It’s no more complicated to make wine than sourdough bread, but it requires more time and a few special tools. You’ll also get to put your creative juices to use and gain a better appreciation for professional winemakers.
The instructions below will make five gallons (or 25 750-ml bottles) of traditional grape wine, which should work for any beginner. You’ll need approximately $400 for grapes and basic supplies found on many websites or at local brewing/winemaking stores. Merchants like Midwestsupplies.com, PIwine.com and NapaFermentation.com offer starter kits at reasonable prices.
Step 1: Get Your Grapes
Start with the best-quality grapes you can afford. You’ll need 60 to 75 pounds of grapes. A winemaking store will have sources, as will search engines, but it may be possible to buy your preferred grape variety from a vineyard near you at $1 or $2 per pound.
Avoid using grape concentrate, as it might end up tasting sweeter or with less overall structure than wines you typically enjoy. However, frozen wine grape juice or must (juice with grape skins included) are nearly as good as fresh. Companies like WineGrapesDirect.com and BrehmVineyards.com will deliver to you. Brehm sells a 5.25-gallon pail of high-quality frozen Sauvignon Blanc juice from Washington State for around $150, or about $6 per bottle.
Step 2: Crush, Press, Stomp
If you have grape juice or pre-crushed must, you can skip to fermentation (Step 3A or 3B for white or red wine, respectively). If not, you’ll need to crush or press the grapes to get the juice flowing. Stomp the grapes by foot. You can buy or rent equipment for this, but why? This is the fun part. The stuff of Lucy and Ethel dreams.
Dump the grapes into any big, clean container. Wash your feet thoroughly with soap and water, rinse well and step on the grape bunches. You can’t hurt them, so press down hard until the bunches are smashed and the juice is released. This will also remove some of the red berries from the stems, which is good.
For white wines, you only want to ferment the juice in the next step. Pour the bulk of the juice through a funnel into a glass carboy, then press the leftover skins and stems through a heavy-duty colander into a pot or bucket to collect the remaining juice. You can also put the skins and seeds in a cloth bag and wring out the extra juice.
For reds, you ferment the whole mess of juice, skins and seeds after you pluck out as many stems as your patience allows.
Step 3A: Fermenting for White Wine
Start with at least 5.25 gallons of white grape juice to end up with five gallons of wine. Pour the juice into a carboy or other closeable container larger than the volume you will ferment, as the wine can foam or expand and ooze out the top.
White grape juice is actually green or golden at first, but it will turn a brown color after it’s pressed and as it starts to ferment. Don’t worry, it will lighten to pale yellow or gold later. Use an airlock to keep oxygen out and allow the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation to escape.
Add wine yeast, according to the instructions on the packet. Keep the juice at a comfortable room temperature, as advised on the yeast instructions. It should begin to emit a light foam of carbon dioxide within a day or two, which signals the start of fermentation.
Remove the stopper once a day, or as needed, to stir the juice and the lees that will begin to settle to the bottom. If the fermentation speeds up and the wine foams out of your vessel, just mop it up and cool the container slightly.
Step 3B: Fermenting for Red Wine
Red must doesn’t need a tightly closed top or airlock during fermentation. It can ferment in a large open container with just a towel or a piece of thin plywood on top to keep dust and fruit flies out. Add wine yeast, and give it a good stir. It may begin to ferment in as little as 12 hours.
Red wines need to be stirred, or “punched down,” at least twice per day when fermentation is going strong. You’ll see a “cap” of skins that floated to the top. This needs to be submerged back into the wine regularly to keep the skins wet. This allows the juice to extract the key color and flavor compounds from the skins.
It’s good for red wines to warm to 80°F or more during fermentation to aid this extraction. You can check this with an old-fashioned weather thermometer.
Step 4: Watch the Fermentation Magic
Test the sugar levels of the fermenting juice periodically with a basic hydrometer in a graduated cylinder. It’s measured in degrees Brix, which equals sugar percentage. Your juice will start out between 18–26 degrees Brix, and it will reduce to minus-2 Brix once fermentation is complete.
White wine fermentation lasts several days to several weeks, and it depends a lot on temperature. The cooler the room, the longer it takes. Red wine that reaches a good, warm temperature during fermentation should be done in a week or two.
Once fermentation is complete, separate the new wine from the gross lees of fermentation. Pour the wine into a five-gallon carboy to mature.
For white wine, use tubing to siphon off the juice and leave most of the lees behind to dump out. Elevate the fermentation container at least two feet above the carboy in which you will age it. Start the flow using your mouth for suction, and gravity will do the rest.
For a red, transfer the juice to a carboy and then press the skins to squeeze out any remaining juice. Add this to the carboy as well, and top it with an airlock.
Step 5: Protect Your Creation
Since there’s no more release of carbon dioxide, it’s vital to protect the wine from air and premature oxidation. Keep the carboy topped up all the way, and minimize the number of times you open it. Top up with a good commercial wine of the same grape variety, if needed.
Add sulfites, according to instructions from a good source like Home Winemaking for Dummies by Tim Patterson or Making Table Wine at Home from the University of California, Davis. You want to raise the wine’s natural sulfur dioxide content from a few parts per million (ppm) to a moderate level of about 60 ppm for most wines. This protects the wine from oxidation, vinegar bacteria and other bad microorganisms.
Sulfites are not a substitute for using spotlessly clean containers, hoses, funnels and other equipment. Sterilization isn’t necessarily needed, but things must be sanitary.
Step 6: Let it Mature
Store the carboy in a cool (but not cold) place out of direct light. Check it regularly for a loose stopper or dry airlock. Stir the lees of white wine every week or two to improve its texture. When the wine tastes like something you’d enjoy drinking, it’s time to bottle. Most white wines should mature after four to nine months in a carboy. Reds take from six months to a year.
During maturation, it’s good to rack red wines once or twice before you bottle them. Siphon the clear wine into another container. Then clean the lees out of the carboy and return the wine. Whites can stay on the lees until bottling, but for either type, stop any stirring or racking far enough in advance for any sediment to settle and the wine to clear before bottling.
Step 7: Bottle it, Baby
Here, the job is to simply get the wine out of the carboy and into bottles without disturbing the lees and with as little exposure to air as possible. Pro tip: new bottles in clean storage don’t need to be rinsed before filling. Siphon the wine into the bottles much like the racking procedure. Fill each bottle to within half an inch of where the cork bottom will rest.
Cork them as you go with a manual corker that you can rent or buy. It’s fun to add your own labels, which you can design and print at home using peel-off label stock from an office supply store.
The metallic capsules on commercial wines can’t be applied to home wines without an expensive spinner, but wine and brew shops sell plastic versions that cover the bottle tops and look decent. These will shrink to fit when held over a stove burner. Just be careful.
Your wine will benefit from a few weeks or months of aging in the bottle, but who can wait that long? The only remaining chore is to start pulling corks.