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Making grape wine at home

I’ve read enough resources on making wine at home over the years to make my head spin. 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 all of which amounts to a tidy sum in the form of investment.

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).

The simplest of all hit and miss wine recipe that the ancients used was to tread wine ripened grapes and let them ferment using the yeasts present on the grape skins . For more in-depth information or other methods and techniques used in ancient wine making, a good read would be wine making in ancient Israel by Garrett Peck.

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 and avoid expensive spoilage. However, if you want to read about it, there are a lot of resources available on the Internet. As you know, simplysimple.info 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/bucket 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 addition, you can only dream of getting special varieties of grapes which are preferred for wine making, but this should not put a dampener on our spirits.

In spite of me being able to import some expensive equipment and Champagne yeast for my wine making, the Indian wine making method is mostly 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 not even accessible to us (and neither did we know they existed) before the advent of the Internet, credit cards and online shopping. Even with the availability of these resources, you had to be eccentric,  wealthy or a hobbyist with a disposable income.

For most of these gadgets, (assuming that the product did not get lost in shipping and that the seller was genuine) we Indians have had to 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 or the British pound to the Indian rupee and the average income and inflation rate here and it makes sense why Indians have mostly stuck to 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 spirits and beer are sold more than wine) as it is common for anyone who spots you there (especially if he/she is a teetotaler) 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 depending on the container available to them. Some of them would only be making wine for Christmas.

As an example, this is the first recipe that I got for homemade wine from my friend who had neighbors who were Roman Catholics. This must have been given to me in the early 1990’s and I was into my first job and had never made wine at home before, but had watched my dad make failed batches of wine over and over again.

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. (Technically called Fortifying the wine)

I always omitted the last two steps as I didn’t care much for either of them.

The recipe was as simple as it could get. You boiled the sugar in water to avoid stirring it in for half an hour  and poured  it over the crushed grapes and covered it.  The heat of the water and steam sanitized the container and also killed any wild yeasts or bacteria present on the grape skins. You then waited for the must to reach room temperature which was around 32 -36 deg C where I lived then and dropped the yeast into it and gave it a good stir with a sanitized spoon. The wine was then left covered with a clean cloth till the fermentation stopped after which it was strained through a muslin cloth. All sanitizing of equipment was done with boiling water in spite of the chance of giving the grapes a slightly cooked flavor which didn’t matter as the only wines available in wine shops then were port wines which tasted more or less, as good or as bad as our wines.

Here is how the must looks after fermentation without stirring

It works, in the sense that you can get a reasonable kick out of it -especially if you don’t regularly do distilled spirits. I started off with this, but my methods slowly evolved as I figured out how to make relatively good wine without most of the lab equipment and chemicals thanks to YouTube channels and the Internet in general. To round it up, I must mention that I found other Indian recipes online 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 for me even though several people claimed to have successfully used it. Some of them also add a handful of wheat which allegedly gives the wine a whiskyish flavor and some egg whites (after the wine was ready) which helps clarify the wine.

Reading various resources, I gathered 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 starts producing carbon dioxide and alcohol.
  • Usually, 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)
  • As and when the yeast lees reach about 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:

    • Gently wash and de-stem 2 kgs of red grapes and crush them with your fingers. [ As of now, you also get a stainess steel mesh to press the grapes. I’ve seen them on Aliexpress lately]
      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 onward, I scrubbed my feet and 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 when we 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 a bit 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. However, I have noticed that YouTube has videos which show you how wine and beer yeast can be reused. I’m very interested as a survivalist I like to save me seeds and my yeast as that is what self sufficiency is all about.
    • Close or cover the bucket. I use an air lock so I primed the air lock and left it to ferment. Some people add alcohol to the airlock instead of water. 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 (or alcohol) 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. I’ve seen some on YouTube vigorously shake the closed container instead of stirring which works as well.
    • After 7 days (or when the bubbling stops), filter the grape juice through a sieve or layers of cheese cloth. Add the grapes into a clean cloth and squeeze out all the wine. It is advisable to dispose the squeezed out solids immediately as they will make your house stink  like that of a bootleggers -especially in warmer climates. Flushing it down the toilet would be a discreet way of keeping your house smelling like one. If you have to give it for garbage collection, freeze it in garbage bags and drop it in the trash only when the person comes around for collecting garbage. If you have enough freedom from judgemental noses, then feel free to drop it into your compost bin, the awful smell will soon disappear.
    • Clean the fermentation bucket of all the sediment and pour back your wine and put the lid and air lock or tie back the cloth cover on it again.
  • Once the air lock stops bubbling, let the wine stand for a week so that most of the sediment will settle and then siphon out the wine  into bottles. A racking cane can be bought or 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 the sediment (lees) while sucking at the other end to start siphoning the wine. I’ve recently got tired of tripping on bottles and even though I hate plastic,  I bought a 14.5 liter Tupperware water storage container which I now use for wine. Later on I bought two eight liter Kilner glass jars with taps.
Two large balls for the compost bin

Like mentioned above, some people add egg whites to clarify the wine faster. 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 as I can’t understand why the CO2 won’t harm champagne but only wine. I could be wrong as usual, but its not a dealbreaker for me. They also add some chemicals to kill the yeast (and anythink else in it) and stop the fermentation process so that there is no chance of over-fermenting or the wine becoming sour due to inoculation at a later stage by some less favorable yeast or bacteria to cause exploding bottles but I prefer to keep mine natural and probiotic.

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 wine experiments 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 illicit liquor on an industrial scale. I did try sugarcane wine too, but since I didn’t pasteurize the juice, I created a horrible, vinegary product.

Wine ready for bottling. Looks like pigs blood, but on settling, will turn a translucent beetroot red and later over time as more and more sediment settles, will turn into a transparent faint pink or yellow 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 🙂 If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that aging can do wonderful things to a wine.

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