Making grape wine at home

I’ve read so many resources on making wine at home over the years. Wine making can be extremely confusing as on the one hand we find Westerners making wine in a laboratory/industrial kind of setting with grape crushers, de-stemmers, presses, hydrometers, racking canes, clarifiers, carboys, sanitizing chemicals like sodium metabisulphide and fancy equipment designed for wine making.

On the other hand you have those elderly French and Italian gentlemen who have learned these skills from their fathers when they were around and who have been making wine regularly for as long as they can remember. In spite of not using any of the above, (except for the grape crushers and pressers which are required due to the large volume of grapes they process) their wine comes out as per their expectations. I’ve also see them drink a bit of the juice to quench their thirst and pour the remainder back or suck on a pipe used for racking the wine without any ill effects of oral bacteria on their wines. 

A typical fermentation bucket with a glass airlock and a stick on aquarium thermometer

Western grape wine, when you read the instructions, sounds almost like preparation for surgery in a sterile room. No doubt it is quite foolproof and you can predict the amount of alcohol in the end product. If you want to read about it, there are a lot of resources available on the Internet. However is all about simplicity so we will focus more on the older or simpler method of wine making.

Without doubt, my preferred method would be that of the old folks. Bring in your vine ripened organic grapes, clean them gently if you would like to, rub your feet with ash and hop into the wine press and begin treading. However…. it is rare to get vine ripened grapes where I live. Here grapes are meant to be eaten as fruit and not fermented (although I’m sure thousands of my countrymen would be making wine at home) so the grapes are harvested partially raw or probably ripened using chemicals like calcium carbide (Not sure whether it is done for grapes as well) before sale which is a common practice in India.

In spite of me being able to import some expensive equipment and Champagne yeast for my wine making, the Indian wine making method is very much different. This is particularly so due to the inaccessibility of wine making equipment at sane prices such as airlocks, fermenting buckets, wine ripened grapes, mesh bags, grape crushers and press type wine extractors. All of these products were never accessible to us. Now with online shopping, they are, but only if you are eccentric and wealthy or a hobbyist with a disposable income. For most of these gadgets, Indians have to be pay several times more for shipping and customs  than the cost price of the product itself. Now calculate the ever widening conversion rate of the US dollar to the Indian rupee and the average income here and it makes sense why Indians have had to devise their own way of making wine. In addition, while some may be illegally selling wine, most enthusiasts will be doing it as a healthier and cheaper alternative to commercial wine, or due to the stigma of having to queue up at a wine shop (where whisky, Vodka, beer and Gin are sold more than wine) as it is common for anyone who spots you there to brand you as an alcoholic. So unlike the French and Italians who would be making wine by the barrel, the typical Indian would probably brew several liters at a time.

As an example, this is the first recipe that I got for Indian wine, from my friend who had neighbors who were Roman Catholics and made wine for Christmas (Or maybe all the year round 😉 ) This must have been given to me in the early 1990’s and I was barely out of school and into my first job and had never made wine at home.

Here is the “wine recipe”

  • 2 kilos grapes (preferably black grapes)
  • 2 kilos white sugar
  • 5 bottles of water (750ml x 5)
  • A teaspoon of baker’s yeast (We had some excellent yeast which came in a tin with Saf Levure written on it which my maternal uncle periodically brought for us from Muscat)
  • Some sugar to caramelize and add for color (Johnie Walker does the same for coloring – check the label)
  • Rum added when the wine is done (Usually Old Monk XXX) to spike the wine’s alcohol content. (Fortifying)
Here is how the must looks after fermentation without stirring

It works, in the sense that you can get a good kick out of it. I started off with this, but slowly evolved and figured out how to make good wine without the lab equipment and chemicals espoused by Western websites or the disgusting wine recipe mentioned above thanks to YouTube channels and other blogs. I found other Indian recipes from Kerala which allowed fermentation for 21 days with half of the sugar and then strained the must and added the remaining 1 kg of sugar for a second ferment which ran for another 21 days. This turned out to be a dud even though several people claimed to have successfully used it. Some of them even add a handful of wheat which gives the wine a whiskyish flavor and some egg whites which help clarify the wine.

Reading various resources, I figured out the following…

  • That Yeast initially uses up the oxygen in the must (mixture of crushed grapes, yeast and water -if added) and produces carbon dioxide and water. Once the dissolved oxygen is depleted, the yeast switches to anaerobic mode and now produces carbon dioxide and alcohol.
  • The wine should not stay on the fruit lees (sediment of fruit) for more than 7 days or else too many tannins are absorbed making the wine harsh with a mild bitter taste. (Not true in my case when I tried with green grapes, but yes when I used black grapes)
  • If the yeast lees reach half an inch, the wine should be immediately racked (siphoned off) as dead yeast cells on the bottom can rot and release hydrogen sulphide which would contribute off flavors to the wine.
  • Grape juice is colorless, so the color of the grapes comes from the skin.

Armed with this information, some of which I gleaned when I was half way into my first batch 🙂

The final recipe:

  • De-stem 2 kgs of red grapes and crush them with your fingers (
    Getting ready to press the grapes after fermentation

    a tiring job – I wish I had a crusher). The grapes Must be crushed or the yeast will not be able to get into it. Any un-crushed grapes will be preserved as is. DO NOT USE A BLENDER FOR THIS!!

  • Note: For my second batch, I trod the grapes in a bucket and got it done in a jiffy 🙂
  • Add 2 kgs of sugar. I know purists will scoff, but we have no choice whenwe work with semi-ripe grapes (If you are not using a hydrometer to measure the sugar content, you will have to taste and estimate the amount of sugar in the grapes by trial and error, or else if your grapes are ripe and you mechanically add 2 kgs of sugar to it, the yeast will die when the appropriate amount of alcohol is reached and you will end up with a sweet wine) and top up the water to the desired level and mix well. If you feel the need to sanitize, you can top up with very hot water straight from the water heater in the bathroom and close the lid, but it might cook or blanch the grapes and the taste might change marginally and leech toxins if you are using a plastic bucket.
  • Add your yeast when the must reaches room temperature. You can use bread yeast if you want to, I would use it in my initial days of wine making. However, depending on your yeast you could get a bread like flavor which would be an acquired taste. I now use Lalvin’s champagne yeast. These special brewing yeasts are more hardy and will survive a higher alcohol wine, but it is pricey as it involves international shipping and customs fees.
  • Close or cover the bucket. I use an air lock so I primed the air lock and left it to ferment. Many people cover the mouth of the bucket or jar with a clean cloth and tie it off so that no insects can get in. The cloth allows carbon-dioxide to escape. Do not let any of the fruit mites that fly around get in as they carry acetobacter on their bodies and could turn your wine into vinegar.
  • Remember to keep your air lock topped with clean water if you are using it.
  • Some advise stirring daily and pushing down the grapes. I’m a bit lazy, besides I’ve imported a flimsy fermentation bucket from the UK and every time I rip off its lid it makes an awful ripping sound and it feels as if it might not last very long. Not stirring works for me and I feel safer as there is no risk of contaminating the wine, but there is a good reason for stirring as the crushed grapes will rise up and form a seal over the wine.
  • After 7 days, filter the grape juice through a sieve. Add the grapes into a clean cloth and squeeze out all the wine. When I made my second batch, I waited till the fermentation stopped and then only did I filter the grapes and squeezed them through a cotton cloth.
  • Clean the fermentation bucket of all the sediment and pour back your wine and put the lid and air lock on it again.
  • Once the air lock stops bubbling, siphon the wine out into bottles. A racking cane can be made by tying a clean stick to some aquarium tubing with the tip of the cane sticking out about an inch so that the end of the tube does not draw out sediment (lees) while sucking at the other end to start siphoning the wine. I’ve recently got tired of tripping on bottles and so I bought a 14.5 liter Tupperware water storage container which I now use for wine. Later on I bought two eight liter glass jars by Kilner.
Two large balls for the compost bin

Like mentioned above, some people add egg whites to clarify the wine. I don’t care if my wine is cloudy and you will get used to the taste soon as it will have a different taste, look and alcohol content than that from the market. It is much much healthier than that available in the market and will be better still if you can source organic grapes and sugar. I’ve also read about people using a degasser prior to bottling, but I’m okay if there is any carbon dioxide left in my wine. However it is supposed to aid in clarification and improve the taste of some wines, but I’ll still give it a pass. They also add some chemicals to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation process so that there is no chance of over-fermenting or the wine becoming sour.

I found out that the black grapes available in the market were sweeter and even though both of my wines were dry, my green grape wine turned out to have less alcohol content.

You can make wine with other fruits too, but grapes are the best. They have the right acidity, yeast nutrients and even yeast growing on their skin so I’ve decided not to waste time trying out other wines although I do remember dad trying out other wines such as beetroot and pineapple. I did make raisin wine once, but it stinks to the heavens and it smells like you are making wine on an industrial scale.

Wine ready for bottling. Looks like pigs blood, but on settling, will turn a translucent beetroot red and as over time as more and more sediment settles, will turn into a transparent pink tinged liquid.

You can also make a reasonable quality wine by buying tetrapacked grape juice. Make sure that it doesn’t contain preservatives. I’ve seen preppers who’ve stocked up for doomsday make wine from their hoarded cartons of grape juice when they near their expiry date which is quite ingenious on their part.

Notes [16 Jun 2017]:

My current batch of green grape wine turned out a quite sweet, I was aware that the grapes were quite ripe, but I did not realize till later that I should have reduced the sugar.

I was quite disappointed when I tasted it, and after reading up on several wine making forums and Facebook pages, I came to the conclusion that the only option was to blend it with the next batch of wine to which I would add less sugar. However, work took me out of Delhi for 1 month and 5 days. My Pemmican experiments also stopped half way through. Since Delhi was quite hot, about 42OC, I knew the water in my airlock would dry out in no time. Some time back I had bought a Tupperware 14.5 liter water keeper which was air tight and had a tap so I carefully siphoned my wine into this container and put the lid on it and covered it with a large piece of cloth to keep the dust off it.

When I came back, I was totally exhausted. I had barely caught up on a couple of hours of sleep and it was time to go out to fulfill a social obligation. I came back late at night and poured out a half glass of wine from the tap as I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy the sweetness. I was in for a shock as the sugar had reduced by 50%. The next day, after I had slept well, I realized that the wine was flowing out from the tap faster than it should which meant that the container had got pressurized with CO2 gas which was an indication of some slow ongoing fermentation. I was relieved, There was some very slight bitter after taste which hinted that probably the wine had accidentally been inoculated by some wild yeast which had a higher tolerance to alcohol. Time will tell, but for now, all’s well that ends well 🙂

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