Fixing Fruit Wine Recipes

I read old fruit wine recipes and one thing jumps out at me — the large amount of sugar often specified in some of these recipes. Largfe amounts of sugar produces wines with very high Alcohol By Volume (ABV), enough that the yeast typically used will die from alcohol poisoning (yeast, like humans, will poison their own environment to the point of killing themselves), leaving a lot of residual sugar.

Why that much sugar?

The simple answer is “because it worked”.

Yeast continues eating sugar, emitting alcohol and CO2, until it runs out of sugar or poisons its own environment. If it runs out of sugar, the resulting wine is dry. Fruit wines typically need at least a bit of backsweetening to bring out the fruit flavors. If more sugar is added, the yeast starts eating again, producing a dry wine.

The solution was to add enough sugar so that the yeast killed itself, leaving residual sugar to sweeten the wine.

The problems with this are twofold:

  1. Depending on the yeast variety, this can produce high ABV wines, which may not be desired.
  2. Sweetness is uncontrolled, for the same reason as the high ABV.

The current solution is to use a hydrometer to measure the initial sugar level, so that a wine of a desired strength may be produced. The wine is fermented dry, and potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite (K-meta) are added. These two additives act as birth control for yeast, preventing it from multiplying, which prevents the yeast from eating the new sugar. Now more sugar can be added to backsweeten the wine.

My take on old recipes is:

  • While it was probably understood that more sugar raised the ABV, there was no understanding of exactly how it correlated.
  • Without a hydrometer (commonly available for only the last 50 years), there was no way to measure the potential ABV.
  • The yeast used was either baker’s yeast (for bread) or wild yeast (in the air and on the skin of the fruit).
  • A sweeter wine was desired and sorbate was unavailable, so enough sugar had to be added so the yeast killed itself with alcohol poisoning.
  • In many cases a high ABV wine was desired.
  • Folks experimented and recorded a recipe that was a successful wine from their POV.

This last point is key. At some point someone produced a successful result, recorded their recipe, and it was passed down from there.

H. E. Bravery’s book “Successful Wine Making At Home“, first published in 1961, is the oldest book I’ve found regarding “modern” winemaking techniques for the home winemaker. Bravery was popular in home winemaking circles in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and I suspect part of his popularity came from the large number of consistent recipes he published, and that there were few other good sources.

Note: Bravery does not mention hydrometers in this book, as they were not common among home winemakers in that era.

  • Mrs. Gennery-Taylor published “Easy To Make Wine” in 1957. Her recipes are high in sugar, a sharp contrast to Bravery’s recipes.
  • The earliest home winemaking book I’ve found that mentions hydrometers is Stanley F. Anderson’s “The Art of Making Wine”, first published in 1970.
  • Philip M. Wagner’s “Grapes Into Wine” was first published in 1933 and revised several times — my copy is the 7th printing (1987), copyright 1974, 1976. He uses a “saccarometer”, which is a hydrometer. However, in his opinion, wine was made from grapes and grapes only, so the likelihood of fruit winemakers reading his book is low.

The folks of earlier times made wine using the techniques and materials that were available to them. Currently, winemakers have simple test tools and additives that enable better control of the result.

Fixing Recipes

So you have a recipe for fruit wine. Before doing anything, examine the recipe. Does it make sense and does it need correcting?

Fixing Fruit Levels

Bravery’s recipes often call for 2 to 2-1/2 pounds of fruit per gallon of water. This makes a wine with low fruit character, which was his preference. Folks on WineMakingTalk typically call for 4 to 12 lbs of fruit per gallon of water. Some heavy fruits such as elderberry, or acidic fruit such as blueberry, do well with lesser amounts of fruit. Light fruits such as strawberry need more fruit to get the desired flavor.

As a general rule, plan for 5 to 8 lbs of fruit per gallon, and generally prefer more fruit. I’d rather have less good tasting wine than more bland tasting wine.

Fixing Sugar Levels

Before continuing, read my post Chaptalizing Wine, as it explains how much each addition of sugar changes the SG. The remainder of this post assume the reader has read it.

If the recipe calls for more than 1 pound of sugar (2-1/4 cups) per gallon, I question it. Many fruits are in the 1.040 to 1.050 SG range, and since 1 lb sugar produces SG 1.045 in 1 gallon water, the result of adding 1 lb sugar is 1.085 to 1.095. This produces 11% to 12.5% ABV.

However, fruits vary greatly in SG, and the ratio of fruit to water will alter it as well. Fruits like apples and cherries have a higher SG, whereas cranberry is low. One pound sugar in apple or cherry wine may be right, but for cranberry it will produce a low ABV, so 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 lbs may be correct.

If the sugar appears high, do not blindly add the sugar indicated in the recipe. Use the table in Chaptalizing Wine to estimate the amount of sugar needed.

I recommend caution — it is far easier to add more sugar than to remove some. I add 1/2 of the estimated sugar, stir well, and check the SG. Depending on the reading and the desired SG, add more sugar, stirring well after each addition, and check SG. Stop when the target SG is reached.

Make notes for future reference — even if the amount called for in the recipe is spot on, keep notes regarding what you did. The fruit may be different next time.

Note: This technique works for any wine, including concentrates. Add less sugar, stir well, and test. Repeat until you get the desired SG.

Batch Size

Wine needs to be topped up during bulk aging, e.g., the headspace (air space) above the wine needs to be small, typically the wine should be within 1″ to 3″ (2.5 cm to 7.5 cm) of the stopper.

The easiest way to handle this is to plan batch sizes around the secondary storage container sizes. If the container is a 4 liter wine jug, plan for 4.5 to 5.0 liters of liquid from the must. This allows for loss of volume due to sediment. Excess wine should be stored in smaller containers.

Note that the initial volume of the must isn’t useful for planning purposes. The fruit solids will be removed from the wine, so the planned volume of the remaining liquid is the important value.


It’s entirely possible the quantities in a recipe will all be altered, so the result is a brand new recipe. This is fine. Just because something is written or publish, doesn’t mean it’s right for a given situation. Winemaking is a series of natural processes, and each batch is different. Respond to the needs of a batch, and don’t try to make “one size fits all”.

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