We’ve been making alcohol for a long time now, but I’ve been avoiding making wine. People kept telling me I had to use the Campden tablets and all of that chemical additive nonsense to do it. Why would I want to do that, when I can brew perfectly good beer and mead without added chemicals? It especially bugs me to see recipes full of chemical additives on herbal websites and sites dedicated to historical recreation. I mean what is that even about?
Then, I had a really, really tasty wine at a re-enactment event vinted with no chemicals that sent me digging around in my medieval cookbooks and other SCA resources.
Turns out, it is entirely possible to avoid modern chemicals and still make good wine, if you know a little bit about plant chemistry and a bit about food history, but first you will need some equipment.
Stainless Steel or Enamel Pot for making the simple syrup. You don’t need a huge one. You can always make a couple of batches.
Brewing Bucket – Food Grade plastic bucket that is at least twice the size of the batch of wine you are making. When you start out you can just get yourself a five gallon bottling bucket and use it for the primary ferment, too.
Racking Cane – This is how you transfer your wine from container to container without oxidizing it. It should come with rubber tubing.
2 1-gallon demijohns with lids. You can buy rubber stopper bungs, but our brewing store sells screw top lids with holes for the airlock, which I prefer.
Bottles – I use flip top bottles that we buy for the sparkling lemonade. You can save wine bottles and buy a corker if that interests you. Some people just save screwtop wine bottles and re-use them. My point here is that one of the reasons we brew is to reduce our waste.
Hydrometer – I suppose you can get by without one, but why don’t you want to learn how to do this right?
I see things online that make me cringe. It’s not because I think someone is going to make themselves sick –not much likes to live in alcohol. No, I cringe because I see all the shortcuts that I know are going to lead to some nasty, skunky homemade beverages. And while its true that your grandmother didn’t do all of these things, medieval ale and wine were sometimes not amazing. I am aiming for amazing.
The first step of good vinting or brewing is using sterile equipment. Kitchen clean is not good enough. I have a sanitizing program on my dishwasher and I wash my equipment and cleaning brushes on that cycle. Then, I soak everything that touches my wine in sanitizing solution. B-Brite is an oxygen based product that doesn’t leave a film like bleach does.
We also keep our bigger brewing/vinting equipment in my classroom and away from the kitchen. When its time to use it we carefully wash the glass jars or buckets and then fill them with sanitizing solution.
It’s not even about safety, although that’s important. It’s about keeping organisms that might produce off-flavors out of your final product. If you want to brew grossness, skip these steps.
Hibiscus flower infusions contain somewhere between 15-30% organic acids including malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid. Those will sound familiar to a winemaker, because they are common wine acidifiers. I added them to this wine because plums are a rather low acid fruit.
Oak bark or oak chips. Tannins leached from oak barrels improve the quality of wines and whiskey, however making oak barrels is not a very sustainable practice these days. Eco-conscious Europeans have countered this problem by adding oak bark chips or other tannins to wine and I am happy to follow suit.
Buy Your Yeast
I know that it is hipster to catch the wild yeasts, and most people consider that more “natural.” I can’t quite bring myself to take that crapshoot with my expensive ingredients. Besides, the process of freezing and then sterilizing the fruit with the boiling syrup that I mention below is going to kill anything that might be hanging about on the fruit.
I know enough about yeast strains to know how to manipulate the flavors and alcohol content of my final product with my little beastie friends. It’s a good thing to learn. You can also learn how to grow and dry yeast cultures to store for future use.
8 lbs. frozen plums
1/3 cup hibiscus flowers
1 tsp. white oak bark
2 gallons filtered water (chlorine may kill your yeast beasties)
4 lbs. organic, fair-trade sugar
1 package Lalvin 71B-1122 wine yeast
Wash your fruit. Pit it if necessary and freeze it solid. I like to let it hang out in the freezer for at least 48 hours. Bring your water and sugar to a boil and simmer it until the sugar dissolves. After this, put your frozen fruit, hibiscus leaves and oak bark in a food grade brewing bucket that’s at least 4 gallons.
Pour the boiling syrup over top the fruit. I pour just enough over the fruit cover it and mash it with a potato masher. Then I add the rest of the syrup, cover the container, and let it sit overnight.
The next morning you add your wine yeast. For fruit wines, I use Norbonne yeast[i] (Lalvin 71B-11-22, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) which is a strain able to metabolize malic acid which will mellow any acidity. It’s not as attenuative as the yeasts we use for mead. It will only tolerate up to 14% alcohol which is enough for a table wine.
This particular yeast needs to be rehydrated. Directions for that are on the package. It’s generally used for white wines or rosés, which means I end up with a semi-dry product with a nice fruit flavor because it is known for enhancing them.
If I were only using juice to make this wine, this is the point at which I would use my hydrometer to measure the specific gravity so I would know when to switch from primary to secondary fermentation (usually when it drops just below 1.030) and I do admit that I checked this just to stay in the habit.
Once you learn a little more about specific gravity, you will figure out that you can use the hydrometer to fiddle with the final alcohol content of your wine, a bit. But this is Winemaking 101. (Yes, I could make this more difficult).
Within the first 24 hours or so, the wine will start to bubble and the fruit will form sort of seal on the top. You want to carefully push fruit down into the must once daily. Don’t stir or agitate too much, I use a potato masher to lightly push the fruit just below the surface and then let it float back up on its own.
Because you are using fruit, you really don’t want the must sitting in fruit for much more than about five – seven days. The fruit will eventually start to decay and you risk getting some nasty flavors. I could just tell by a change in smell that it was time to move this wine today, even though it was only six days in the primary.
You will want to carefully skim the fruit from your must and squeeze the excess liquid back in to the bucket. I do this by slowly ladling the fruit into cheesecloth and squeezing it tightly into the bucket. Then you rack your wine into your glass demijohns and put an airlock on them. The purpose of using the racking cane is that it reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine. If you have some leftover, I hear its good for cooking, but I usually just drink it.
The wine is now in its secondary, clarifying, ferment. It is not going to be as clear and beautiful as some pictures on the internet show. As the yeast left in the must complete their life cycle, it will settle to the bottom along with any sediment. If its really gunky, you can wait a week and rack it into sanitized demijohns.
In my history books, I found all sorts of tricks for improving the quality of wine before there were chemical additives. For example, winemakers would add egg whites to their wine because the albumen would bind with free proteins suspended in the wine and precipitate out of solution, and strained out during the final racking. This can cut back on bitterness or astringency and is most often done with reds made with grapes that make you pucker just a bit too much.
The usual treatment is 1.0 mL of egg white per gallon of wine. To work this treatment, you want to measure the right amount of egg white into small bowl, add a tiny pinch of salt to inhibit bacterial growth and whisk in just enough water to make it liquid. Then add it to your secondary ferment for the last week before racking.
Winemakers would also historically added a copper penny to freshly fermented wine to remove free sulfur. Sulfur can cause funky odors and flavors and is the source of naturally occurring sulfites in wine. Modern winemakers have simplified this process by adding copper sulfate. I am not going to do that. While I don’t propose using a dirty old penny, I do have a strip of copper that I bought from a science supply lab that I put in the bottling bucket which I am able to clean well and sterilize in between uses.
Your wine is ready to bottle when it stops fermenting. You will know this because the specific gravity of your wine will stop dropping. If you take a hydrometer reading on the first day of the second week and the 1st day of the third week and they are the same, you can bottle it.
Some beginner recipes don’t talk about hydrometers, will tell you just to wait a month, and then bottle. We’ve gone through the scare of having a bottle blow up. Thanks be to all that is green, no one was in that room. I no longer trust that method and I am quite happy to take the hydrometer readings.
Another way to make sure the wine is clear is to rack your wine back into your brewing/bottling bucket and bottle it using a bottle filler attachment. Again doing this reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine, but at the same time I think it helps with degassing the wine before you bottle it also.
How long you let it sit in the bottle is up to you. We aren’t patient people, so we tend to cheat.
[i] (You can also use Vintner’s Harvest VR21 or for low-acid fruits or making cider, you can use Lalvin KIV-1116 which is a competitive yeast that fights off wild yeast colonies that can some funky flavors to your wine.)