You Got a Wine Kit!

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That's thinking outside the box

Congratulations! Winemaking kits are a popular gift--and rightly so: not only is winemaking fun, easy, and rewarding, it also opens up the whole world of wine to you: making, cellaring, tasting, pairing with food and sharing with friends. Wine is a delightful addition to your life and can make any gathering an occasion, any meal a feast, and any day of the week special. Your kit might have come as a Christmas or birthday present, or maybe you just decided to strike out on your own and make wine (what a bold, smart, handsome person you are!)

Small, but mighty

There are two kinds of 'kits' when we're talking about winemaking, equipment kits and ingredient kits. Winemaking equipment kits are a great way to start making your own wine: they contain everything you'll need to make two and a half cases of wine (except for some empty bottles, which you'll have to provide. If you like wine already, it won't be hard to round them up.)

Winemaking ingredient kits contain the juice, yeast, nutrients, clarifiers and stabilizers that you need to make a delicious batch of your own wine. Not only are they accessible--you can make wine any time of the year--but also they're dead easy to make and you can be tasting your wine in less than six weeks!

Don't worry if you don't know much (or anything) about making wine. Master Vintner is here to help you make great wine the first time, and every time. We'll go over the basics and steps in this article, and there is a link to videos demonstrating all of the processes at the end. We’ll have a look at making a great wine right from the first time, and give you tips on what to focus on.

First: RTI (Read The Instructions)

Reading is Fun(damental)

Like most folks with a brand-new hobby, you probably just want to dive straight into it--rip open the package and start pouring and stirring! Not so fast: the single best thing you can do is to Read The Instructions. Both your equipment kit and your ingredient kit came with a set of instructions. Unlike a lot of high-tech instruction sets, these weren't translated from another language or written by techno-nerds: they were written by winemakers who tailored them to ensure that you'd get the maximum success by reading and following them.

Reading the instructions before you make your first move can help head off confusion: Some kit manufacturers package only one or two sizes of additive package, and instead of making another size for a kit that requires a different dose, they double up on the regular size. You see this sometimes with oak powder: one, one-ounce package for a Sauvignon Blanc, and suddenly there are four of the same package in an Australian Chardonnay! Are they extra packages included by mistake? Are you supposed to throw in a pillowcase full of oak? Consult the instructions, and I guarantee they’ll say, “This kit may contain more than one package of each ingredient. Please add all packages when directed.”

In addition, different wine kits use very different instructions. Why aren't they all the same? Mainly because of those empirical trials mentioned above: a set of instructions that works for one kit aren't going to give success with another. Always read the instructions and use the specified techniques.

Second: Cleanliness is Next to Goodliness

They call him Mister Clean

Wine is food. When you’re preparing food at home, you use a clean cutting board, wipe the counter, wash your hands, and use clean plates and cutlery, because you want to ensure that you're food won't come into contact with any spoilage organisms. The same goes for wine: unless your winemaking equipment is spotless and sanitized, you’re giving environmental bacteria a chance to attack it.

It's important to understand that cleaning and sanitation are two different things: cleaning is removing visible dirt and residue from your equipment. Sanitizing is treating that equipment with a chemical that will prevent the growth of spoilage organisms. Everything that comes in contact with your wine must be clean, and properly sanitized, from the thermometer to the carboy, from the siphon hose to the bung and airlock. Even if you have got brand new equipment, which will look clean, you can't jump right in and start using it.

First, clean all of your equipment with One-Step, and rinse thoroughly with hot water. A tablespoon of One-Step powder dissolved in 1 gallon of warm water will clean very effectively. Do not use any household cleaning products. They contain perfumes and surfactant chemicals that can taint your wine.

Scrub everything with a soft cloth to make sure the surface debris is removed--this is when a Big Mouth Bubbler is really great, because you can reach right in with your arm, but you can even get the narrower-necked carboys clean by stuffing a cleaning cloth and two cups of the One-Step solution into them, and then slowly and carefully rolling the carboy around so the cloth slides around on the inside--it really works! Be sure to rinse thoroughly with warm water.

After it's clean, you can sanitize your equipment by rinsing it with a solution of metabisulfite. Dissolve 3 tablespoons of metabisulfite powder in 1 gallon of cool water. Dip or spray your equipment with this solution, and rinse thoroughly. Leftover solution can be stored in a tightly sealed container for up to 2 months, and a trigger spray bottle can make spraying your equipment a snap.

Third: FTI-WID (Follow The Instructions-Write It Down)

Follow all of your ingredient kit instructions exactly, making no change however small (that comes later), omitting no detail, however slight (ditto) and write down the important numbers, like the kit product code, type of wine, date started, temperature and starting specific gravity. You'll need these numbers to make sure you're hitting your marks for fermentation progress. As a wise man said, ' The only difference between science and fooling around is the writing it down.'

Things to Pay Attention To

1) Keep Your Temper(ature)


One thing that could mess up your wine is the wrong temperature, or fluctuations in temperature . Kit instructions tell you to ferment your wine within a specific temperature range, typically 65 to 75°F. Yeast is a living organism and it likes this temperature range, as it provides a good compromise between optimum growth and ester (flavor compound) production. Yeast certainly does not like temperature fluctuations.

This is one situation where kit instructions are different from grape winemaking techniques. The starting temperature of the wine is critical. If the yeast is added to a kit that is too cold, it will not ferment or clear on schedule. Double-check to ensure the juice before adding the yeast.

If you live in a climate of fluctuating temperatures you need to ensure that your fermenting area stays in the specified temperature range in the instructions. In cold climates that may mean tucking the carboy in a cupboard with a small thermostatically controlled or wrapping it in an electric fermentation heater like the Brew Belt or Ferm Wrap. These will keep the wine in the right range with ease, even in very cool environments.

In very hot climates you may need to resort to a passive cooling system. Simply stand your fermenter in a pan of water, drape a wet T-shirt over it and direct the breeze from a fan at it. This can lower the temperature by as much as 20°F.

2) Stirring

A stirring experience

Vigorous stirring is needed on day one. The wine juice is quite viscous, and won’t mix easily with water. Even if it seems that dumping the contents of the bag into the primary with the water has done the job, it hasn’t. The juice lies on the bottom of the pail, with a layer of water on top. This not only throws off any gravity readings; it also overworks the yeast. Stir hard to make sure it's thoroughly mixed.

Your wine kit will also have an instruction in the fining and stabilizing section that says something like " Using a degasser, stir vigorously for 60 seconds to drive off CO2 gas. If you're using a long-handled spoon, stir for 2 minutes. You must stir hard enough to drive off all of the CO2 gas, or your wine will not clear. "

This is because the dissolved gas will attach to the fining agents, preventing them from settling out. You need to stir hard enough to make the wine foam, and keep stirring until it will no longer foam. Only then will the fining agents work. It’s not possible to predict how long this will take, because it varies with the vigor of the stirring: you just have to watch to see if it’s stopped foaming.

Whip it . . . whip it good

Wine stirring rods are awesome. There are several types on the market, but they are all essentially a long plastic or stainless-steel rod with a set of paddles or whips on one end (which goes into the wine), and a shank that fits into a drill. Once the whip is sanitized, it’s easy to use. Put it into a reversible drill and stick the business end into your wine. For mixing the kit on day one just poke it into your fermenter and give it a quick thirty second whip and you’ll be good to go.

For stirring on fining and stabilizing day place the head of the stirring whip all the way to the bottom of the vessel and give the drill a quick, two-second shot. If the wine is very foamy, this will give it a chance to expel a few bubbles without exploding. When you're sure it’s safe, give the wine a good sixty-second stir, at full power.

Next, read the fining/stabilizing procedures. Wherever they direct you to stir, use the drill in one direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise for sixty seconds. When they require you to make an addition and stir again, change the direction of the drill and go for another sixty seconds, until all the additions are in.

3) Use the Magic Ingredient

Ooh, nobody likes this bit

The truth is, there is a magic ingredient you can add to your wine. It’s rarely spoken of in winemaking circles, but everyone can get it. It does more to improve wine than any other technique, additive or process that you have access to. It clears wine better than filtering, brings more bouquet than a truckload of roses, and best of all, it’s free.

The magic ingredient is TIME. Wine kits are ready to bottle in four or six weeks, but they’re not ready to drink in that time! Even just three months of age will change it into a completely different wine.

If you really, really can’t wait, the minimum time before a kit tastes good is about one month after bottling. This is long enough for the wine to get over the shock of bottling, and begin opening up to release its aromas and flavors. Three months in the bottle is much better, and the wine will show most of its character at this point. For most whites, however, and virtually all reds, at least six months is needed to smooth out the wine and allow it to express mature character. Heavy reds will continue to improve for at least a year, rewarding your patience with delicious bouquet.

Think of your wine like a gourmet meal: you wouldn't take your omelet out of a pan before it was cooked, and you wouldn't want to eat a cake that was only half-baked, so let the magic ingredient (time, of course!) do its work!

4) Have Fun!

Well, that looks fun!

There are few better ways to enjoy yourself than by making wine, and any of those things go better with a glass of wine, so you should make it any way. Pat attention to the details, yes, and be careful and write things down, follow the instructions, et cetera, but at the end of the day be sure to enjoy yourself. You'll be joining the ranks of thousands of years of people making their own wine, purely for enjoyment and sharing, so be sure to stop and smell the rosés along the way!

Recommended Viewing

Winemaking with Master Vintner

Using a Wine Whip

How to Taste Wine

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