Wine: Making lifes problems and the cat go away

Wine making can be a daunting prospect with unique terms thrown around, competing explanations and conflicting ideas of what must and must not be done. Wine making is a science for those who work in an industry and an art for amateurs. The first rule of Wine Club is there are no rules… well there are two. Keep things clean and keep things air locked apart from that its anarchy.


BLACKBERRY WINE Recipe in archive

Making wine is all down to yeast. These little critters when locked into an airtight container anaerobically respire breaking down sugar into ethanol (you want this – it gets you drunk!) and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles through the wine and out the airlock with some partially dissolving. As they do this they feed on minerals in the fruit and water and divide and grow. As this happens colonies of the partying yeast form and sink to the bottom all the while producing more alcohol until they consume all the sugar and start to get stressed and die away. This along with the fruit pulp must be removed periodically in a process called racking. The more you rack over the months the more sediment you remove until you have a clear wine. After a month or so yeast will have done its work and the wine ages with tannins from the fruit aging and mellowing and acids may change from harsh to softer tastes. There are no rules on how long a wine ages and it is personal taste and the limits of your recipe that determine it. Once aged the wine is possibly stabilised and  back sweetened with sugar then bottled.


Planning is paramount. Have you got space, a few bits of kit, a kitchen and a forgiving partner that will to drink your swill and lie how good it is? Have you got an idea of the wine you want to make? It could be from a kit in which case stop reading this knit-wittery and follow the instructions. You could buy fruit or forage for it, or grow the more exotic ingredients yourself. Some people try to use as little “chemicals” as possible. Some want small batches of exotic tastes, others want big batches of uniform wine they love.

If you are a total novice think small. Get two 4.5L demijohns to make six bottles of wine. Choose a recipe that you know is easy and quick to test things out:

Strawberry wine is quick and forgiving. It can be sweet or dry, only needs six months to age and tastes good.

Elderflower wine is easy to make but requires foraged ingredients and a year to really age to perfection.


Your basic kit will probably grow as you make more and more wine. You may start with a one gallon/4.5L demijohn but buy bigger two gallon or five gallon demis when you get more confident. Investment in that original one is not wasted as you can test recipes, make small runs of expensive ingredients or bulk age in it.

In my view the absolute minimum kit you need is:


  • 1 x Brew bucket for primary fermentation
  • 2 x Demijohns to hold and ferment you wine in secondary fermentation
  • 2 x bungs and airlocks to secure your wine from oxidising
  • 1 x Auto Syphon to move wine when racking
  • 1 x Hydrometer to measure sugar
  • Scales / Jug / Ladle / teaspoons
  • Bottle brush and sponges/cloths
  • Corking machine and corks just before you bottle.


  • Yeast nutrient feeds the yeast with essential minerals as they grow during fermentation
  • Sanitisers like Chemipro Oxi can sanitise containers and campden tablets the fruit and water when making wine. These are not “cheating” and many have been used for centuries.
  • Stabiliser is added just before bottling to “kill” the yeast (actually the yeast stops dividing) so the wine does not ferment in the bottle and make it explode everywhere… walls… ceiling… floor… It also protects from possible oxidation in the bottle.
  • Pectic Enzymes breaks down unwanted pectin to make the wine smoother and less “jammy” if the fruit is high in it.


  • Base fruit to provide the back bone of the taste.
  • Possibly grape extract, raisins or bananas to add body to none grape like fruit.
  • Sugar to feed the yeast and make alcohol.
  • Possibly acid in the form of citric acid powder or lemon juice to add flavour and create the correct pH acidity level for the yeast to thrive.
  • Possibly tannin as tannin powder, breakfast tea or grape like fruit skins.
  • Yeast to ferment it all.
  • Adjuncts like spices, herbs of complimentary fruit may also be in some recipes added at varying stages like Vermouth.

Ingredients for elderflower wine


The recipe is intended to create a well-balanced wine. This is determined by personal preference like the desired alcohol and style of the wine you have in mind. The base ingredient like blackberries, elderberries or oak leaves have certain characteristics to emphasise and yeast is important in bringing this about. Grape wine is the daddy of all wine, a bench mark that we all know the taste and texture of. Fruit wines are beholden to these benchmarks and the holy trinity of tastes – sweetness (or lack of), acidity and tannin.

Grapes have all these tastes present and the component chemicals to create the phelonics and esters that create complex tastes but fruit wine will generally need these as supplementary additives.


Easy – common table sugar feeds to yeast and can also provide the sweet taste when bottled. Use white sugar as it is taste neutral compared to brown and demerara sugars. The only wine recipe I have seen using brown sugar is beetroot wine


This is the bitter taste present in mainly red wine (white has some but not as a dominant taste) that creates the full taste and velvety mouth feel. Tannin is present in some fruit skins and seeds like elderberries but is absent in many fruit like strawberries or elderflowers. A half cup of tea or tannin extract provides this flavour. Over the aging of the wine tannin alters, with some binding together and dropping as sediment. Yiu can get subtle oak tannins added as oak chips while aging too. Tannin is often feared but it is simply something that needs care and attention as it is necessary in wine.


Acid is present in all fruit but to varying degrees. In advanced recipes you can test the acidity and adjust to get the perfect 4.55pH for the yeast to thrive. Simple recipes guess the levels of acidity of the base fruit and add a set amount of extra acid as lemon juice or citric acid. Gooseberries have acidity levels that are bang on the money and rhubarb may even need it reducing through precipitated chalk as an additive.


At the most basic level plan your recipe at the correct time of year to have the fruit available. Wine making is seasonal, and using fruit out of season may be expensive.

First you must clean your equipment washing it thoroughly. This basic wash is like cleaning plates after a meal removing grease, dust and dirt. Just use a standard detergent like Fairly liquid. After washing the dirt it is time to sanitise it all thoroughly. Sanitising is using heat or chemicals to kill bacteria on surfaces to minimise spoilage during the long aging process. Boiling kills all bacteria if done for 15 minutes but not all kit is suitable for this. Metal ladles are fine but glass demijohns could shatter and the food grade plastic on a brew bucket could degrade. For these containers use a chemical sanitiser like Chemipro or Star San. They all vary in use so read the instructions and never mix them! Using a no rinse sanitiser is best as this means boiled and cooled water is not needed to rinse anything.

As kit is drying on a sanitised bench all ingredients need measuring, some ingredients need chopping like quince, destemming like elderberries or destoning like peaches. Water will certainly need sanitising either with campden or through boiling (and cooling) and you may need to prepare and sanitise your ingredients which varies from recipe to recipe.

Base fruits need to be prepared by differing methods to allow flavours to be extracted. Quince and parsnip are boiled for 15 minutes to break down the heavy structure, blackberries are blanched with boiling water to burst skins and blueberries may be sanitised with campden as they cold soak for three days to extract colour and flavour from the thick skins. All recipes vary and people often have competing ideas as to what is best. It’s your choice but choose wisely!

Blackcurrants in a cold soak/maceration to extract flavour from their dense skins

Once the fruit is prepared and in clean water in your primary fermenter additives like pectin can be added if needed. If you are using pectolaise needs between 12 and 24 hours to do its magic destroying the unwanted pectin.

Hydrometer in gooseberry wine

Tannin and acid are added and mixed thoroughly with a clean ladle. Sugar can then be added. At its crudest level pouring 1kg or sugar into one gallon of water will provide enough sugar to the yeast. This takes no account of how alcoholic you want your wine, the sugar available from the fruit or your taste preference. A hydrometer is invaluable in my view. This little buoy floats on the water giving a reading of the sugar dissolved. Water would be 1.00SG (specific gravity) but ambient sugar in the fruit may make it float higher to say 1.02SG, adding more sugar makes it float higher and higher until the desired level of 1.08 or 1.09SG. This means there is enough sugar for a dry wine with 13% ABV. If you left the hydrometer in your wine you would see it gradually drop over a few days as alcohol is fermented. Alcohol is less dense than sugar water so it cannot be lifted so high. After a month or so an eventual 0.99SG may be seen which is a totally dry wine.


Yeast and nutrient is the last to be added. Easiest method is to sprinkle on top and then stir in after 30 minutes. This provides a little time for the yeast to aerate. Once dissolved the yeast will take between 2 to 48 hours to activate and start to bubble. Primary fermentation is a nebulous concept but is when the yeast is most active creating 2/3 of the alcohol. It can last for 4 to 14 days and as the fermentation is so vigorous it keeps itself airtight in effect. Once this slows it is needed to be transferred into secondary fermentation with a fully working air lock though. Just as the carbon dioxide protects the must from oxygenation so too does the fermenters lid from bacteria and even fruit flies. If solid fruit is used the must should be stirred from one to four times a day, this agitates it allowing the juice to be extracted. If the wine is purely liquid some simply leave it covered.

Elder and black in primary fermentation (a sparge bag held the blackberries and the top was removed from the fermenter so I could stir)


The carbon dioxide given off by the happy food laden yeast provides a protective blanket to stop oxygenation but as it slows the protection from oxygen lessens and your wine needs to be racked into secondary fermentation. Being thorough a hydrometer reading would be between 1.03 and 1.01SG when you decide to rack from primary fermentation to secondary fermentation. Racking is needed to both transfer into an air tight demijohn and away from the fruit pulp. Fruit flavours will be extracted over a few days and few fruit will give anything up after seven, this is also the time that any rouge bacteria could start to break the fruit down into bad tastes and infection. This initial racking removes the wine from what is called the “gross lees” as in French for “big lees”

Racking 10 litres of blackcurrant wine

When racking your autosyhpon, demijohn and bungs and stoppers must be sanitised to prevent contamination just as kit was at the start of the fermentation process. The autosyphon is pumped and uses gravity to push the wine into a lower deminjohn. Muslin/cheese cloth can be used to catch any solids that may come through. Racking is perhaps the most problematic phase of wine making. You could allow it too much time in contact with air and oxidise it or infection could fall in from ambient bacteria floating in the air. You will lose wine through accidents on more than one occasion and it is messy – it is a fact of life sadly!

While racking, oxidising may in small quantities benefit the wine as it promotes carbon dioxide to be made and bubble away from your wine as it ages and some yeast actively need oxygenation such as MA33 which makes rhubarb and gooseberry wine.

Once in your new demijohn top up the liquid so it reaches the shoulder of the demijohn, minimising air contact and maximising your volume of wine. There are many ideas on how to top up – sterilised water, glass marbles or a similar prepared wine. Here are no hard and fast rules but I always simply use clean water. A sanitised bung and airlock are then popped onto the demijohn to keep air and infection out. As the carbon dioxide bubbles up it pushes the natural air out the top. To make it secure from infection pop ¼ of a campden tablet into the water of the airlock. Some even add one crushed campden tablet to the wine to ensure it is sanitised. This is personal choice and the sulphur dioxide given off by the dissolving tablet could over power if it is used too much.

Topping up blackcurrant wine

Some wine is inevitably left behind in the old demijohn and is a casualty of war. You cannot transfer 100% of the liquid. This is not waste but a natural by product that all wine makers have. Most recipes account for the topping up of this missing volume too. The wine can be reused if you have a few fruit flies attracted by your wine making skills. Drop it into a glass and add some washing up liquid. The flies are attracted to the welcoming drink and get trapped in it and drown… in the most fun way possible. This means no pests contaminating the actual wine you want for yourself. This old wine also gives an initial tasting and as you get more confident you can predict and tweak recipes as you go.

Your wine has now entered secondary fermentation in the air-locked environment. It may not bubble for a few hours or even days but this is not a worry – a lot of yeast was removed so the colonies need to acclimatise and repopulate to their new home. As alcohol is building they are fighting its effect and slowing down. Less alcohol will be made in this phase and more slowly. Fermentation will slow down and eventually stop when all the sugar is exhausted after 30 to 40 days. It is important to note that the yeast is not dead. It could hang on for another two years and if sugar is reintroduced they will reactivate again.


Two variations of gooseberry wine in bulk aging

With the slowing processes fermentation ends and the wine enters the aging process. Heavy particles fall out of suspension and drop to the bottom as sediment, over time less carbon dioxide is present as it escapes as gas and the finer and finer sediment will drop. Further racking but not from the “gross lees” but “lees” will be needed but this is open to debate as to when and how often. Personally I time my racking at five/six weeks then 10 weeks after that and every 12 after that if needed. Other people use different criteria – if you have more than 13mm of sediment or religiously at every 2 months in age. They will all serve the same purpose of removing sediment so that it does not rot and produce sulphur dioxide and promote bacterial growth.

As well as dead yeast other components will fall out your wine such as starches and tannin, some pectin haze and minute fruit solids. All the while this is happening the wine is changing chemically with tannins combining and mellowing, acids changing from malic to lactic acid, and other esters and phenols (taste and aroma compounds) being created from the fruit juices.

Lees left behind in elder and black wine – mostly old yeast

It is important to bulk age wine in demijohns and the longer the better. A wine should not be bottled for at least six months minimum after the yeast is pitched. The longer it ages in a demijohn with an air lock the longer it has to expel carbon dioxide naturally. Carbon dioxide creates a more acidic taste and makes the fruit flavours dull compared to a more mature wine. Carbon dioxide can be artificially extracted to aid this. Two options are open to the amateur – using a vacuum pump to pull the gas out, or to use a wine whip to mix it out. This degassing process is one of the last to be done before bottling a wine if you do decide to do it. If aged for nine months you may not even ned to artificially degas as it till naturally escape over time.


Oak chips

Other processes are “chipping” or “oaking” the wine and stabilisation and back sweetening.  Chipping/oaking is adding oak chips to simulate a barrel creating a mature well rounded taste – it can take from seven to 60 days and just requires sanitised oak chips to be dropped into the demijohn – as usual it is personal taste that determines the duration and amount of oak chips added and how toasted they are. Stabilising wine adds one tsp of potassium sorbate per gallon to “kill” the yeast. In effect it actuality it stops them dividing and multiplying to reactivate fermentation. The stabilising solution is mixed into the wine and it is stirred once a day for four days. If you want a sweet wine back sweetening has to be done after stabilisation as you do not want a second (note “second” not “secondary”) fermentation to begin and burst you bottles! This is optional to your taste and some wines like strawberry or quince can be left absolutely bone dry, they can be sweetened though and some wines like blackberry need a little sugar to highlight the fruit tastes and down play acidity


After all process are done the wine can be bottled into you guessed it sanitised bottles. Cork them with real cork and store them on their sides to keep them wet and secure in a cool stable environment. Congratulations you have made wine – all you have to do now is keep from opening it so that it matures to perfection. Once opened adjust your recipes for next year to perfect them, keep notes on the aging processes and look up new version of recipes or processes that can be incorporated.

new bottles
2015 and 2016 vintages

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