Making High Alcohol Wines
By Ed Kraus
One of the advantages of making your own wines at home is that you get to make it the way YOU want it. And controlling the alcohol level is no exception.
While we have many customers who like their wines at about 8 to 10 percent alcohol, we have just as many, if not more, who prefer their wines with higher alcohol levels, 13% and higher. Here is some information to help put your fermentations into high gear for achieving maximum alcohol.
First of all, when making a high alcohol wine, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you are fighting an uphill battle. This is because wine yeast has been bred for decades to produce wines that are 10 to 13 percent alcohol, just like the wines you'll find at the store. So when you attempt to make wines that are beyond 13%, you must understand that it is necessary to nurture the fermentation along.
You must also have a realistic view of how much alcohol you can expect to make. There have been times on rare occasions when 19 or 20 percent has been obtained, but in reality 15 or 16 percent is closer to the norm and 17 or 18 percent is usually considered a godsend. Also, be prepared for fermentations that just can't do much beyond 13 or 14 percent. Different fruits, mix of nutrients and overall fermentation environment contribute to the unpredictability of a fermentation.
Increasing The Flavor
The flavor intensity of the wine, whether it comes from grapes, watermelons, blackberries or whatever, needs to be boosted in wines that are intended to have high alcohol. This is to help keep the wine's character in balance.
Higher alcohol levels numb the taste buds more so than normal when these wines are consumed, making a normally flavored wine taste watery through no fault of its own. When making these types of wines use more of the fruit when possible. For example, instead of using 3 or 4 pounds of blackberries for each gallon of wine, try using 5 or 6 pounds instead.
How Do I Track The Alcohol Being Made?
Using a wine hydrometer is key to controlling the fermentation and tracking the alcohol that is being made. Trying to make high alcohol wine without a hydrometer is like driving at night without headlights, you will be left in the blind.
While there are usually two or three different scales on a hydrometer, the one we are concerned with - as a high alcohol winemaker - is the "Potential Alcohol" scale found on any wine making hydrometer.
The Potential Alcohol scale is simply a listing of numbers, usually, from 0 to 20. By tracking how much your readings move across the scale throughout the fermentation you can determine how much alcohol has been made.
For example, if you take a reading of 12% on the scale before the wine's fermentation starts and then take another reading at the end of fermentation of 0%, then your wine has 12% alcohol because it moved 12 point across the scale. It's that simple.
Adding Sugar For High Alcohol
Many wine recipes will find for producing high alcohol wines will call for 2 or 3 pounds of sugar per each gallon. And, this is in addition to the sugars that are already being naturally provided by the fruit involved. Adding all this sugar at the beginning of fermentation can result in a big problem.
Sugar is what the wine yeast turns into alcohol. So it stands to reason that you need a lot of sugar to make a lot of alcohol. But, when all the sugar is added at the beginning of fermentation, the concentration levels can be so high that the sugar can actually inhibit the fermentation. The sugar literally start acting as a preservative.
One easy way around this problem is to feed the sugar throughout the duration of the fermentation. For example, add enough sugar in the beginning to get the fermentation going. Then as the fermentation slows down, feed more sugar to it every few days until all the sugar called for in the recipe has been added. Optionally, you can keep adding sugar to the fermentation until the wine yeast has reached its limits.
When feeding sugar to a fermentation, the wine hydrometer can be a big help. When the Potential Alcohol reading gets close to zero, that is your cue to feed more sugar to the fermentation. In turn, the sugar will raise the reading again and the fermentation will again try to ferment towards zero on the scale.
This process can go on for several rounds before the wine yeast simply quits. But without the wine hydrometer, feeding sugar can be risky. You may be adding sugar to a wine that already has too much and is just slowing down because the wine yeast has reached it's limits instead of running out of sugar. The result can be a wine that is sweeter than you like.
1. Lets say you have a starting Potential Alcohol reading of 10%. Eight days later you have a reading of 1%. This means you now have made 9% alcohol, because the fermentation moved nine points across the Potential Alcohol scale.
2. You then add more sugar bringing the hydrometer reading back up to 5%. Two weeks later it reads 1%. Now you have made another 4% on top of the 9% for a total of 13, because the fermentation moved four more points across the scale.
3. Again, you add sugar to the fermentation bring the reading back up to 3%, and the fermentation struggles on for another 3 weeks, but finally gets down to zero bringing your total alcohol level to 16%, which is calculated as follows: 9%+4%+3%.
The whole point here is to maintain lower sugar levels during the fermentation so that the yeast can work more freely without the force of the sugar acting as a preservative. Also, feeding the sugar in this way helps you to be sure that you are not ending up with a wine that is too sweet for your taste. Wines that are considered extremely sweet are still only reading around 3% on the hydrometer's Potential Alcohol scale. A normal sweet wine will be around 1% while dry wines will read around -1%.
Other Little Secrets
Here are some other tips for producing wines with high alcohol levels.
1. Pre-Start The Yeast. Make a wine yeast starter 1 to 2 days before you start the wine. This allows the wine yeast to hit the wine with its feet running - so to speak.
A wine yeast starter is simply a mixture of sugars with a boosted level of nutrients, usually about 1 pint in size for every 5 gallons of wine to be made. Just mix it up, add the wine yeast, and allow it to do a mini-fermentation. Once the starter's fermentation starts to slow down, it is then ready to be added to the prepared wine batch, usually around 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 days.
We offer a product called Winemaker's Quick Starter which is a mixture of yeast foods and nutrients designed just for making such a starter. We highly recommend using it in situations where high alcohol is desired.
2. Maintain Warmer Fermentation Temperatures. Normally, we recommend 72 degrees Fahrenheit as the optimum temperature for a fermentation. However, in the case of producing higher alcohol wines it would be best to shoot for a range between 74 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. This slightly warmer temperature range will help to keep the wine yeast invigorated, particularly when it reaches the end of its ability.
Fermentation temperatures that are cooler will cause the fermentation to be slower and may even stop all together. Fermentation temperatures that are higher can result in off-flavors in the wine, and in extreme cases hinder the fermentation as well.
3. Provide Plenty Of Air. During the primary fermentation, keep the fermentation vessel open to air. Just cover it with a light towel or something similar. This air exposure will help the yeast to multiply more successfully and give it more energy to do the task ahead. Once you rack the wine to a secondary fermenter it is then okay to attach an air-lock.
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.