Wine Making Overview - Brewer's Friend
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Wine Making Overview

Monday, September 5th, 2011

If you are into making wine, and live in a northern climate, now is the time to start lining up your local grapes. Grapes all over Oregon and Washington will ripen in the next 4-6 weeks. Check local message boards, your local home brew store, or craig’s list. I have found my local wine maker’s club is the best source for group purchases.

Last year I made an Oregon Pinot Noir that turned out really good. This year I’m going to try for Oregon Pinot Noir again, and Tempranillo a red Spanish grape.

About Wine Grapes:

All wine grapes have clear juice. White wine is crushed and pressed before fermentation. Red wines however are crushed, but fermented on the skin. Breaking the skin releases the tannin’s and imparts the red color and more robust flavors.

How making red wine is different from making beer:

1. Wine grapes can’t be stored effectively like grain. Wine makers get essentially one shot per season. Kits are an alternative, but don’t provide the same aroma since they are pasteurized. Personally I skipped them and went straight to fresh local grapes. The key to a good wine is fresh high quality grapes.

wine grapes vineyard

2. The grapes need to be picked, crushed, and brought home. $1/pound is a good starting price. Last year, these two buckets were enough to hold 115 pounds of crushed grapes. This resulted in 41 bottles, about 8 gallons of finished wine.

crushed wine grapes must

3. Unlike brewing beer, with wine there is no boil. What goes into the fermenter is not sanitized. This includes an unavoidable bit of mold, dead spiders, the odd rotten grape, wild yeasts, etc. You do your best not to get those in there, but it happens. The next step takes care of this.

grape must

4. A sulfite solution is added to the crushed grapes (more properly called ‘must’) to kill off unwanted microbes. This sits for 24 hours, and then the yeast is pitched. Some wine makers do a cold soak for a number of days before pitching to try to extract more flavor.

5. Yeast selection is key, in researching Pinot Noir, I selected Assmanshauser and had great results.

6. Primary fermentation is done ‘open air’. A large bin makes a good fermentor. To keep bugs out I put a towel over the bin. The board keeps the towel in place.

wine fermentor

7. Temperature control during fermentation is important. The fermentor is outfitted with a heating strip to keep it in range. I was shooting for 85F. I probably exceeded that, since fermentation generates a lot of heat. Ideally you want a temperature controller with the probe stuck in the middle of the fermenter. Every wine maker has a different practice. Some wine makers go for a slower fermentation to soak up more flavors.

wine temperature strip

8. As the must ferments, it forms a crown that must be punched down twice a day. Oxygen is beneficial at this stage.

red wine crown

9. For red wine, after primary fermentation is done, the grapes are pressed, and the young wine is transferred to the secondary. Some wine makers go for an extended maturation, which allows more of the tannins to soak into the wine before pressing. For Pinot Noir, without an extended maturation, the wine will be fruity and light, but not as robust.

wine press in action

10. It takes a long time, minimum 6 months, maximum 2-3 years before your wine will be ready. Full bodied reds take the longest. My wine was drinkable in 7 months, but I should have let it sit another couple of months in the carboy.

wine in the barrel

11. Control of acid levels and sulfites is critical to good wine making. Test kits are expensive. The ability to interpret the test results and adjust the wine is what true mastery in wine making is all about. Many books have been written on this subject and it can take many years to get good. Wine makers are also a bit like cats and have their own way of doing things. Since I am new to it, I take a hands off approach and let the process happen naturally. Perhaps I was just lucky on the first try, but I think I had excellent grapes and made a good yeast selection.

12. An inoculation of Malolatic yeast is recommended for some wines to smooth out the flavor. Nature may take care of this for you too, perhaps after the wine has been bottled! Malo releases CO2, as you can see in this image:

malolactic fermentation

13. The wine is racked several times. The carboys need to be topped off with a similar wine, since head space is very bad for aging wine. As the wine ages, the sulfite level drops. To protect the wine from spoiling, a sulfite level around 60 ppm is recommended, and needs to be maintained. Be careful though, over sulfited wine will be terrible.

racking wine

14. Barrels can be used instead of carboys. I see this as an advanced practice. Barrels are expensive. You have to really know what you are doing for a barrel to add value to the wine. To me, over oaked wine tastes terrible.


There are important differences when it comes to making white wine, but I have not tried that.

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