Basic Winemaking Process

updated 12/26/2023

The internet is wonderful, because there is so much information freely available. Simultaneously, the internet is horrible because there is so much incorrect information freely available!

Winemaking is a prime example. On WineMakingTalk (a winemakers forum), a lot of beginners ask for help to fix their wine, as what someone told them to do, or what was in a YouTube video or some blog was bad advice. Please believe that it’s far easier to start someone on a good path than it is to fix a wine already on a bad path.

Something that makes this harder is that most questions in winemaking have more than one valid answer, so the budding winemaker can hear what sounds like conflicting advice, while both points of voice are valid. Winemaking has the potential to be a complicated process.

This post is NOT intended to be a comprehensive guide to winemaking nor will it answer all questions.

This post is intended to answer common questions and provide a general procedure for making wine from any fruit. This process is not all-encompassing — it gets a new winemaker started and follows through to bottling.

Equipment

The following equipment is a bare minimum to make wine.

Hydrometer — This handy tool measures Specific Gravity (SG). Using it, the winemaker knows how much sugar is in the wine initially, can determine how far along the fermentation process is, and when fermentation is complete. The SG readings (first and last) can be used to determine the Alcohol By Volume (ABV) of the wine. This is generally considered necessary equipment because without it, the winemaking is guessing.

Primary Fermenter — Use a food grade bucket that is at least 25% larger then the volume of the must (crushed fruit prior to fermentation). Fermentation produces CO2 and may overflow a container that’s too small. Purpose-made primary fermenters are available commercially, and food grade buckets can be re-used from other sources, such as restaurants. However, if the container smells strongly of the previous contents, e.g., pickles, do NOT use the container, as it may taint your wine.

For large batches it’s common to use Rubbermaid Brute trash cans. If doing this, buy a new one — do NOT use one that has already been used for garbage, as the wine will be flavored in an unappetizing way.

Siphon Hose & Racking Cane — Food grade tubing is used to siphon wine from one container to another, typically to remove the wine from sediment. This is called “racking”. A racking cane is a stiff tube that is lowered into the must/wine, which makes racking much easier, as the tubing is flexible and rarely points where the winemaker desires. If no tubing is available, the wine may be carefully poured from one container to another, leaving as much sediment as possible behind.

Secondary Storage — After fermentation, the wine needs to be in closed containers to protect it from oxygen (O2) while clearing and aging. It’s common to use 1 US gallon (4 liter) jugs, and carboys of various sizes. Plastic, unless designed for wine, should not be used.

Drilled Stoppers & Airlocks — Typically drilled silicon stoppers and airlocks are used on secondary storage containers, to allow CO2 to escape while preventing air from getting in. There are other methods of doing this, but stopper-and-airlock is the easiest, effective choice.

Hygiene

The most important thing in winemaking is hygiene — keep it clean! Microorganisms can destroy a wine before it gets started.

We do not sterilize, which is killing and removing 100% of the microorganisms. This is difficult to do at home, and is not necessary.

We sanitize, which is killing and removing enough of the microorganisms to prevent them from being a threat. This process is explained in detail in this post.

Batch Planning

Before starting the wine, make a plan. Look at the recipe and ensure it makes sense. If something doesn’t make sense, post questions on WMT in the Beginners Forum. It’s FAR better to figure things out before starting!

If using juice or a wine kit, the volume part is easy. The initial volume is known.

For most grapes, typically no water is added and it’s necessary to lookup what volume of wine will be produced from a given weight of grapes.

For fruit wines, consider how much fruit the recipe calls for and how much is available. The amount of fruit used per gallon of water typically ranges from 4 to 10 lbs. Stronger tasting fruit like elderberry may do fine with 4 lbs of fruit, while lighter fruits like strawberry need more to ensure the fruit flavor comes through.

Note that using too little fruit to extend the batch makes a weaker wine.

Also consider the size(s) of secondary storage containers. During bulk aging, the containers need to be full within 1″ to 2″ (2.5 to 5 cm) of the stopper. Volume loss is normal during winemaking — when racking off the lees (sediment), there’s no way to prevent it. Sufficient wine is required to topup the secondary container(s) after each racking.

Plan to make enough wine to fill the container(s), and/or acquire smaller containers if there is insufficient fruit to make enough wine to fill the planned container. For example, if the secondary storage is a 19 liter carboy, plan to initially produce 21-22 liters of wine, so the carboy will always be topped up.

If this does not work out? The easiest thing to do is to topup with a compatible wine, one whose flavor will meld nicely with the batch.

Alternately, switch to a smaller container, filled with lead-free marbles, or fill with an inert gas. I’m leery of using marbles due to possible lead content, and of insert gas as it’s not possible to tell what the air/gas mix is in the container.

A. Preparation

As stated previously, this is not a complete procedure for making wine. It is a simplified process that answers the important questions and is easy to follow.

A1. Assemble the Must

Reconstitute the kit. While some references may suggest shorting the water, it’s best to reconstitute to the volume specified in the instructions, e.g., a 23 liter kit should be reconstituted to 23 liters.

OR

Crush the grapes. Crush the grapes enough to break the skin of most berries, and remove the large stems. The grapes do not need to be mush; in fact, avoid crushing too much to avoid crushing the seeds.

OR

Crush the fruit. For non-grape wines, it’s recommended to freeze first to break down the fruit for better extraction, then thaw. Common fruit such as strawberries can be crushed with a sanitized potato masher. Follow the recipe, adding water and sugar. If the recipe calls for acid or tannin, add it now.

Note: Juice needs no preparation.

Add yeast nutrient. This is not required, but adding it ensures the yeast has a better environment in which to prosper. It also helps prevent the formation of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which yeast can produce if stressed, e.g., can’t get enough nutrients.

Add Potassium Metabisulfite (K-meta). This kills or stuns wild yeast and other micro-organisms. For small batches, add 1 finely crushed Campden tablet per 1 US gallon (4 liters). For larger batches, add 1/4 tsp Potassium Metabisulfite (K-meta) powder per 5 to 6 gallons (19 to 23 liters).

Stir the must. Stir well to ensure everything is mixed well.

Put everything into a food grade bucket that is at least 25% larger than the volume of the must. Cover with a towel to keep out “stuff”.

During fermentation air is NOT a problem. Yeast needs O2 for reproduction.

A2. Make a Yeast Starter

This is not required — the yeast can simply be rehydrated or just sprinkled on the must, but in recent years I make a yeast starter for all batches, as it gets the fermentation off to a solid start.

Do not add to the wine yet. Let it rest at least 12 hours for the yeast to rehydrate and begin reproduction, producing a larger initial colony.

B. Inoculate

Stir the must and take an SG reading. Record this Original Gravity (OG) for later use.

If a starter was made, swirl it to mix, then gently pour it down the side of the fermenter so it spreads as little as possible. Yeast reproduces faster in larger groups.

If a starter was not made, mix the yeast packet with 1 cup water, and let rest at least 20 minutes, then add to the must.

Alternately, the yeast packet may be sprinkled on top of the must.

Recover with the towel.

C. Daily Punch Down and/or Stirring

At least once per day, “punch down” the fruit, using a sanitized large spoon or paddle to push the fruit under the surface and break it up. If making a kit or juice, stir to mix. This helps ensure the surface remains moist so mold/mildew do not grow.

Take an SG reading. I don’t usually record readings during fermentation as I’m determining how far along the fermentation is, but record the SG if desired.

If possible, punch down 2 or 3 times per day. Morning and night is a common schedule.

D. Pressing or Racking

When the SG gets low enough, press the fruit or rack the juice.

When is low enough? This is a judgment call, based upon the fruit used and the winemaker’s desire. There are no wrong answers.

  • SG 1.020. Some folks press fruit wines and rack white wines around SG 1.020, to preserve fruit aroma and flavor.
  • SG 1.010. It’s common to rack juices and kits around 1.010. In the past I preferred some activity left when going into the carboy.
  • SG 1.000. For red wines and some fruits, pressing is performed at 1.000 or below, to get the most extraction from the pomace (fruit pulp).
  • “done”. Some folks let the ferment run to completion, typically when the SG <= 0.998.

If making juice or kit wine, rack off the sediment.

If there is fruit pulp, press in a grape or fruit press, run through a nylon filter bag (press to get as much wine as possible from it), or run through as fine a sieve as possible.

Move the wine into secondary storage. If there is some activity left, leave more headspace so the container doesn’t overflow. If the ferment is done, reduce headspace to 1″ to 2″ (2.5 to 5 cm) below the stopper.

Put excess wine in smaller bottles. DO NOT use screw caps on the bottles, as the wine is either continuing to ferment OR it’s degassing. Dangerous pressure can build up and shatter the bottle.

Note: this post contains recommendations for reducing wine loss during racking.

E. Next Racking

Now starts the waiting. Winemaking is an exercise in patience.

If fermentation is still ongoing, it will take a few days to complete. Once all fermentation is complete the gross lees (fruit solids) will drop. I watch for the sediment to reach a maximum, then it normally compacts a bit. It may help to mark the carboy with a grease pencil. This can take 1 to 3 weeks.

At this point, it’s time to rack again.

From this point forward, at each racking add K-meta, either 1 finely crushed Campden tablet per 1 US gallon (4 liters) or 1/4 tsp K-meta powder for each 5 to 6 gallons (19-23 liters) of wine.

K-meta is a preservative and anti-oxidant that gets used up, and needs to be refreshed. Wine can be made without sulfite, but is more susceptible to problems and often has a shorter shelf life.

F. Degassing

Degassing was popularized by kit vendors, as it’s key to being able to bottle wine in 4 to 8 weeks. Sediment will be held in suspension along with excess CO2 and will not drop until the CO2 is gone. Stirring causes the excess CO2 to be expelled sooner, so the wine clears sooner and can be bottled sooner.

Degassing is not necessary. Wine degasses on its own with time.

On its own, wine typically degasses in 4 to 8 months. Bottling before the wine is fully degassed produces the potential for degassing in the bottle, which can blow corks and make a mess.

I degas wines not to bottle quickly, but to get the sediment out sooner.

To degas, stir the wine for 1 minute, changing direction once. This expels a lot of CO2 immediately, but does not expel all. It jumpstarts the process so the wine will continue to degas over the next week or two.

G. Fining Agents

Most wines clear on their own, given sufficient time. This can take 4 to 12 months.

Kit vendors include fining agents, often bentonite (added before fermentation to improve initial drop of sediment and to prevent protein haze), and a mixture of kieselsol and chitosan, which are very effective fining agents.

There are many other fining agents, which are typically added after degassing.

Note: Fining agents have benefits and drawbacks, e.g., bentonite eliminates protein haze, but can reduce color in red wines. Before using a fining agent, perform a search to learn about its characteristics.

H. Bulk Aging

As soon as a wine is clear, it can be bottled and enjoyed. However … young wine will NOT taste as good as that same wine given a longer time to age.

In general, I bottle white wines and fruits at between 4 and 8 months of age, and red wines between 4 and 12 months of age. “How long?” depends on the wine — lighter bodied wines can be bottled sooner while heavier bodied wines need longer.

During its first year, wine goes through a lot of chemical changes. The bottles are more consistent if the wine undergoes these changes in bulk. It also helps to ensure that the wine is given time to age before consumed.

Add Campden tablets/K-meta every 3 months during bulk aging.

Some folks rack every 3 months during bulk aging, and I originally did that. However, I do not bother racking until bottling time.

I. Bottling

Bottle any time after the wine is clear, although reasons to bulk age longer have been listed.

Rack the wine to eliminate any remaining fine lees, and add  Campden tablets/K-meta, as this is the last dose the wine will receive.

If backsweetening (sweetening the wine at bottling time, see this post), also add Potassium Sorbate, which is like birth control for yeast — in conjunction with K-meta, it prevents yeast from reproducing. If sugar is added to the wine and sorbate/K-meta is not added, it’s highly likely the ferment will reignite, which produces CO2 so corks will pop, and a mess will ensure. Visualize a batch of purple mini-volcanoes.

If bottling in any type of screw cap bottle, be cautious about backsweetening. These bottles are typically made of thinner glass, and if the CO2 build-up exceeds the glass’ strength, the bottle can explode.

After bottling, let the wine rest at least a month. It’s common for wine to go into “bottle shock”, which temporarily alters the aroma and taste of the wine. The solution is to wait and let the wine naturally return to normal.

Conclusions

This document is designed to get a new winemaker through the winemaking process. The intention is to be as simple as possible, and it leaves out a lot of detail and does not address special cases and situations.

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