Advanced Winemaking Basics

For a better understanding of what, why, or how....

What Wine Is

I have received email insisting that wine can only be made from grapes, and that “those other beverages” featured on this site are merely “fermented juices.” Well excuse me for brutalizing wasted brain cells with the truth, but the email protesters (there have been three thus far) are snobs and plain wrong. Every single dictionary I’ve consulted (16, to date) has defined the drink we call wine as (1) the fermented juice of any of various kinds of grapes, usually containing from 10 to 15 per cent alcohol by volume, and (2) the fermented juice of any of various other fruits or plants.

The truth is that you can make consumable wine from almost any non-toxic fruits, vegetables, leaves, bark, wood, roots, flowers, grains, seeds, pods, and leaf or flower buds. I have also heard of wine made from sap, nectar, moss, lichen, fungus, algae, seaweed, cornsilk, coconut milk, germinated seeds, animal blood, and animal urine. I question whether these last two are technically “wine,” but the word was used in describing the drinks (you’ll not, however, find their recipes at this web site).

The reason I bring up the issue of what is wine is to impress upon the reader that there are almost endless possibilities for making wine. You’ll find the largest collection of winemaking recipes on the world wide web right here at this web site, but you won’t find every conceivable recipe. I’ve tried to give you enough information to allow you to experiment on your own and make an acceptable wine. All you need is a thorough grounding in the basics — what I call “advanced basics” — and some established recipes to use as guides

Beware of Toxins

At a previous home I was blessed with about two dozen crepe myrtle trees which were champion flower producers. One day I looked at the half-inch thick carpet of fallen flowers from the myrtles and decided to put them to use. I spread an old sheet under a tree and began shaking it. I was greeted with a shower of white petals. I moved the sheet to the next several trees and added pink, red and lavender petals to the white. When done, I measured three gallons of petals and set out to make an improvised wine. I was suddenly struck by the fact that I had never heard of crepe myrtle wine, so I called my county agricultural extension agent and inquired as to the potential toxicity of crepe myrtle flowers. He didn’t know, but said he’d check. He called me back within ten minutes with the bad but sobering news that myrtle flowers were toxic. I learned an invaluable lesson that day. When in doubt, check it out. Since then I’ve learned that there are more toxic flowers than there are non-toxic ones, so I’ve modified that lesson-jingle to read, “When less than certain, close the curtain.” Always err on the side of caution.

The Basic Concept of Winemaking

Conceptually, winemaking is quite simple. You combine a flavored juice with sugar, acid, tannin, and yeast, remove any pectin present, and allow the yeast to do what it naturally does with as little exposure to air and contaminates as possible. When the yeast is done, the result is wine. Conceptually, that’s all there is to it. In reality, it’s a bit more involved. There are subtleties to consider — like proportions, for example, and dead yeast cells, pectin haze, suspended particulants, and a host of other things. Still, it’s a simple concept.

We say that a wine’s base is that from which the primary flavor of the wine is derived. Usually, that base is a fruit. In nature, there is only one fruit which provides all the required ingredients for making wine, and that’s the grape. The grape has (or can have) the right amount of natural sugar, the right amount of natural acids, it’s own flavor and tannin, and it hasn’t got any pesky pectin. Best of all, it even comes with its own yeast. That powdery coating covering grapes is wild yeast, and it is sufficient to start and finish fermentation. Not all grapes, however, are created equal. Some will have an abundance of natural sugar and some will be deficient. Some wild yeasts will carry fermentation to 10% alcohol before the alcohol kills them off, but some will only get to 6%. Some have lots of tannin — too much, really — and some will fall short. Still — and we are still speaking conceptually — the grape is the perfect winemaking base. All others fall short in one aspect or several. In essence, then, the “art” of making wine is to optimize the various aspects in order to make great wine.

The various aspects to be optimized depend on what kind of wine one is making and the quality of the various ingredients. The remainder of this page will examine some of them.

Extracting the Flavor

In fruit, flavor is normally in the juices. With fruits rich in natural juices, flavor extraction is usually rather simple. The fruit is placed in a mechanical press and brute force mashes it and forces the juice out. Grapes, apples, some pears, and most melons submit well to pressing. Pitted fruit such as plums, peaches, nectarines, and apricots only press well after being pitted (de-stoned). Most citrus fruit press well, but driving the juice through the pith (the white pulp between the skin and the juicy sections) can ruin the taste, so a citrus juicer is preferred. Pressing and juicing will yield most of the juice, flavor and natural sugar. Additional flavor and sugar are locked in the remaining fruit pulp and can be obtained by steeping the pulp in the extracted juices and letting the yeast work on the pulp. If one wishes, one can forego extraction altogether and simply buy juice concentrates. Be advised, however, that only concentrates packaged (canned) for winemaking are guaranteed to be free of yeast-inhibiting preservatives. However, it is possible to find organic juices — usually not concentrated — which are preservative-free. Indeed, organic apple juice is available in most health food stores. Even concentrated juices, however, invariably lack enough natural sugar, acid and/or tannin and must be supplemented.

Pressing, however, will not work for some apples, most pears, and most other fruit, berries or vegetables. More accurately, pressing will work, but not as well as other means. Hot or boiling water and the action of yeast are usually required. Bruising, dicing, slicing, mashing, and straining are also often specified. The fruit are prepared (cut up, diced, sliced, or bruised) and introduced to hot or boiling water. The heat breaks down the pulp enough for extraction of flavor through steeping. Deficient constituents and nutrients are added and then the yeast is introduced. A primary fermentation begins on the pulp and continues until most of the sugar, flavors and color are extracted from the base ingredients by the yeast. The remaining pulp, dead yeast cells and other particulants (called lees) are discarded to prevent production of unwanted flavors. The remaining liquid (called liquor) is then fermented until the yeast die off or fermentation is chemically stopped. At this point the liquor is wine and is bottled but the flavor is not fixed. The flavor changes (and usually improves considerably) as the wine ages.

For herbs, flowers, leaves, bark, roots, and wood chips, the basic method of flavor (and aroma) extraction is steeping in water. Either hot or cold water may be called for, but more often than not cold water is specified to preserve a color or aromatic characteristic. This is called infusion. Boiling may be required, and on rare occasions a pressure cooker is called for.

Proven recipes will tell you which method to use, but for some bases there is a choice. For example, the accepted method of preparing prickly pear cactus fruit for winemaking is to peel, chop and ferment in cold water. But you can also peel, chop and press the fruit, or peel, chop and boil, and press the fruit, or even chop the fruit without peeling and strain well to remove the fine, hair-like stickers. I prefer to boil this fruit so as to set the deep, rich, burgundy color.

A Few More Words About Flavor

It is sometimes difficult for the novice to appreciate how flavors affect a wine. If three pounds of fruit are good, they reason, then four pounds ought to be better. This may or may not be true, and the difference is not easily explained.

The idea is not to make alcoholic fruit juice, but to make wine. Flavor in wine should be more subtle than in the juice or nectar of the base ingredient. A prime example is the raspberry. The fresh, ripe raspberry is filled with an abundance of flavor that is almost overwhelming. Raspberry juice carries forward that abundance. But raspberry flavored waters, which are now marketed by many companies, impart a subtler flavor–distinctly raspberry but not overwhelmingly so.

Raspberry wine, on the other hand, tastes like neither the fruit, the juice, nor the flavored water. It is mellower, subtler, and unlike any other raspberry product. It has distinct edges that fall off the sides of the tongue and change ever so slightly as the liquid is swallowed, leaving a delicate finish that dwells for some moments on the floor and palate of the mouth–distinctly raspberry, yes, but filled with nuances I’ve yet learned how to describe.

All of this is achieved with a wine made from three pounds of very ripe raspberries. Four pounds of these berries might just prove to be too much, ruining the delicacy of the finish. If the berries were less flavorful, I wouldn’t hesitate to use four pounds, but surely not five. If you want to experiment with amounts of base ingredients, by all means do so, but take notes and refer to them one or two years down the road so you know what you are drinking and how it was made.

Another example of flavor differential is mead. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water. I do not think of it as wine, although some people do. Certainly it ages like wine, mellowing out for a year or two and then gathering charm and character for two to three years. A friend of mine has 110 recipes for mead and rarely drinks anything but. So what’s the big deal? After all, it’s only honey and water….

It has been said that no two honeys taste exactly the same. I’m not sure I believe this, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument. Honey is made by bees and a few other insects from the nectar of flowers. You really don’t want to know how bees accomplish this feat of transmutation, but you should know why all honeys taste differently.

All nectars have distinct flavor and aroma. Honey is made from nectar. The predominate nectar used to make any given honey imparts the predominate flavor to it. This may be clover, heather, orange blossoms, or wildflowers. I seriously doubt that a single type of nectar ever was exclusively used to make a honey, but certainly many honeys have and associated predominate nectar in their production. All white clover honeys may taste pretty much the same, but each will have some percentage of other nectars associated with their production and will therefore taste slightly different from the other white clover honeys. One may also expect that soil and climate differences among the various white clover fields of the world might ever-so-slightly affect the flavor of the nectar–and therefore the honey–from each.

The taste of any given mead is affected to some degree by the flavor of the honey from which it is made. But it is more complicated than that, really, because one recipe may call for three pounds of honey and another for three and one-quarter pounds. This difference, however slight, is nonetheless a difference. And, of course, the source of acid (acid blend, lemon, lime, orange, etc.) may also affect the taste.

I mention all this simply to stir your thinking. Flavors can be slight but nonetheless influential. Your wines will taste the way you cause them to taste, which may not be the way you intended. Whenever you make wine, take notes. You may be glad later that you did.

Internet archive capture on: June 13, 2022
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