When I set out to make wine from cold-climate hybrid grapes (specifically dry red wine), common sense told me I should follow winemaking practices used for vinifera grapes. But after fermentation, stabilization, and aging had finished, I was left asking myself, “Where is the body? Where is the backbone?”
Needless to say, my first attempt at working with hybrid grapes was good, though not great. But fear not, after further research, experimentation, and talking with other winemakers about my less than stellar outcome, I was able to drastically improve my wine. Here are ten methods I have discovered to make the best wine from red hybrid grapes.
1. Growing Practices
Before we start crushing, measuring, and making additions, we need to ensure we are bringing in the best fruit possible. This cannot be stressed enough. Hybrid grapes can suffer from high acidity, low sugar, and lack of tannin. Low tannin is due to the grape’s nature and little can be done about it in the vineyard. However, acidity and sugar levels can be guided in the right direction by choosing the right grape for your particular terroir and things like leaf pulling, shoot thinning, hang time, and crop thinning (more on this later) should also be utilized to ensure proper ripening.
Clean fruit is just as important as fruit with good levels. While some of the lesser-quality grapes can be left out of the harvest bin, a more precise sorting process at the crush pad is an important step to remove damaged fruit that can harbor bacteria and other baddies that can cause issues during fermentation and beyond. A sorting table that allows you to examine the fruit, sort out the MOG (material other than grapes), and push the good grapes into a receiving container is perfect.
For those of you fortunate enough (or crazy enough) to grow your own grapes, you have some control on how your fruit will turn out. Some things to look out for to ensure your juice chemistry will be in line are:
Do Not Over Crop: Over-cropping (i.e., leaving too much fruit for the vine to mature properly) will result in grapes with low sugar and high acid. This will no doubt create issues in the winery when you are trying to dial in your numbers for fermentation. The color will suffer too.
Canopy Management: This is an important subject to familiarize yourself with. If you are growing cool-climate grapes, chances are you live in an area with a short(er) growing season. This makes getting every bit of sunlight into the canopy one of the most important things you will do for your fruit. Be sure to leaf pull around the fruiting zone, leaving at least 15 leaves per cluster to ensure proper ripening. This allows sunlight and your fungicide sprays to penetrate into the fruiting area.
Develop a Spray Program: Keeping your fruit free of mold and preventing bugs from destroying the leaves is just as important as leaf pulling so photosynthesis can take place and ripen your crop. Check out the Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide to assist you in making a plan for your home vineyard.
Harvest Timing: Be patient and harvest at the best possible time. Taste, test, and taste again to determine the best time to harvest. Picking your grapes with the best possible chemistry reduces problems in the winery. There is nothing worse than harvesting your grapes with an unmanageable acidity level. Be sure to use netting to allow your grapes to hang longer if needed to relieve the pressure of bird damage, which would cause even more problems.
The point is, above all else, no matter what methods you use in the winery, or what additives you have at your disposal, if the fruit is of poor quality, you will be at a disadvantage and you will struggle to make a palatable wine.
Saignée is the method of removing a portion of the juice from the fermenter in an effort to concentrate the flavors. “Faire une saignée” literally means “to bleed.” By bleeding off 10–20% of the juice, you increase the skin-to-juice ratio, resulting in a wine that is more rich in color and flavor. The must can soak for a few hours prior to saignée to allow the juice being removed to gain a little color. This juice can then be made into a rosé or added to a fruit wine being made at the same time. I use the juice from my Léon Millot must for a blueberry wine I make to add a vinous character to the resulting wine.
3. Pre-Fermentation Maceration
Cold soaking grapes is a practice many winemakers use to draw out more color and supple tannins from the grape skins. This method is most notably employed in making wine form Pinot Noir grapes, but if your hybrid grape wine has been short on color in the past, this is a way one can try to gain color intensity. To perform a cold soak, simply fill with water and freeze several 1-gallon (4-L) milk jugs in advance of crush. You will need at least four jugs to get 20 gallons (78 L) of must to a temperature around 40–50 °F (4–10 °C). This temperature is low enough to prevent spontaneous fermentation. Rotate the jugs as needed to keep the must cool. Cold soak can run for just a few hours up to several days. The duration of the cold soak is up for experimentation to discover what exactly works for you. If you plan to do saignée and cold soak, I recommend removing the juice first to allow the concentration effects to take place during the cold soak. Once you are satisfied with the cold soaking period, simply remove the plastic jugs, allow the wine to get up to ambient temperature and proceed as usual. For more on cold soaking, check out my article “Cold Soaking Success” in the October-November 2017 issue of WineMaker.
4. High Acidity
Growing hybrid grapes in areas with shorter growing seasons, the fruit may come into the winery with high acidity. This leaves you questioning what direction to take the wine. While a wine should never be pushed to become something it does not want to be, there are ways to rein in the acidity in an effort to make a dry red wine instead of having to back-sweeten for balance.
Amelioration: Adding water to the must can be used to reduce the acidity or at least take the edge off of a high acid level. Although this may dilute the wine to some degree, it will help you achieve your goal of a dry red wine by reducing the acid to a workable level.
Calcium Carbonate can be used to take the edge off of the acidity and can be used in conjunction with the other methods of acid reduction. For example, you may minimally ameliorate, put the wine through malolactic fermentation, and then tweak the wine with calcium carbonate to dial in your desired acid level. It should not be used to reduce the acidity more than 0.2% as a salty taste may result. If more of an acid drop is desired, be sure to perform bench trials to dial in exactly how much is needed without altering the flavor of the wine.
Blending: If you want a more natural approach than the use of calcium carbonate, another option is blending. By using the Pearson’s Square or the wine calculator Fermcalc (http://web2.airmail.net/sgross/fermcalc/) you can enter the acid levels of each wine and figure out how much blending wine is needed to reduce the acid to your desired level. You could do it the old-fashioned way by blending and tasting, but by entering the high acid level of your wine and then adding the hypothetical acid level of the potential blending wine into a calculator, it will give you an idea of what acid level the blending wine will need to be. Blending will come up again in this article, but as you can see it can be a powerful tool in creating a palatable wine from problematic hybrid grapes.
Malolactic Fermentation: Just about all red wines will go through malolactic fermentation (MLF). This process is the conversion of harsh tasting malic acid to a softer lactic acid and carbon dioxide that creates a rounder, fuller mouthfeel. Different strains of bacteria will produce various levels of diacetyl, and depending on the style of wine being made, is a desirable attribute to the flavor profile. Malolactic fermentation is also carried out to avoid spontaneous MLF activity later in the bottle, which would produce off-flavors and carbon dioxide, making for a fizzy wine. Not only will MLF add complexity to the wine, it will also help reduce the overall titratable acidity level, which is our main focus here. While it will not reduce the acid level from 1.7% to 0.7%, it certainly is helpful in acid reduction to some degree and will contribute to the stability of the wine overall. When working with high-acid grapes, the pH may be on the low side (<3.2), which will create challenges for malolactic fermentation to complete. To overcome these challenges, preemptive acid reduction (by one or more of the aforementioned methods above) should be performed to get the pH level to at least 3.2 or greater — where most malolactic bacteria are comfortable working. Be sure to use a nutrient made for MLF such as Opti-Malo and choose an appropriate malolactic bacteria culture for your particular juice chemistry, e.g. wine pH, alcohol level, etc. Be sure to check pH after MLF as not to allow the pH level to rise too high, which would affect the color, make the wine prone to oxidation, and would require the use of more sulfites to be protected.
Yeast can be chosen as a function rather than a stylistic choice. For example, grapes with a high acid level can be fermented with Lalvin 71B yeast, which reduces some of the malic acid content. This will help MLF complete later on.
Back-Sweeten: Maybe the acidity is just too high or this is a stylistic decision, but you can make an excellent wine by balancing the acidity with a bit of sweetening. Be sure to stabilize the wine with potassium sorbate prior to sweetening in combination with a sulfite addition.
5. Fermentation Additives
Inactivated yeast products such as Opti-Red, Noblesse, and Booster Rouge will contribute to mouthfeel, body, and color stability in red wine. Getting into how each works is beyond the scope of this article, but I urge you to research these additives to see what they can do for your wine. I have found the results of using these products in my wine nothing short of amazing. These additives can definitely help you in your quest to achieve a medium- to full-bodied red wine from hybrid grapes.
6. Yeast Nutrient and Yeast Hydration
No matter what sort of wine you are making, one of the most important steps in conducting a healthy fermentation is the use of yeast nutrients. Nutrients will help keep the yeast happy, healthy, and assist them in their survival toward the end of fermentation when their environment becomes hostile to them. Nutrients will also prevent the rotten egg odor of hydrogen sulfide, which is the result of yeast stress. A good protocol to follow when introducing yeast to the must (rather than just sprinkling it on top) is to hydrate the yeast according to the manufacturer’s instructions in combination with Go-Ferm Protect. Go-Ferm Protect provides yeast with the proper micro-nutrients to get them into optimal shape for fermentation. It also makes these nutrients immediately available to our cultured yeast, before native yeast and bacteria present in the must can make use of it.
Once your yeast has been properly hydrated (typically 15 minutes) you can make what is called a yeast starter by adding 50 mL of juice per yeast packet used to the yeast slurry and allow it to ferment for up to one hour. This can be repeated several times to build up a large starter for introduction to the must. A yeast starter has a few benefits: It gets the yeast’s feet running and ready to ferment, fermentation will start sooner, it also helps to acclimate the yeast starter temperature to the must temperature. Temperature acclimation is very important as not to shock the yeast and delay fermentation. The temperature range of the must and yeast starter should be within 17 °F (9 °C) of each other.
Once the yeast starter has been pitched into the must, a yeast nutrient such as Fermaid or Super Ferment can be added at cap formation. But before you add the whole recommended amount, a great yeast nutrient protocol is to add half of the manufacturer’s recommended amount at cap formation, and then the rest of the recommended amount at 2⁄3 sugar depletion — typically at a specific gravity of 1.060 (14.7 °Brix). This later nutrient addition is paramount to yeast survival toward the end of fermentation.
7. Tannin Management
Tannin is likely the most important component missing from hybrid grapes. Not only is it the backbone in red wine, without tannin, red wine lacks structure and the tactile sensation you experience when you take a drink. Tannin acts as an antioxidant and is also needed for color retention and stability in red wine. Please read Associate Professor of Enology Anna Katherine Mansfield’s paper (web link at end of article) about research being done at the Cornell Enology Extension Lab that strongly suggests proteins in the grape solids of hybrid grapes are binding tannin, preventing them from being extracted into the juice. This could explain the reason for such low tannin levels in hybrid wines. Since the grape solids may be responsible for tannin binding, the timing of the addition becomes just as important as the amount added. After separating the grape solids from the juice by pressing (depending on the grape I am working with) I will add up to 3 times the manufacturer’s recommended amount of tannin. I then barrel age or use oak cubes after malolactic fermentation. Once I am satisfied with the amount of oak imparted into the wine, I perform bench trials (see see chart on this page) to determine the amount of aging tannin (Tannin Complex) to add in an effort to tweak the final product, if needed.
To perform the bench trial, prepare a 2.5% solution of Tannin Complex by mixing 2.5 g of Tannin Complex with 80 mL of deionized water in a 100 mL graduated cylinder. Once combined, bring the volume up to 100 mL. Pipette the different volumes of lab solution (see Chart 1 under mLs of 2.5% lab solution) into separate 375 mL wine bottles and then fill each bottle with wine, leaving one bottle without the 2.5% solution as a control for comparative tasting. Affix a stopper or airlock to each bottle and allow the bottles to settle for 24 hours before tasting. Taste each one and determine the amount that fits your wine best. Once you have decided on the amount of tannin needed, see the corresponding tannin addition rates below under Lbs./1,000 gallons.
Chart 1: Bench trial recommendations (per 375 mL bottle)
mLs of 2.5% Lab Solution
This bench trial helps to figure out how much tannin complex to use per 1,000 gallons (3,800 L), so we will need to scale this down to determine how much to add per gallon (3.8 L). Here is an example of how to determine how much Tannin Complex to add to your wine: If you decide you would like to add Tannin Complex at the rate of 1.3 lbs. per 1,000 gallons.
Convert pounds to grams: 1.3 lbs. = 589.67 grams
Then determine how much per gallon: 589.67/1000= 0.58967 grams per gallon
Now scale it up to your batch of wine: 0.58967 x gallons of wine
Tannin complex can be added up to 6 weeks before bottling to allow for integration. Another bench trial can be performed to dial in the exact amount of tannin desired later in the process.
Why do we blend? Winemakers will blend to maintain consistency from year to year, or if they believe a better wine can be made from combining different wines that complement each other. Other times, winemakers will blend out of necessity to remedy an issue or account for some shortcomings a wine is suffering from. Blending can be used as a tool to increase the color intensity, body, structure, or to improve the complexity of the wine. Whatever the reason, it is a great idea to familiarize yourself with the basic concepts. Typically, blending is done by combining two or more wines that have finished fermentation and are essentially ready for bottling. These wines are then aged to allow the blend to fully integrate. Another way to blend is by field blending grapes. For more on field blending, check out the feature article “Field Blending” in the February-March 2018 issue.
A few final words on blending. If you also work with vinifera grapes, blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, or other vinifera grapes can significantly improve wines made from hybrid grapes. Be sure to experiment and objectively evaluate your blends. Invite friends and family over to help too.
Different pH levels in your wine can affect it in various ways — some positive and some negative. It is an important parameter to measure, and action should be taken when it does not fall in line. Knowing the pH is also important to determine the amount of sulfite needed to ensure the wine is protected. Another thing to consider is if your color is lacking even after tannin additions and timely punch downs, a high pH level may be the culprit, but if you are not measuring it, you will never know. Try your best to maintain a pH of 3.4 to 3.7. However, if the pH is not perfect but the wine tastes great, you do not need to potentially throw the wine out of balance just to achieve the recommended pH (although >4.0 pH should be addressed and a reduction attempted to some degree). Taste before numbers. Just know that if the pH is high it may not age as long (more than 5 years), and more sulfite will be needed to protect the wine as it will be prone to oxidation compared to if it was at a lower pH. For a full run down on pH and what it means, check out “pHiguring Out pH” by Daniel Pambianchi at https://winemakermag.com/article/phiguring-out-ph.
10. Oak Adjuncts and Barrel Aging
You do not have to look far to find loads of information on barrel-aging wine. An in-depth look at all of the benefits barrels provide is well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, oak adds complexity, color intensity, and tannin, and each type of oak offers its own little nuances to the wine. The biggest difference between barrels and adjuncts is that with barrels you gain the micro-oxygenation benefits and the evaporation of water content, which concentrates the flavors. With all of the positive attributes a barrel can provide, working a barrel into your process of red wine production from hybrid grapes should be highly considered. However, if you are not ready to step up to a barrel, there are several oak adjuncts out there that impart a myriad of flavors into your wine, vastly improving the overall product. Oak adjuncts such as Stavin Oak Beans, Xoakers, or Winestix can be experimented with to determine the best fit for your wine. When working with oak, whether it be with a barrel or with adjuncts, be sure to taste often to make sure you do not over do it, as a Chateau De Home Depot level of oak flavor will result. The trick is to slightly over-oak and then remove the wine from the barrel or adjunct. The oak flavor will dissipate over time to an appropriate level.
Consideration of grape variety and your desired finished wine style is very important. While some methods may work with one grape, it may not yield a better wine with another. Be flexible with the finished wine you want to achieve. The fruit may not want to be made into a style you originally had planned based on its chemistry, flavor, etc. Allow the fruit to express itself and guide you to create something great. In the end, it comes down to experimentation and research to discover the path to greatness for these grapes. Be sure to talk to local wineries working with hybrid grapes to get an idea of what they are doing to help you in your efforts. While there are several other things we can do to increase the quality of our wine such as fermentation temperature management, sulfite management, and proper aging, we will save that for another article.
For more on the exciting world of tannin binding and other issues facing hybrid grapes, I urge you to check out these links below to gain a better understanding of hybrid grape winemaking.
• The Sticky Side of Tannin Management, Tim Patterson. www.winesandvines.com/columns/section/24/article/123720/The-Sticky-Side-of-Tannin-Management
• A Few Truths About Phenolics, Anna Katherine Mansfield. www.winesandvines.com/features/article/143879%20#
• Know How to Hold ‘Em: New Insights on Hybrid Tannin Retention, Anna Katherine Mansfield. https://grapesandwine.cals.cornell.edu/sites/grapesandwine.cals.cornell.edu/files/shared/Research%20Focus%202015-3.pdf