Cheat Sheet

Home Winemaking For Dummies

Making wine at home lets you explore your creative side — from choosing the perfect grapes to learning the lingo of wine-speak. Making your own wine is also a great way to unleash your inner science geek. You need to calculate conversions, understand wine chemistry (including sugar and pH levels), and regulate temperatures, all while paying attention to the basic laws of home winemaking.

Terms Every Winemaker Needs to Know

As a home winemaker, you ferment grapes to produce your own wine. Along the way, you use some unique tools and techniques, as well as some words that have distinct meaning for winemakers. Brush up on your wine-speak with these essential terms:

  • Brix: Measure of sugar percentage by weight in a liquid — in this case, grape juice.

  • Carboy: Narrow-mouthed glass or plastic jug used for fermenting and storing home wines for aging.

  • Crush: Frenetic annual season when the grapes come in; also the specific process of cracking grape skins to liberate juice.

  • Fermentation: Process by which yeast turns sugar into alcohol and grape juice into wine.

  • Fining: Removing specific compounds — like excess tannins — from wine with a specialized fining agent.

  • Malolactic fermentation: Optional process in which bacteria turn malic acid into lactic acid, softening wine.

  • Mouthfeel: Texture of a wine in the mouth, different from aroma and flavor, but just as important.

  • Must: Juice, with or without skins, pulp, and seeds, ready for fermentation.

  • pH: Balance of acidic and base properties in a liquid; on a 14-point scale, wine falls between 3.0 and 4.0.

  • Press: Squeezing juice or wine out of grapes; also the machinery performs this task.

  • Racking: Transferring wine from one container to another, leaving dead yeast and other detritus behind.

  • Stuck fermentation: Problem arising when stressed yeast give up, leaving unfermented sugar and producing off odors — not a good thing.

Critical Conversions for Home Winemaking

If you’re a home winemaker anywhere in the world, at some point you’ll probably need to convert metric measures to U.S. measures and vice versa. The following table shows some of the key conversions winemakers need:

Quantity U.S. Measures Metric Measures
Vineyard yield (premium grapes) 3 to 5 U.S. tons per acre 6 to 9 metric tons per hectare
Grape weight to wine volume (commercial) 1 U.S. ton = 175 gallons red, 160 gallons white 1 metric ton = 730 liters red, 667 liters white
Grapes weight to wine volume (home) 100 pounds = 7 gallons red, 6 gallons white
1 U.S. ton = 140 gallons red, 120 gallons white
100 kilograms (kg) = 58 liters red, 50 liters white
1 metric ton = 583 liters red, 500 liters white
Liquid to bottles (750-milliliter bottles) 1 gallon = 5.1 bottles 1 liter = 1.33 bottles
Cases per ton (commercial) 1 U.S. ton = 75 cases red 1 metric ton = 83 cases red
Grapes per bottle (home) 2.8 pounds of red grapes per 750-ml bottle 1.27 kilograms of red grapes per 750-ml bottle

Ideal Temperatures for Home Winemaking

Good home winemaking involves careful temperature control — your wine wants to be warm sometimes (and generates a bit of heat itself during fermentation), but then things need to cool down, especially for storage. The following table shows some key temperature targets for making and storing wine in Fahrenheit (F) and Celsius (C):

º F Wine checkpoint º C
60º Cool white ferment should be under 16º
85º Peak red ferment should reach at least 29º
40º Home cold stabilization should be under
55º Standard for long-term bottle storage 13º

Four Laws of Home Winemaking

Winemaking is too much of an art to have real laws, like the laws of physics, but home winemakers are well advised to keep these four principles in mind at all times:

  • Useful obsessions: You cannot worry too much about sanitation, temperature, and oxygen.

  • Buckets: You cannot possibly have too many buckets available in your winery.

  • Blending: This technique is the home winemaker’s best friend.

  • Quantity: You cannot make great wine in quantities small enough to drink by yourself.

Great Grapes to Use for Your First Batch of Homemade Wine

As a first-time winemaker, you want to set yourself up for success from the start. The grapes in the following table give you a great shot at overcoming beginner’s jitters over style, taste, and technique:

Reds Whites:
Zinfandel: The All-American red (originally from Croatia), full of fruit and spice, good in every style from rosé to blockbuster. Sauvignon Blanc: The best odds of making white wine with real character the first time out.
Merlot: Always drinkable; most of the charms of Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bigger margin of error on your first try. Chardonnay: Available everywhere, popular as they come, and perfectly delightful in a minimal, home style.
Syrah: Full of fruit, easy to work with, a great blender. Riesling: The queen of aromatic whites, versatile with food, delicious dry, off-dry, and sticky-sweet.

Keys to Wine Chemistry

As a home winemaker, you need to know certain properties of your grapes and wine, whether you ever took a chemistry class or not. The following list offers the key chemical components and how to measure them:

  • Acidity: The key to how refreshing your wine is in the glass, and the way to control problem pH is in acidity. Test kits let you measure total juice and wine acidity and some of its major components.

  • pH: The balance of electrical charges in a solution, pH influences nearly every biochemical reaction in wine. Hand-held pH meters are extremely useful and not that expensive.

  • Sugar: You need to know how much of it is in your grapes, and whether any of it is still left after your wine has fermented. Refractometers use light to calculate sugar levels in the vineyard; glass and plastic hydrometers aid testing during fermentation; and kits with special tablets check to see if a wine is fully dry.

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