Technique

Understanding the Different Sizes of Wine Kits

“Quantity has a quality all of its own.”
-R K Ratch

Someone once said, “good things come in small packages.” I’m pretty sure this was a shopkeeper who sold very small consumer products, or a packaging company specializing in teeny cardboard boxes. While it’s true that size is not necessarily an accurate gauge of relative worth, sometimes it’s an indicator that a bit more has been stuffed into something. And that thing might be a wine kit.

If you’re a regular user or consumer of kit wines, you’ve seen the variety of sizes available on your local home winemaking center’s shelves. Metrically manufactured they go from five liters to 7.5, 10, 15, 16, 18 and 23, so you can make the traditional 6-gallon (23-L) batch from a starting point of one and a half gallons up to the full six with no water addition.

The usual reason for escalating volume is to accommodate fresh juice into the kit. Concentrate is usually made to a sugar level (usually referred to, not entirely accurately, as Brix) of 72 percent. It only takes five liters of 72 °Brix concentrate to make six gallons of roughly 12% alcohol finished wine. Single-strength grape juice runs from 20–25 °Brix, so if you are blending fresh juice in, the entry level is approximately 7.5 liters in total starting volume of blended concentrate and juice. As you add more fresh juice, it occupies more volume, so the kits get bigger (and heavier and pricier).

At some point you have to wonder what the deal really is: if concentrate is a good idea, why not use a small 100% concentrate kit and save your aching back. If juice is so much better, why use any concentrate at all?

I blame myself for not explaining this better. Kit manufacturers are so focused on making products better, introducing new styles and encouraging people to try the hobby out that we rarely look outside our world to answer what are some pretty basic questions about where kits come from, why they’re made the way they are and how to choose the kit that will deliver the best flavor and aroma in the best time.

The question I get asked more often than anything else is, “which is the best kit?” It would be self-serving of me to automatically point to the most expensive one, and it also wouldn’t necessarily be true (just lucrative). The best kit is the one that expresses the most aroma, flavor and character when you want to drink it. The very best kits with the most stuffing — flavor, aroma, tannin, bouquet, body, etc . —take a long time to come around, in some cases as much as a couple of years.

This isn’t the fault of the kits. It’s an immutable aspect of all winemaking, consumer-produced or commercial. The vignerons of the Rhône give off a Gallic shrug and say “the worse, the better,” meaning the nastier, harder and less loveable one of their fine red wines is on bottling day, the better it will taste when it’s fully matured and ready to drink. If you buy one of their best bottles from an immediate vintage and open it up in the driveway at home you’ll be sorry, and you won’t get your money’s worth. If you’d held onto it for ten years it would have rewarded you with a blast of fruit, elegance, restrained power and lively intensity, instead of bitter tannins and aloof fruit hidden behind tartness and numb aroma.

On the flip side, if you buy a six dollar bottle of wine and crack it over burgers and dill-pickle chips that night, it’s going to taste just fine as-is, no waiting. Woes betide you if you put a case of Château Plonko down for your newborn’s 21st birthday. (After all, you’ll want to celebrate kicking the little rotter out of the house, yes?) It will probably be sufficient only for etching concrete and serving to in-laws. Something similar applies to wine made from kits — a value-priced kit will be ready to drink much sooner, having fewer demons to subdue, but won’t reward your patience quite as generously as another higher positioned kit.

This dichotomous epiphenomenon (cheap=fast drinking, expensive=more aging) has an amusingly tedious, er, TDS explanation . . .

TDS

What really separates different volume wine kits is the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) they have. TDS is what is left over after every bit of the water is removed from the kit. Simply put, the more total dissolved solids, the more aroma and flavor compounds a wine will have. Fresh, not-from-concentrate juices have more TDS and straight concentrate kits have the lower levels, while super-premium grape skin kits have the most.

But that’s only half the explanation. When a kit has high levels of solids, it also has high levels of fermentation by-products and green flavors and aromas. “Green” refers to the terpenes and esters in the wine kit that will, over time, change into the more mature flavors and aromas that make great wine. A kit with lower levels of dissolved solids will have fewer of these green characteristics, and be ready to consume sooner.

So how do you decide which kit you need? First, it helps to understand the nature of the ingredients in the kits, and how that affects their outcome. We’ll start with the basics, and it might surprise you to know that each of these ingredients isn’t unique to kit wines: all of them are used to make commercial wines, and have been for a long time.

Wine Ingredients Concentrate: grape jam?

Concentrate is grape juice with the water removed. There are several ways to do this: you can boil the water off in a vacuum concentrator, squeeze it out in a reverse-osmosis unit, or sublimate it off with a conical distillation unit.

To go back to our earlier question, why use concentrate at all? Ahh, this will shock you: wine kit manufacturers use concentrate as a preservative.

This bears thinking about for a minute. If concentrate is grape juice with the water removed, what’s actually left? Two things and a side-effect: a whole pile of sugar, a whole bunch of acid and a very low, heavily buffered pH. These three things serve to preserve the grape juice, just like jam.

Jam is made by boiling fruit with rather a lot of sugar. The high levels of sugar increase the osmotic pressure of concentrate (and jam) which is very detrimental to microbial organisms. Osmotic pressure is a weird concept, but think of it like this: when you hang out in the bathtub all day, your fingers and toes get all pruney. This is because the osmotic pressure in your cells is higher than that of the bathwater: you’re salty, the bath is not, so water dilutes your saltiness and your skin goes soft and floopy-looking. This is why people put salts in their bath water, to keep their skin nice looking.

In a high sugar solution, the liquid inside a yeast or bacterial cell has a lower osmotic pressure, and the sugary solution tries hard to rush inside. Very hard, in this case causing the cell to explode and die. Anything above about 34 °Brix is enough to prevent the growth of most organisms, except for some tough (but slow-growing) exotic yeast and a few mold colonies.

Grape juice, just like jam, contains high levels of natural acids, which make for a low pH. Yeast and spoilage organisms don’t thrive in low pH environments, so this prevents the kits from fermenting in their container. Also, low pH prevents browning and degradation, keeping the concentrate fresh and brightly colored. The most interesting thing about this decrease in pH is that it is really persistent. Even after a wine kit containing concentrate has been rehydrated to the full volume of 6 gallons, the pH will remain artificially low — that’s what is meant by buffered. It isn’t until the yeast has cracked the sugars away from the acids that the pH will rise to a more normal level for grape juice.

And that’s why wine kits contain at least some concentrate, no matter what the starting volume, for the pH lowering and its concordant preservative effect.

Juice

Winemaking grape juice is made from clarified pressings from fresh grapes. It can be varietal juice, or a blend of different grapes. The two most important factors in juice quality are first, the absolute quality of the grapes used, and second, the level of retained solids in the juice. There are juices out there that are like goopy mud with solids, which makes for more flavor and more aging. There are other low-solids juices intended for use in soft-drinks, baked goods and breakfast cereal.

Speaking of sugar

There is a perception that because a kit may contain sugar it has been made from inferior concentrates, or with less concentrate and stretched with added sugar.

Adding sugar to wines to increase the alcohol content is called chaptalization, after a minister in Napoleon’s government, M. Chaptal. Wines are chaptalized because alcohol is a component in the flavor and structure of a wine. In the Burgundy wine region in France, for instance, cool temperatures sometimes produce grapes that are fully ripe, yet have insufficient levels of sugar to make a rounded wine. Here chaptalization is a necessary and well-regarded part of the practice of making wine. Indeed, some of the greatest (and most expensive) bottles of wine in the world have been made from chaptalized grapes.

So, the sugar is there to increase the alcohol content. Using higher Brix grape juice could work to increase, if such grape juice were available, but usually it isn’t. Adding more concentrate would also increase the Brix, but this would lead to color, flavor and aroma changes — the wine would be unbalanced in intensity. This is particularly true of the acid balance, because some concentrates tend to have high levels of malic acid, which can give a slightly harsh edge to the finished wine. Also, too much concentrate can lead to lurid, unnaturally purple red-wines, or dark yellow white wines. By using sugar to drive alcohol content one can achieve balance in the finished wine without changing the flavor/color profile.

The bottom line: if any wine kit has low levels of flavor and aroma, it is due to a flaw in design or manufacture, not the use of sugar.

The Kits

100% concentrate

With their low levels of TDS, these kits mature very quickly, as they produce very few of the green terpenes and esters described above. Within a week or two of recovering from bottle shock, they taste pretty much as good as they ever will, rewarding those who need wine in a hurry.

Mid-volume kits

Around 7.5 liters (2 gallons) in volume, and usually with varietal juice content and higher levels of TDS, mid-volume kits mature at a slower rate than straight concentrate kits. Although they drink quite well after only a month in the bottle, they show their best after approximately 3–6 months for whites, and 6–12 months for reds. These times depend on a series of factors: which kit, what vintage, size of the bottles they are stored in, the corks used, and, most important of all, the storage conditions. There can be no guarantee of a date for maturity as it’s up to individual conditions, and individual wines.

Upper-mid-volume

Jumping up a step in both juice content and TDS, upper-mid-volume kits around ten liters (2.6 gallons) in size are again slower to mature than mid-volume, but provide a greater reward after appropriate aging. Although both reds and whites perform relatively well after three months, the whites perform best after six months, and reds require 12 months to show their best. Varietal differentiation is usually heightened in this formulation, and they reward further aging for at least two years.

Premium kits

At 15 liters (4 gallons) or so and with high levels of varietal juice and high TDS, premium kits don’t drink especially well for the first few months. In fact, most whites don’t open up at all for six months, and most reds need 12 months to show much aroma or flavor. This is not to say they taste bad: indeed, by three months of age they can surpass the mid-volume kits in taste and aroma. But they continue to develop fabulously. Indeed, while acknowledging the aging differences mentioned above, most Premium kits will actually improve for three to five more years if they’re cellared well.

Super-premium kits

Weighing in at 15–16 liters (4–4.2 gallons) super-premium kits have the highest levels of TDS of non-grape pack kits, and the finest (and most expensive) juices available, usually from single, delimited vineyards. They require patient aging to show their charms, and will develop over an even longer period than the premium kits. The whites are unlikely to show well before 18 months, and the reds can take 24 months before they really blow your hosiery off your appendages. But again, they do have wonderful power and strength when they’re younger than that — many people drink them much younger with great pleasure.

These kits are easily distinguishable from the premium by their price. High-end juices cost more, especially if they’re from prestigious areas like Napa, Sonoma, Marlborough or the Stellenbosch, and there are some unexpected costs, like extra tank space. Regular premium kits may share juices between them, and a manufacturer can blend their Australian Cabernet into a single-varietal kit as well as a Cab-Merlot, a Cab-Shiraz, a Mataro-Cab, etc. But if you’re offering a single-vineyard, single varietal kit, you need one whole tank that does nothing but house your Super-Premium kit — and tanks take up space and cost money.

Grape skin kits

At 15+ liters (4 gallons) in liquid volume, with an added package of grape solids, these kits are made with high-quality grape juices. Grape skin kits have the highest levels of dissolved solids, but this makes the drinkability trade-off an issue. The skins add phenomenal levels of dissolved solids and quite a bit of harshness in youth (although some manufacturers have a proprietary processing that alters this slightly: read on). As they age, they drop their rough edges and come into smooth maturity, and really replicate the finest commercial wines from grapes. With this extra level of solids and grape material, these kits aren’t for early drinking: they’re for laying down and avoiding for at least a couple of years. As with all wine kits you can drink them much younger, but they do get better and better as time passes. Hang onto them for two years to catch the beginning of what they offer, and two more years to savor their peak.

Full-size kits

There are kits out there that start at the full 23 liters (6 gallons) in volume. These are distinguished from single-strength grape juice in that they are made at least in part from reconstituted concentrate. In some cases this may be a bit difficult to establish, as packaging laws allow rehydrated concentrate to be sold under the label “pure juice.” This is the reason why you see orange juice cartons in the supermarket that say “Pure Juice — Not From Concentrate.” However, all major manufacturers include labelling that indicates the presence of concentrate in their full-volume kits. As mentioned in the section above, concentrate is a great preservative, even after full dilution, and it ensures that the pH is low enough to prevent spoilage.

A Closer Look at Aging and Drinkability

A straight concentrate kit will not develop the flavors and aromas that the higher TDS kits will. By contrast, premium super-premium kits don’t drink as well while they are young, but continue to develop over time, to the point where drinking them when they are less than one year old may cut short their potential.

Which kit is right for you? People making wine for an impending wedding or other wine-related emergency might enjoy a mid-volume or an upper-mid kit more than a super-premium, while folks wanting to build up a cellar of fine vintages might not get the most bang with the same kit, and would be better off with a super-premium or a grape skins kit.

The bottom line is to know your wine needs (my usual answer is plenty). Most folks will need a blend of early-drinking, long-aging and some middle-road kits to make sure they have good tasting wine at all times. This keeps you from hitting the bottle shop too often, while allowing you to build a generous cellar with good wines coming ready to drink as you need them. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, small can be beautiful, but I firmly believe that there’s a kit for every winemaker.