, and gives you tours of his temperature-controlled wine cellar. He speaks knowingly of fungal amylase and malo-lactic fermentation. He won’t tell you this, but you can make wine without stringing grape vines across your yard. Good wine. The secret? Use a kit. Your neighbor shouldn’t look down his nose at the simplicity of a kit; he probably started with one himself.

Wine kits consist of concentrated grape extract, an envelope of yeast, several pre-measured packages of chemicals and, most important, instructions. Kits exist for any wine you’ve ever heard of, from Chablis to Liebfraumilch. Kits are even available for country wines — wines made from something other than grapes, such as elderberries. Kits generally make around five gallons of wine, about 30 bottles. The following instructions and occurrences are for a Chardonnay.

Stage One: Cleaning and Sanitizing

Cleaning and sanitizing are two separate steps. Cleaning removes dirt and stains. If your kit is relatively new, you should be able to clean it with just warm water and a scrub brush. Sanitizing is killing the living organisms that will ruin wine. Wild yeast is everywhere and has the same ambitions as wine yeast: It wants to consume sugar and reproduce. This wild yeast, though, won’t necessarily produce flavorful wine. It might create off-flavors. Use an oxygen-based sanitizer such as One-Step, which comes with some kits. A large variety of sanitizing agents are available to the home winemaker.

Before starting, fill your secondary fermenter (a large glass bottle) with water. Pour this water into your primary fermenter (a plastic bucket) and mark the level on the outside with a grease pencil. This will help you top off the must — the unfinished wine — to the proper level. Boil a large pot of water before starting, allow it to cool to room temperature, and then cover it. Use this now-sterile water to top off.

Pour the bag of concentrated grape extract into your clean, sanitized primary fermenter. To rinse out the bag, fill it with some of your sterile water, swish it around, and dump the water into the fermenter.

Essence of Oak

In many wines, a slight oak taste is desirable. The taste suggests aging in wooden barrels and, naturally, the glass and plastic equipment used by most home winemakers will not impart this flavor. Some kits, although not the Chardonnay used for this experiment, come with oak powder. If your kit has the oak powder, boil it in water for the time recommended in the instructions (for example 45 minutes). Then add it to the must at this stage. You could also add oak chips at about two to four ounces per five-gallon batch. Chips should remain in the wine, depending on the level of oak aroma and flavor desired, for one to three days. The wine will be racked off the chips and transferred to the secondary fermenter after primary fermentation.

But first, using your sterile water, bring the level of must up to the grease pencil mark on the bucket. Before adding the yeast, take two measurements: the temperature and the specific gravity. Temperatures greater than 120° F will kill the yeast. Temperatures lower than 60° F will result in slow and possibly incomplete fermentation. Temperatures between 65° and 75° F are ideal.

Specific gravity is a measure of the amount of dissolved solids in a liquid. Pure water has a specific gravity of 1.000 at 60° F. The initial specific gravity for the Chardonnay kit, measured with a floating device called a hydrometer, was where the instructions predicted, 1.078.

Must has no alcohol before yeast is added. At this point, it will have a specific gravity greater than water’s: one-point-something. As the yeast do their work, they create alcohol, which has a specific gravity less than that of water (less than one). Therefore, the gravity of the wine will drop. Starting specific gravity is the weight of your must before fermenting. Final gravity is the weight of your final product. The difference between the two tells you the percent of alcohol in the wine.

Knowing the expected final gravity tells you when fermentation has stopped. It is important to correct for inconsistent temperatures because if the wine is warmer than 60° F it will appear less dense, the hydrometer will float lower, and the wine will appear to have a lower specific gravity than it really does. If it is colder, the inverse is true. Temperature conversion charts can be found in wine books.

Most hydrometers are calibrated for 60° F. If the temperature of your must is much different than this, you need to correct it. Correct gravity by 0.002 for every 10 degrees. Say, for example, the hydrometer reads 1.044 and the temperature of the must is 70° F. The actual gravity is 1.044 plus 0.002, which equals 1.046. If your hydrometer reads 1.050 at a temperature of 40° F, the corrected gravity is 1.050 minus 0.004, which equals 1.046. Given the low precision of most hydrometers and the fact that your temperatures should always be close to 60° F, you need not worry excessively about this correction. Just keep it in mind.

Stage Two: Primary Fermentation

Tear open the small foil envelope of yeast and stir it into the must. Snap the cover tightly onto the fermenter. The next step involves adding sulfite solution to the airlock to retard growth of microorganisms. You need only put in enough solution to cover the opening and to keep it from drying out within a reasonable amount of time. Before putting on the lock, spray surfaces with a 70 percent ethanol solution or a sulfite solution of 40 milligrams per liter to retard microorganisms. Fill the remainder with water and place the whole thing in a corner. Fermentation has begun.

Yeast consume sugar and create alcohol and carbon dioxide. As this gas is created, pressure builds, and it bubbles through the airlock. For the Chardonnay bubbling began the day after adding yeast. It is not as dramatic as many beginners expect — a small bubble every few seconds sometimes represents the peak activity. This is one indication that fermentation is occurring; the other is the decreasing specific gravity. Every day, carefully sanitize your hydrometer and take the reading. Keep track of the data in a small notebook, which allows you to compare batches and identify problems. The most dramatic drop in gravity occurs during the first 48 hours.

For the Chardonnay, after 10 days the gravity has dropped below 1.010. This is two days longer than the instructions said it would take. This could be due to the temperature of the room, which was at the low end of the recommended 65° to 75° F range. In general, though, the time frames suggested by the kits tend to err in one direction. This kind of kit advertises itself as a 28-day kit. It is perhaps an optimistic claim.

Stage Three: Secondary Fermentation

Sanitize your plastic hose and your secondary fermenter with One-Step or whatever sanitizer your kit comes with. Place your primary fermenter on the kitchen counter and place the secondary fermenter on the floor. Remove the airlock and lower the hose carefully into the must. To start the siphon, suck on the other end.

There is no better way to start a siphon. You may ask yourself, “Why do I do all this sanitizing, only to put my mouth on the hose?” For one thing the wine is relatively high in alcohol now, which makes it more resistant to contamination. It also gives you your first chance to taste the wine. Don’t fight it! Siphon into the secondary until only the layer of straw-colored sediment remains in the primary fermenter. This process is known as racking. That sediment is the main reason for transferring your wine. Prolonged contact with the sediment can lead to undesirable flavors. Leaving the sediment behind will also help with the ongoing goal of clarifying the wine. Half fill the airlock again and stick it into the secondary fermenter. The Chardonnay was left in its corner for another 12 days.

If the wine continues to ferment (as did the Chardonnay), it is no longer necessary to take daily hydrometer readings. The change is too slow. The high alcohol content slows the yeast, which has already consumed most of the fermentable sugars, anyway.

Stage Four: Winging It

After 12 days the gravity of the Chardonnay was checked. It was 0.996, just as the instructions said it would be. According to these instructions, it was time to move on to the next step, which involved stirring in several different chemicals to clarify and stabilize the wine. The wine would then be stirred three times a day for three days. The bottom of the fermenter had a disturbing amount of sediment — a solid inch. It would be hard to clarify the wine while continuously agitating such a large amount of sediment.

The objective of the first transfer had been to leave this sediment behind. Some of it might have been inadvertently siphoned into the secondary fermenter. The more likely reason for the excessive sediment, though, was that the wine was transferred too early. Again, the kits sometimes suggest overly optimistic time frames. You can, as in this case, make a minor departure from the directions to correct this mistake. Here the wine needed to be separated from that sediment, in other words racked again.

This means you need to sanitize your primary fermenter again. Siphon the wine into it, leaving the inch of sediment behind. Then rinse and sanitize the glass fermenter, and siphon the wine back into it. You’re ready for the next step.

You might have just siphoned the wine off the sediment and continued on to the next step with the wine in the plastic fermenter. The main objective of the next step, though, is to clarify the wine. It would be much easier to monitor the effectiveness of these efforts with the wine back in the transparent glass fermenter.

Stage Five: Clarification and Stabilization

After transferring the wine back into the glass fermenter, move onto the next step on the instructions. In this case it was time to make additions to the wine. Two pre-measured packages of chemicals (potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite) that came with the kit were dissolved into 125 milliliters of wine.

Potassium metabisulfite prevents oxidation and acts as a preservative, antimicrobial agent, and stabilizer. Potassium sorbate is a yeast inhibitor. Before bottling it is essential to completely stop fermentation. If carbon dioxide gas was still being produced in corked bottles, you would be mopping the ceiling. Potassium sorbate prevents this. After dissolving chemicals into the wine, pour the mixture into the fermenter and stir for several minutes.

Next for the Chardonnay was to add the small package of the clarifying agent isinglass, which clings to a number of haze-producing compounds in the wine. As the isinglass sinks slowly to the bottom of the fermenter, the haze settles with it. Given enough time, most of the haze will settle out by itself. Isinglass speeds the process.

The instructions then called for stirring the wine three times a day for three days (sanitizing the mixing spoon before stirring). Use a metal spoon instead of wood, which doesn’t sanitize well, to keep the isinglass in solution longer, drawing more haze out. Stirring helps remove carbonation prior to bottling.

After three days stop stirring. In this case the wine sat untouched for six days. The change in clarity was dramatic. The thrice-daily stirring had made the wine muddy and dark. After six days of settling, there was again a fine layer of straw-colored sediment at the bottom of the fermenter. The wine, though, was clear and bright. This indicates you are ready to bottle.

Stage Six: Bottling

Like most other processes in winemaking, bottling begins with cleaning and sanitizing. Clean and sanitize 30 bottles and an equal number of corks with the sanitizer in your kit. You can also sanitize the corks by soaking them in boiling water. This softens them for bottling. Corks can be sanitized by soaking them in sulfite solution, too. It’s okay to use clear bottles for white wine, but you do run the risk of sun-struck off-flavors. Clear bottles are okay primarily if you’re never going to take your wine outside; these off-flavors can develop in just minutes. Red wine should be stored in colored bottles to preserve its color.

Use a siphon hose with a bottling rig attached to transfer wine from the fermenter to the bottles. A bottling rig makes the job easy. A fitting at the bottle-end of the tube has a small, spring-operated valve. As you press it down onto the bottom of a bottle, it opens the valve and allows wine to flow from the fermenter into the bottle. When wine reaches the top, lift the tube, which shuts the valve and stops the flow. This also fills the bottles in a way that minimizes splashing and oxidation because the tube is close to the bottom of the bottle.

Cork each of the filled bottles. This chardonnay kit filled 28 bottles and part of a 29th. The 29th bottle was about one-third full, too much to throw away but too little to cork.

After your first batch, give a bottle to each of your neighbors, including the expert winemaker. Tell him you’ve discovered how to make wine in a month, without ever crushing a grape. Your other neighbors will tell him how good it is.