Avoiding Wine Kit Pitfalls

There are a lot of wine kits out there today, and their variety and quality is improving. Kits wines are designed to be easy to make, but they’re not foolproof. Even kit wines can go awry if you overlook the basics. Here are ten ways to make sure you produce the best wine possible from your kit.

1. Use the Right Equipment

Some basic winemaking equipment is similar to cooking utensils or other household items. However, in many cases proper winemaking equipment is made of special materials, and this can influence your finished product. Re-using plastic pails from other sources, such as buckets that previously held food products, is always a mistake. The food odors will have sunk into the plastic and will taint the wine. Plastic items not intended for food purposes must never be used for winemaking. The pigments, UV protectants and plasticizers (chemicals used to keep the plastic from becoming brittle) will leach into the wine and could affect your health. Always use equipment that is appropriate for winemaking. Using suspect equipment may save a few dollars, but could end up adding off-flavors to your wine.

2. Keep it Clean (and Sanitized)

Most winemaking failures can be traced to a lapse in cleaning or sanitation. Cleaning is the act of removing the visible dirt and residue from your equipment. Sanitizing is treating that equipment with a chemical that will eliminate, or prevent the growth of, spoilage organisms. Everything that comes in contact with your wine must be clean and properly sanitized, from the thermometer, to the carboy, to the siphon hose, to the bung and airlock. A single lapse could allow microorganisms other than your wine yeast to multiply in your must, spoiling the entire batch.

3. Follow the Instructions

Wine kit instructions may seem  long and complicated. You may have the urge to simplify them, or to standardize steps between different kits. This is always a mistake, for several reasons. First, the kit instructions are based both on sound winemaking techniques and empirical trials. This means that not only did some wine expert write the instructions based on his knowledge of winemaking and the specific ingredients, but test batches of wine were made following the instructions to make sure they were correct. Second, if your kit fails to ferment correctly, or clear sufficiently, there may be no easy way to correct it if you have not followed the directions. Kit instructions are sometimes very different from those for wines made from fresh grapes. The kit’s instructions may take into consideration the specific ingredients of the kits and the way the kit itself was prepared. Trying to use  generic techniques described in winemaking textbooks will usually lead to problems. Wine kits are another kettle of fish entirely, so follow the kit instructions carefully.

4. It’s the Water

Water is not quite as critical as many people think. In fact, if your water is fit to drink, it is usually just fine for winemaking. However, if your water has a lot of hardness or a high mineral content — especially iron — it could lead to permanent haze or off- flavors. A municipal water treatment plant will send you a water analysis for free, if you ask. Also, if your house is equipped with a salt-exchange water softener — the kind you get from the Culligan Man — that water can’t be used for winemaking due to high sodium levels. If you’re in doubt, go ahead and use bottled water to make your wine. You’ll appreciate the difference.

5. Be Kind to Your Yeast

If you look at the instructions in your wine kit (and please, do), they will likely instruct you to sprinkle your packet of dry yeast directly onto the must. Yet if you read the yeast package (and many winemaking textbooks) they recommend rehydrating the yeast. If the objective is to deliver the maximum number of yeast cells to the must, which technique is best? It turns out that the answer is not as simple as one or the other. When performed correctly, rehydrating gives the highest live cell counts and the quickest, most thorough fermentation. The catch is, rehydration has to be done precisely.

Lalvin EC-1118 champagne yeast, for instance, asks you to add the yeast to ten times its weight in water at 104–109° F (40–43° C). Adding the right amount of water is important if you’re trying to maximize live cell counts. That’s because the yeast is dried on a substrate of nutrients and sugars. At a ratio of 10:1 of water to yeast, the osmotic pressure allows for maximum nutrient uptake (osmotic pressure is influenced by the dissolved solids in the water, like nutrients and sugars). If too little water is used, the yeast will only grow sluggishly. If too much water is used, the cells may burst from the flood of liquid forced across their cell membranes.

Secondly, the temperature range is inflexible. The outer layers of the yeast cells soften best in warm water, much as greasy film will come off of dishes best in warm water. Once it has softened up, it will allow the passage of nutrients and waste products into and out of the cell much more efficiently. If the water isn’t warm enough, the cell won’t soften. If it’s too warm, generally anywhere above 126° F (52° C), the yeast cell will cook and die.

The next thing you have to worry about is temperature shear. Yeast is terrifically sensitive to environmental conditions. If they change too quickly from a favorable temperature to a less favorable one, weakened cells may die and others may go dormant in an attempt to ride out the temperature shift. This reduces the numbers of live, viable cells available to ferment the must, and gives spoilage organisms a chance to get a foothold and potentially ruin your wine. So, if you are rehydrating your yeast, you’ll have to wait as the yeast cools to within two degrees of your must temperature before adding it: accuracy counts!

Given this information, you may think that simply dumping the yeast on top of the must should result in lower cell counts. Empirical evidence shows this isn’t the case, however; the yeast appear to know what they’re doing. Generally, a five-gram packet of yeast will have less than a six-hour lag phase on an average wine kit. This is perfectly acceptable, and isn’t long enough to allow spoilage organisms to get a foothold in your wine. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot simpler than going through the rehydrating process, fraught as it is with risks.

The choice is yours. You can rehydrate your yeast if you absolutely want to, but be sure to do it accurately and precisely. The rest of us will tear open the yeast package, dump it into the must and spend the extra time sampling our last batch!

6.  Control Your Fermentation Temperature

Kit instructions tell you to ferment your wine within a specific temperature range. Most manufacturers recommend 65–75° F (18–24° C). Yeast thrives between these temperatures. This is one of the situations where kit instructions are different from commercial winemaking techniques. In commercial wineries, some white wines are fermented cooler than this, sometimes below 55°F (13° C). Commercial wineries have the luxury of taking a year (or two, or three) before they bottle their wines, so they don’t have a problem. For the home winemaker, though, if the fermentation area is too cool the wine will ferment very slowly. This will lead to an excess of CO2 gas (fizz) in the wine, and it may not be ready to stabilize and fine on the appropriate day. Even worse, the kind of fining agents included with many kits don’t work well at temperatures outside of the 65–75° F (18–24° C) range. Below 64° F (17° C) your wine kit may not clear at all!

7. Timing is Important

Sulfite and sorbate, the stabilizers in the kit, work to inhibit yeast activity. There are some times you want yeast to be working and other times you do not. If, by mistake, you add them too early your wine may not finish fermenting. If you add the sorbate on day one, the yeast will never become active, and the kit will not ferment.

8. Don’t Omit the Sulfite

Some people believe that they are allergic to sulfites and want to leave them out of their kits. While this is their option, it’s a bad idea. True sulfite allergies are terrifically rare, and if someone has a reaction to drinking wine, it’s almost always due to some other cause. Besides, yeast make sulfites themselves during fermentation, so no wine can ever be sulfite-free. Without added sulfites, the kit will oxidize and spoil very rapidly. It will start to go off in less than four weeks, and be undrinkable in less than three months. Also, if the sulfite is left out, but the sorbate is added, the wine will be attacked by lactic bacteria. These bacteria will convert the sorbate into the compound hexadienol, which smells like rotting geraniums and dead fish.

9. Stir and Stir Again

On day one, the kit needs to be stirred very vigorously. This is because the juice and concentrate are very viscous, and don’t mix easily with water. Even if it seems that dumping the contents of the bag into the primary with the water has done the job, it hasn’t. The wine lies on the bottom of the pail with a layer of water on top. When it comes time to stabilize and fine the wine, it has to be stirred vigorously again. It needs to be stirred enough to drive off all of the CO2 that accumulated during fermentation. If you don’t drive off the CO2, the dissolved gas will attach to the fining agents, preventing them from settling out. You need to stir hard enough to make the wine foam, and keep stirring until it will no longer foam. Only then will the gas be driven off so the fining agents can work their magic.

10.  Be Patient

Wine kits are ready to bottle in 28 to 45 days, but they’re not ready to drink! If you really, really can’t wait, the minimum time before a kit tastes good is about one month. This is long enough for the wine to get over the shock of bottling, and begin opening up to release its aromas and flavors. Three months is much better; the wine will show most of its character at this point. For most whites, however, and virtually all reds, six months is needed to smooth out the wine and allow it to express mature character. Heavy reds will continue to improve for at least a year, rewarding your patience with a delicious bouquet. Think of your wine like a gourmet meal; you wouldn’t take your omelette out of a pan before it was half-cooked, and you wouldn’t want to eat a cake that was only half-baked. So, let the magic ingredient — time — do its work.