Making a Big Red

Note: This is a first draft, and I have several people reviewing it. It’s very possible that this post will change a lot in the next month or two. If you have feedback, feel free to leave a comment.

On WineMakingTalk, a lot of folks ask about making a “big red” or a “100 point red”. This makes sense — every home winemaker wants to make an amazing wine that is the envy of every other winemaker in the world.

Sorry folks, that goal is not realistic. Home winemakers are not going to make a 100 point wine. If major wineries with the best fruit, the most highly trained and experienced winemakers, and the best equipment cannot consistently do it, neither will you.

This is not intended to be discouraging. Many year ago as a fledgling IT consultant, one of the first lessons I learned was to set realistic expectations with the customers. And in myself. This transfers to winemaking, as we need to set realistic goals.

If I can’t make a 100 point red, what can I make? The realistic answer is the best wine I can, that is a good example of the type.

What type? Whatever type I’m making.

Following are my ideas regarding how to make a “big red”.


Set a Realistic Goal

As is explained in more detail below, wine starts with the raw materials, be that grapes or fruit or juice. If starting with frozen Welch’s grape juice, the likelihood of making a wine that will compare to Chateau Petrus is nil. Even when starting with the best grapes a home winemaker can buy, the chances of making a Petrus contender is 100 times nil … which is still nil.

In my post Wine Ratings and Price, I listed my thoughts regarding ranking and comparing wines. I suggest reading that before continuing, as it sets the stage for figuring out what you can make. Keep in mind these are my thoughts on the matter, and no one else has to agree with me.

Creating a Big Red

Creating a big red takes a lot of independent steps that work together. Doing all is not required — there may be judgment calls based upon the situation, materials, and desires.

This is my list, which is (of course) open to debate.

Fruit

Start with good fruit. Red juice makes a good wine, but it won’t compete with reds fermented on the skins in making a big red.

The next choice is a good quality kit that includes skin packs, from a reputable vendor. My experience is kits from Finer Wine Kits, Winexpert, and R J Spagnols are good choices. There are others, but I do not have direct experience with them.

Saignée

For grapes, try saignée, drawing off 10% – 25% of the juice immediately after crushing. Make Rose with the drawn juice, leaving a smaller amount of juice with a heavier pulp level, to produce a heavier wine.

I have not tried this yet, but am considering purchasing an extra 2 to 4 lugs in the fall to give me sufficient volume to fill my barrels. I normally purchase 16 lugs, as each 54 liter barrel needs 8 lugs to fill it AND provide sufficient top up wine.

Cold Soaking

Soaking the grapes after crushing, or letting a concentrate set with skin packs helps with extraction. I generally do 1 day, as the grapes I purchase are well chilled and take a day to come up to fermenting temperature, as do reconstituted kits. My target is 63 to 68 F.

Some folks make chillers or add dry ice to extend the cold soak.

Maceration Enzymes

Maceration enzymes extract more from the grapes during fermentation. There are numerous choices, all of which probably work.

I use Scottzyme Color Pro and am very pleased with the results. It does a lot, and I chose it because it does what several other enzymes do collectively. I’m reviewing other enzymes to determine if I want to add or change my selection.

Some general advice that extends beyond enzymes: don’t settle on one thing. Continue researching as new products are developed.

Fermentation Oak

The addition of oak during fermentation is called “sacrificial oak”, as post fermentation some of the tannin drops in the sediment. The extracted oak tannin drops first, preserving natural grape tannin. There are many types of tannin, and grape tannin is preferred in the wine.

Fine grained oak is preferred as it provides more surface area for extraction during the short fermentation period. A lot of folks use oak chips — I use shredded medium toast oak, typically American oak. The type is of much lesser concern than aging oak.

Extended Maceration

It’s becoming common to let the wine soak in the pomace for a period after fermentation, as the wine extracts more tannin, polyphenols, and “stuff” from the pomace.

For home winemakers, use a primary fermenter that can seal, such as the common 7.9 gallon fermenter. When the SG reaches ~1.010, seal the fermenter and add an airlock. The wine is emitting plenty of CO2 which pushes out the air (which contains O2) and protects the wine during the EM period.

The wine should rest for at least 1 week after this, as the fermentation completes. Some folks let the wine rest as long as 8 weeks.

The research I’ve done appears to indicate that most of the extraction occurs within 2 weeks of the completion of fermentation, so my recommendation is to leave the fermenter sealed for 2 to 3 weeks.

Press the Pomace Hard

A lot of folks do a light pressing on the pomace, as the wine produced from a hard pressing tends to be more harsh, but has a lot of body. Some folks prefer a wine made only from free run wine (no pressing).

This is a mixed bag, as I’ve discovered the harsh wine mellows with time, so letting the wine age a year or two after bottling mellows it greatly.

One option is to keep the hard pressings separate, and use to top up barrels or carboys. This limits the amount of the hard pressings in the wine.

Aging Oak

Oak adjuncts can make a large difference in a wine, although too much can ruin a wine. Common adjuncts for aging include chips, cubes, staves, and spirals.

Oak chips are very uneven in size, and since surface area matters, it’s easy to over-oak a wine. For this reason I no longer use them for aging.

Cubes tend to be relatively uniform, so it’s possible to gauge the effects of a certain amount from one batch to another.

Staves and spirals have the least surface area, and are probably the easiest to gauge results, as it probably will take more exposure. They are also the most expensive, and are very difficult to alter the amount of oak used. Time is the better factor.

I prefer cubes, both for price and for configurability. I can add as much or little as desired, and can mix types, e.g., 1 oz medium toast French cubes with 1/2 oz dark toast American cubes.

Typically I use 1/2 oz to 2 oz per 5 US gallons, with 1-1/2 oz being the most common. I add the cubes to a bulk aging wine and leave them in the full duration of the aging, which is typically three to twelve months.

I use medium toast cubes, currently Hungarian, but I have used French and American. Cubes have the advantage that you get relatively consistent results with respect to chips, and you have very fine control which you don’t get with staves and spirals. You can mix cube types. I’ve done up to 2 oz / 5 gallons in the past, but found the wine can be harsh, especially lighter bodied wines. Currently for heavier wines I’m using 1.5 oz / 5 gallons.

Barrel Aging

In my experience, nothing duplicates barrel aging. Water and alcohol evaporate through the wood, concentrating the remaining constituents. Along with that, small amounts of O2 enter the wine, producing beneficial micro-oxygenation.

The drawbacks are the expense and care of barrels, and the fact that wine volume is lost through evaporation. The result is less amount of a better wine.

Another issue is the age of the barrel. New barrels leach a lot of oak character into a wine, and this continues until the barrel is 2 or 3 years old. Especially for small barrels (5 US gallons) the length of time a wine should spend in a barrel during the first year is limited, potentially as short as 4 weeks for the first wine, and 6 to 8 weeks for the second wine. The oak character of a barrel gets used up, eventually leaving the barrel “neutral”, that is having very little to no oak character to impart into the wine.

Note that large barrels, e.g., 60 gallon barrels, have an internal surface area to volume ratio that is low enough that wine can spend years without being over-oaked. However, this is limited to the relatively few home winemakers due the volume required for one batch. My barrels are 54 liter (14.25 US gallons) and that size is a good middle ground for usage vs. batch size.

Barrels reach the neutral state at the age of 2 to 3 years, as there is little, if any, oak character remaining. Once a barrel reaches neutrality, it’s common to add oak adjuncts to provide oak character. In my opinion this is the best stage, as it doesn’t matter what the barrel was originally — I can add whatever oak I want. My current barrels are French oak, but I’m using Hungarian oak, and can alter this as desired.

Note: This is not intended to be a primer on barrels. It’s a brief explanation regarding how barrels contribute towards making a “big wine”.

Glycerin

Glycerin adds body to wine, along with a bit of perceived sweetness. It can round out a wine and make it drinkable sooner. I add it to all my wines, typically 1/2 to 1 ounce per gallon.

Time and Aging

Time is a key factor in making a big wine. These tend to have more tannin, and that takes time to soften so the wine loses its harshness.

Heavy red wines should be bulk aged for a minimum of 6 months, as the wine goes through a lot of chemical changes and this enables it to happen as a whole entity. It also helps ensure sediment has dropped, so it doesn’t drop in the bottle.

I typically bulk age such wines for 12 months, bottling when the next year’s wine is ready for barrel. Some folks bulk age for up to 2 years.

Bottle aging depends on the wine. Especially with a large batch, it’s worth testing a bottle every 3 months to see how it is aging. Record tasting notes and review them after each tasting.

In contrast, I bulk age lighter reds and whites for at least 3 months, bottling at the 4 to 7 month point. Bottle aging of only 3 months is possible. Each wine is different and it’s impossible to make a blanket recommendation regarding how long to bulk age or bottle age a given wine. I list my personal minimums.

Summary

Making a big wine takes thought and planning. And time, lots of time. In the end it can be very worthwhile.

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