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Five Wine Making Fundamentals

By Ed Kraus

To Keep Your Wine Making On Track

Not once have I ever heard a winemaker say, "I don't care how my wine turns out, as long as I can drink it." To the contrary, home winemakers generally seem to be more in tune with obtaining perfection than just obtaining passable.

Wine making is a hobby that seems to bring out a yearning in people to produce the best wine they can--to create a wine worthy of recognition. And often winemakers will go to great lengths in their quest to create such a wine.

With some home wine makers, every little detail of the wine making process is analyzed and scrutinized with great care. The selection of wine yeast to be used will be thought over again and again. "Is my tap water okay, or should I get bottled water from the store", they'll think to themselves. "And if I do buy bottled water from the store, which brand is best?"

Some details are worthy of attention. Some are just simply tom-foolery. But the biggest point to make here is that too much attention given to too many details can often fuzzy-up the focus of what matters the most when making a wine.

Too many times I've talked to a home wine maker whose thoughts were being consumed with a minute detail only to find out that they were overlooking some key wine making fundamentals.

With that in mind, here is a list of five things that you should focus on first and foremost when making your own wine at home, particularly if you are just getting started.

These are the issues that matter the most, but sometimes get lost in the clutter of fine details that spring up here and there when learning about wine making for the first time. Concentrate on these key points and your wine making efforts will be consistently rewarded with exceptional wine.

1. Be Sanitary

Being sanitary and being clean are two different things. To keep things "clean" is to wash the grime and grit off your home wine making equipment and wine bottles--much like you would do when you wash dishes.

But being sanitary requires that you go a step further. Sanitizing solutions such as Sodium Metabisulfite, CleanPro SDH or B-Brite must be employed in order to eliminate wild mold, bacteria and other micro-organisms that can be hiding on your wine making equipment even after it has been washed.

Keeping these "little nasties" under control will provide for a faster, healthier fermentation. And will greatly enhance the ability of your wine to stay fresh and fruity tasting for years while being stored in the wine bottle.

There is no reason to become obsessed with sanitation. Just practicing it and being aware of its necessity is enough.

2. Start With A Sound Recipe

Wine recipes come in many shapes and sizes--from clippings found in the folds of an old cookbook, to your neighbors recollection of what he saw his grandpa do when he was watching as a child. Some are fine. Some are simply a "recipe for failure". If you have a recipe from a questionable source, it might be worth your effort to investigate a little further.

There are many instructional books available on home wine making that also include recipes for producing many types of wine. One that comes to mind is the book, "First Steps In Winemaking". The first 60 pages for the most part goes through the wine making process. The remaining pages include about 60 different wine making recipes.

This book is available separately on our web site and it is also included in our beginner SunCal Necessities Box.

If you are making wine from one of our concentrated wine making juices, a dependable recipe is already included with it. These concentrates are a good way to get your feet wet just for that reason. Not to mention the fact that they are easier to deal with than processing fresh fruit and they are available all throughout the year.

We also have several wine making recipes on our web site for
making everything from grape to grapefruit.

3. Use A Hydrometer

A hydrometer is as important to a winemaker as a compass is to a navigator. Without a hydrometer it is impossible to get a handle on which way your fermentation is headed.

The hydrometer is simply a long glass cylinder with a weight at one end. You can take readings with it by seeing how high or low it floats in your juice.

What the hydrometer can do for you is two-fold. First, it allows you to track the progress of your fermentation by taking readings throughout the fermentation. Secondly, it can tell you what the alcohol percentage of your finished wine is by taking a reading before fermentation and another one after fermentation has ended and then comparing the two.

To learn more about hydrometers, we have two articles on our web site to help you out a little more. The first one is titled, "Getting To Know Your Hydrometer". It covers the general use of hydrometers.

The second article is titled, "Hydrometer Scales And What They Mean". This article gives you a simple understanding of how to use the different scales you will find on a typical wine making hydrometer.

4. Control Your Fermentation Temperature

The number one reason for a fermentation to stop in mid-stream or for a fermentation to not start at all is because of improper temperature. Yeast is very sensitive to temperature. It is important that your fermentation temperatures stay between 70 and 75 degrees for a sound fermentation.

To help put the temperature issue into better perspective, a fermentation at 75 degrees will ferment more than twice as fast as a fermentation at 70 degrees.

It is also important to note that a fermentation at 65 degrees may ferment very, very slow at best, but more than likely it will not ferment at all. A fermentation at 80 degrees will ferment very, very fast, but the flavor of the alcohol is usually considered inferior.

Too warm of a fermentation temperature also entices unwanted micro-organisms to multiply more readily which can eventually result in off-flavors or in extreme cases a complete spoilage of your wine.

If you are unsure as to what fermentation temperatures you are encountering, you might want to invest in a wine thermometer that is designed to take fermentation readings.

For a list of other common factors that may hinder a fermentation see the article, "Top Ten Reasons For Fermentation Failure."

5. Keep Air Exposure To A Minimum

When a wine is exposed to too much air in the coarse of its life-time, it will show symptoms of oxidation. A white wine will turn slightly amber, and a red wine will turn slightly orange or brown. Also, its flavor will take on a slight caramel to raisin character.

During fermentation air exposure is not an issue. The CO2 gases that are produced by the fermentation protects the wine from most oxidative forces.

But once the fermentation has finished, care should be given to see that excessive amounts of air does not come in contact with the wine for extended periods of time.

Also, splashing the wine when transferring it from one container to the next should be kept to a minimum. The same goes for when you bottle your wine. When a wine is splashed it temporarily increases its surface area by several hundred times causing the wine to act like a sponge, soaking up air at an extremely accelerated pace.

This is one of the reasons why it is recommended that SO2 gases in the form of Sodium Metabisulfite or Campden Tablets be added to a finished wine after each time it is transferred. This gas displace the oxygen that may have been absorbed by the wine in the siphoning or bottling process.

The recommended dosage is either 1 Campden Tablet or 1/16 teaspoon of Sodium Bisulfite for each two gallons of wine. This dosage should only be added if the wine has stopped fermenting. Wines that are still in the process of fermenting are still being protected from oxygen by the fermentation's CO2 gases.

To learn more about keeping oxidation under control in your wines, see the article on our web site titled, "Controlling Oxidation In Your Wines". It covers in more detail the general issues surrounding oxidation.

Be sure to look at our wine making ingredients and wine making supplies.

Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.