A Rundown of "Country" (Backyard) Grape Wines

OK, here are the procedures, (in this humble narrator's opinion), for the making of grape wine from table grapes, such as Concord. This is NOT a comprehensive instruction, but rather a guideline. There is many books devoted to making country-style wines, and they wil have much more information than what we can say here, but, other than that, this article should get you through the basics of it all.....

OK, here are the procedures, (in this humble narrator's opinion), for the making of grape wine from table grapes, such as Concord. This is NOT a comprehensive instruction, but rather a guideline. There is many books devoted to making country-style wines, and they wil have much more information than what we can say here, but, other than that, this article should get you through the basics of it all.....

Where did you get your grapes? Good grapes make good wine, and bad grapes make bad wine. In my opinion the grower is making at least 75% of the wine. The winemaker fine-tunes the last 25% of the flavor. I am assuming you are getting your grapes from your backyard, or from your neighbor's yard. Since there are many variables s to how your grapes have grown this year, you will want to know some basic information. We sell hydrometers and refractometers (to test sugar levels) and acid test kits (to test acid levels) very inexpensively at the store. Knowing these two things will greatly enhance your ability to make a good wine.

We will also do free refractometer tests on your clusters if you bring them in close to harvest.

After knowing your sugar levels, you will be able to assume whether or not you will need to add sugar to raise your Brix after you crush them, call me and I can help you calculate how much you should add. This will most likely (but not always) be the case for table grapes, such as Concord or Niagra, or for backyard grapes that were not "professionally" tended. (WARNING: Do NOT blindly over-add sugar: higher alcohol makes for harsher wines. Most "country wines" taste best in the 10 to 11% alcohol range. Most .) A hydrometer will tell for certain, your taste buds cannot: all grapes taste "very sweet"in mid-September. Therefore you should not decide whether or not to add sugar just by taste: use a hydrometer, they are cheap. Or come by to use our refractometer.

You will need somewhere between 50 and 60 pounds of grapes for each 5 gallons of wine that you wish to yield. (That's about 10 to 12 pounds per gallon.) Fifty pounds of freshly-picked grapes will fill about twelve gallons worth of volume (2 six-gallon buckets, etc.)

There is a lot of debate about how many grapes to use. Some people use 100 pounds per five gallons, just as in a normal wine grape recipe. If you do, your wine will have more flavor, but some people claim it gets too intense. You may have to experiment one year to see which opinion you agree with. If you use 50 pounds, you will need to add sugar and water to make up the difference. Although there are many variables which might affect this ratio, you will probably have to add "about" 2 gallons of water and 4 pounds of white table sugar to your 50 pounds of grapes in your primary fermenter. If you undershoot, you can always add more later; this is OK. If you overshoot, it is very hard to remove things from your must.

In the beginning, all your grapes get crushed and destemmed. We rent a detemmer/crusher that can process a hundred pounds of grapes in less than five minutes. The rental fee is $22.50. You can also stomp them the old-fashioned way with clean feet in a clean bucket. If you have children, this can be fun (sometimes - remember, kids will get bored and cranky just like adults will, after awhile). But you may throw out more than $22.50 worth of clothes, or use more than $22.50 worth of cleaners trying to unstain their purple feet.... Trying to do it by hand in order to save the money may or may not be worth it in the long run.

Destemming is another matter. It is very, VERY laborious and will lead to splinters under your fingernails, bloody hands and lots of frustration. Again, I recommend the destemmer/crusher, but if you want to try it yourself, plan on at least four to six man-hours for one hundred pounds of grapes in order to do it properly.

Once your 50 to 60 pounds of grapes are destemmed and crushed, they will collapse down to fill about six gallons of volume. Take the extra water and sugar that you need to add (about 2 to 2.5 gallons of water and 3 to 4 pounds of sugar) and heat gently on a stove until it is turned into a liquid syrup. Try not to heat it above 80 or 90 degrees. Add the sugar syrup in with your grapes and mix well. Add 6 crushed Campden tablets to the must and stir well. If the grapes were questionable/moldy/dirty, add 50% more, or even double the dose, depending upon how weird they were. This will kill any alien life forms in the juice. At this time, you can also add pectic enzyme: this helps to break down the fruit, release more flavor and take away future haziness. You can also add some nutrients (diammonium phosphate) to the must: this will help prevent hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell) from forming.

SAFETY NOTE: Be sure to use food-grade plastic fermenters non-food-grade plastics have toxins which can be leached out by alcohol and heat. Food-grade plastics are sold in homebrew stores and restaurant supply stores, while most inexpensive plastic containers (such as found in Home Depot) are NOT food-grade. Be careful and do not use questionable plastic. Main Street sells ONLY food-grade plastics.

You will now want to test your Brix (sugar) levels and see what the sugar level is in your juice. You want it to be between 20 and 26 Brix. 22 or 23 Brix is a good place to be. If you need to add sugar to raise your Brix up to this number, call me and I can help you calculate how much you should add, but here is the rule: 0.125 pounds of sugar raises 1 gallon of liquid by 1 Brix. You should probably assume your liquid level is about 5.5 or 6 gallons at that point (it will look like more with all the fruit in there), but - no matter what - you should ALWAYS add less than you think you need, and then more if necessary. You can always add more sugar, but it is very hard to remove it. A hydrometer can tell you for certain, your taste buds cannot: all grapes taste "sweet." Therefore you should not decide whether or not to add sugar just by taste: use a hydrometer, they are cheap. Call me or e-mail if you need help with this calculation.

You will also want to know, or test, your acid levels at this point. We sell acid test kits in the store for $8.00, or we will test your acid for you for $1.50. Grapes grown in Oregon tend to have higher acids due to our climate and environmental conditions. Many table grapes will fall between .5 parts per thousand and .95 parts per thousand tartaric acid. In Oregon, they usually fall on the higher side. As a Standard Procedure, most knowledgable Oregon winemakers will add Malo-lactic bacteria to their wines no matter what. It makes wines taste smoother, softer and more buttery and - maybe even more importantly - it prevents it from starting spontaneously after you bottle. We have more information about ML bacteria here. Malo-lactic bacteria are typically added about three days after the fermentation starts.

If your acid is very high, there are more aggressive chemical ways to precipitate it out. If you acid is too low, you will want to add tartaric acid to your must immediately.

If you know you want to sweeten your wine later on and have a fruity, sweet finish (as opposed to a dry, crisp one), you can now take about ten pounds of grapes and juice them as best you can. Keep this juice separate from your wine, and put it into plastic Tupperware, or something similar. Put the container of pure grape juice into your freezer and freeze it solid. You will use this later as a sweetening agent.

So, now, cover the fermenter loosely with a lid, or a towel, or Saran Wrap and let sit for 12 hours, the higher the dose of sulphites you added, the longer you'll need to wait. You are waiting for a gas to develop and escape out the top, so be sure you do NOT have your lid on airtight. Keep out the fruit flies, but let the sulphite gases escape.

After about 12 hour of waiting, add your yeast. See my article on yeast starter cultures for an optional procedure to add an extra-healthy dose of yeast to your wine. Yeast starters are inexpensive, easy to do and are always a good idea.

Within 24 hours the "must" will be fermenting away. Cover the fermenter tightly to keep out fruit flies, but let the CO2 gases escape - a good fermenter will allow both of these things to happen. Keep the temperature of a fermenting wine between 60 and 80 degrees F. The cooler the temp, the more "aromatic" and fruity and grapey the wine. The warmer the fermentation temperature, the bigger and bolder and heartier the wine. Be aware that fermentations are "exothermic" meaning that they produce heat. This will elevate your fermenting wine WARMER than the surrounding air temperature - we have stick-on thermometers to help read the inner temperature of the fermenting liquid.

Sometime about halfway through the fermentation, or even earlier (about three to four days into the active period), is the time to add Malo-Lactic Bacteria, if so desired. In most cases, it will help "smooth out" and soften up the final flavor on your wine, especially if the grapes were grown in Oregon, or other cool-weather states. Please see my link here for more info. For table grapes, it may or may not be necessary, and if you plan on sweetening your wine (as many people do with country wines), then you probably do not need to do a malo-lactic fermentation.

After 5 to 15 days, depending, your hydrometer reading will fall to about 1 degree Brix, or 1.010 specific gravity. Now, is the time squeeze out the grape skins. We rent presses for $17.50 that would do quick work of pressing out the grapes, or you can use a nylon bag and squeeze them. We have nylon bagsfor sale in the store. Squeeze or press the ferrmenting wine as best you can to extract out as much juice as possible. Then rack (siphon) or pour the wine into a six-gallon carboy.

Let the wine sit - above 60 degrees or so - for about a month, while the yeast begins to settle out and the fermentation comes to a complete halt. Have airlocks on your carboys. You may see faint signs of a tiny malo-lactic fermentation taking place if you added the bacteria earlier. Eventually, usually within that first month, all activity will come to a halt. You now have a stagnant product with a white layer of yeast built up on the bottom.

After that month, rack your wine into another (second) glass carboy. This should be a five-gallon one. Rack carefully and do not splash or run the wine down the wall of the fermenter. When done, try to keep the wine as high into the neck of the fermenter as possible, recombining your wines into fermenters of various sizes, if necessary, to ensure that they are all topped up. Add 1/4 teaspoon of metabisulfite powder, if desired, at this racking to each five gallons of wine. If you are going to add oak, this would probably be the best time to do it. (Note: sweet wines classically are not oaked, although oak can often add a nice effect into a country wine, and may help to "smooth out" some of the harshness a young wine can have...)

If you know you want to have some sweetness in your wine, now is the time to add Potassium Sorbate (aka Sorbistat-K) AND metabisulfite to your wine. (Please see our page on stabilizing.) Mix these two compounds well in a half-cup of water, and add to the wine. Mix well, and let the wine sit for 24 hours. Now you can thaw out the frozen grape juice you collected earlier when you were picking grapes, OR add sugar and water to your wine. There is a big variable as to how much sweetener to add, so you may have to taste it several times as you add the sweetener in order to get it to taste the way you want. Do NOT add too much sweetness it is very hard to remove. Start slowly and keep adding it until you get the proper balance in you wine. Use your best judgement.

Now put an airlock on your carboy and let the wine site for 3 to 6 months in that fermenter. During those months, now going through the winter, cooler temperatures are better for the wine, and even as low as 32 degrees F would benefit most wines during this aging period. I keep mine in an unheated garage. Ignore it for those winter months, just making sure the airlocks are secure and filled with water. (NOTE: Do not store wine in areas that have weird smells, such as onions, gasoline, lawn chemicals, etc. They can possibly taint your final product.)

If you think your wine is clear enough, you may be able to bottle at this point: sometime in the Spring. Be sure to check for clarity: hold a candle behind the carboy on a dark night and look for a "halo" around the flame. If you see one, then it is still hazy. If you so desire, you can now add a clarifier: come in and talk to me, and I will recommend a great one that should make your wine "star-bright" within a month. NEVER bottle an even slightly hazy wine - you will have "floaters" in your wine bottles within 2 months, guaranteed, and it can look REALLY bad, as well as make your wine taste "yeasty.".

If you want to age it longer, you can now rack your wine into another five-gallon glass carboy. You may need to add boiled and cooled water into the top in order to keep it topped off. Remember: leave NO airspaces over the top of your wine if you do, it may grow mold or brown due to oxidation.

After a few more months - late Spring or early Summer - check your wine, again, for clarity. It should be crystal clear. If you want or need to add a clarifier at this point, we can help you decide which one is best. Taste, again, and check for sweetness. If you have not added any sweetener yet, you can still do so. But you cannot add fresh grape juice this late in the process it will severely cloud up your wine. You must add a sugar/water solution. To sweeten wines this late in the process, be sure that you have added the Potassium Sorbate and metabisulfite sometime in the past. We have a great liquified sugar solution at the store that is non-fermentable and easy to add, or you can boil up your own sugar and water on the stove. If you are doing it that way, boil up a solution of table sugar and water, the proportions don't really matter but be sure that it is heavy on the sugar. Allow to cool. Add "x" amount of the solution to your wine, mix gently and taste. You can do this in the carboy, or, last minute, after you have siphoned your wine to a bottling bucket and are ready to fill bottles. Start small and add carefully - once you over-sweeten it, you can never get it out. It does NOT take very much sugar to sweeten five gallons of wine: somewhere between one tablespoon and a few pounds. Add and taste, add and taste until you think you are getting close. Then slow down and add smaller doses of the sugar solution. Do not taste more than three or four times in a row without eating some bread or a dry cracker to cleanse your mouth - your mouth will become saturated to the sugar and you will most likely over-sweeten by accident. Once you taste a balance that seems appropriate, bottle your wine.

If you have any questions, or doubts, please be sure to call Main Street at (503) 648-4254, or email me, and I will gladly answer any doubts you have... Happy vintnering!