A Rundown of Making Red Wines

OK, here are the procedures, (in this humble narrator's opinion), for the making of grape wine. This is NOT a comprehensive instruction, but rather a guideline. There is a book by Jon Iverson called Home Winemaking Step by Step which is about 200 pages long which is HIGHLY recommended if you are making wine from wine grapes grown in Oregon and want a complete "how-to" guide. Other than that, this 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. If you are buying Pinot Noir grapes, Merlot grapes, Syrah grapes or any of the other wine grapes found locally here in the Northwest, be sure you buy from a reputable grower who knows and tells you about the "brix" (sugar level) and the acidity of the grapes. This is important for later on: I can help you more if I know all your numbers. 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 "backyard" clusters if you bring them into the store close to harvest time (early September to mid-October, depending on environmental conditions and altitude, etc.)

Over the past few years, we have been recommending 100 pounds of red grapes for each 5 - 6 gallons of wine that you wish to make. (That's about 20 pounds per gallon of final yield.) (Fo your picking information: one hundred pounds of clusters, picked off a vine, will fill a 24-gallon fermenter, approximately.) We have a reason for recommending this 100 pound level, and it has to do with the racking of the wine later on. If you start with less than 100 pounds, you may encounter oxidation damage later on in your wines as you age it over the winter. Read on.

In the beginning, all red grapes get crushed and destemmed. Sometimes the seller of the grapes will do this for you on site, or - if not - we rent a destemmer/crusher for $22.50 (it is a wise investment if you have over 50 to 60 pounds, trust me). 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 my 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 ten to twelve man-hours for one hundred pounds of grapes in order to do it properly.

Once your 100 pounds of grapes are destemmed and crushed, they will collapse down to fill about twelve gallons of volume. Add EITHER 1/2 tsp. of potassium metabisulfite powder OR 10 crushed Campden tablets to the 12 gallons of must. If the grapes were questionable/moldy/dirty, add 50% more, or even double the dose (up to one teaspoon of metbisulfite powder), depending on how weird they were. This will kill any alien life forms in the juice. 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.

At this point here, you will want to test your Brix (sugar) levels and see what your average sugar level is in your juice. You want it to be between 22.5 and 26 Brix. 24 Brix is a good place to be. If you need to add sugar to raise your Brix, 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. If you crushed 100 pounds of grapes, you should calculate your liquid volume to be about seven gallons at that point (not twelve), 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. For well-tended wine varieties ( Pinot, Syrah, etc.) you typically will NOT need to add extra sugar most years here in the Pacific Northwest.

You will also want to know, or test, your acid levels at this point. Grapes grown in Oregon tend to have higher acids due to our climate and environmental conditions. Most red grape wines should fall between .5 parts per thousand and .85 parts per thousand tartaric acid. In Oregon, they usually fall on the higher side. The grapes we bring down from eastern Washington tend to fall on the lower 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.

Advanced winemakers will want to know their pH as well, but if you are curious about that, you should be reading Iverson's Winemaking book - pH is beyond the scope of this article.

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.

(Some people do a "cold-soak" of the grapes at this point in time, putting the entire fermenter in a refrigerated environment in order to extract off deeper, richer skin colors off the grapes. This can be a very good thing for your wine, but there are risks involved with spoilage, etc. I do not recommend it for beginners, and to cover the full aspects of it are - once again - beyond the scope of this article.)

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 of adding the yeast 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 a red wine warm as it ferments. Classic wisdom is 70 to 85 degrees F., with most people opting for the high end, and even beyond. This gives better extraction of color and flavor from the skins. If you do not have a warm room, you can use heating blankets, mini space-heaters (works great for heating a small bathroom), or we sell heating coils at Main Street. During this wild and crazy fermentation, the skins and pulp of the fruit will rise to the top of the fermenter and form what is called "the cap." Twice a day - morning and night - you must open the fermenter and with a clean spoon "punch" the cap back down, pushing all that fruit back into the fermenting liquid. If you are going to add Malo-Lactic Bacteria (highly recommended in 99 out of 100 Oregon wines!!), about three days into the active period is the time. Please see link here.

The gravity will drop rapidly and within a week will fall to 0 Brix, or 1.000 on the specific gravity scale. At this point - do not delay or get lazy here - the fermenting pulpy liquid is put through a press and squeezed. (There is an advanced method called "extended maceration" that would delay the pressing for at least a few more days, but it is risky and not recommended for beginners.) The wine is collected into a 6.5-gallon glass carboy (which will actually hold 7 complete gallons) while the skins are tightly squeezed; the moist compressed pulp is then tossed out. (Some winemakers will try to make a "second wine" with this dry pulp. Feel free....) Main Street rents large and small presses, or you can squeeze the pulp by hand, or with pillowcases, or nylon bags, or by your own make-shift tools, or you can try to get the grower to loan you his press. In any case, the skins and pulp must be pressed to extract out the juice, as well as complex tannins and deeper colors.

The wine is now allowed to ferment to completion (dryness) at 70 degrees, or so, in the 6.5-gallon glass carboy. Put an airlock on the top to keep out oxygen and bad stuff. Keep it in a warm room until all activity stops.

If your grapes were extra "juicy" you may be able to squeeze more than seven gallons of juice out of them. In that case, we recommend squeezing the rest into a gallon jug and putting an airlock on that, as well. Later on, you will be able to combine them into one of your next fermenters.

Let the wine sit - above 65 degrees or so - for about a month, while the yeast and pulp 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 and lots of fruit pulp built up on the bottom.

After that month, rack your wine into a six-gallon glass carboy. 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 completely into the necks. 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.

You may lose a little wine going from your larger carboy into your smaller, but the benefit is that you will have no airspace on top of your wine as it ages for the next four-plus months. I consider it acceptable loss.

During the next months, now heading into 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.) Also keep it out of sunlight, and do not let it freeze you can shatter a carboy if it freezes.

After 4 - 6 months, rack the wine, again, now into a five-gallon carboy and taste it, if desired. Add meta-bisulfite, optionally. Again, try to keep each carboy topped up as much as possible. Write down your opinions about the sweetness/dryness/oakiness/fruitiness/tannic qualities of the wine. You will appreciate that you did later.

Also 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, now is the time to 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 could get "floaters" in your beautiful wine bottles and it can look REALLY gross, as well as make your wine taste "yeasty.".

If you do add a clarifier, or even if you don't, let the wine sit in that five-gallon carboy for another 4 to 6 months - this will bring you to about July or August. Again check for clarity at this point. If you already have added a clarifier, it should be crystal clear by now. If not, it still may be crystal clear, or you may want to add a clarifier, now, at this point. (If you add one now, you will need to let it sit another 6 weeks before bottling.)

You can now bottle the wine,

Red grape wines are rarely ever sweet, so you should not need to add potassium sorbate at bottling. I highly recommend adding 1/4 teaspoon of potassium metabisulfite powder, however, at bottling time in order to protect the wine from oxidation and spoilage.

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!!!!