Apple wine is perfect for the beginning winemaker, and it’s easy to make at home with either fresh-pressed cider or storebought apple juice.
While making high-quality hard cider rather difficult, and apple wine is really easy.
True hard cider relies on choosing the right varieties of apples and then blending them to craft the perfect juice with enough acid, tannin, and sugar to make a well balanced hard cider. Apple wine, on the other hand, takes any apple juice, even storebought pasteurized jugs of generic juice, and turns it into a delicious apple wine.
Why is making apple wine so easy? It relies on winemaking additives to balance the juice, rather than careful blending.
These days, it’s hard to source high tannin cider apples, or “spitters” as they’re sometimes called. They just don’t taste good, but that natural astringency is actually needed in winemaking. Tannins, in small amounts, help to create body, and a pleasant mouthfeel.
Acid apples, similarly, aren’t your generic grocery store varieties either. Tannin and acid-rich apples would be mixed with sweet apples (as a sugar source) and carefully blended. The process is tricky, and since even the sweetest apples aren’t nearly as sweet as grapes, it’s often hard to make anything but very dry hard cider.
Apple wine is different, and the apple juice just provides the aromatic base and fragrant apple flavor, and the rest of the balancing act of acids, tannins, and sugars are accomplished with natural additives.
(Important: Do not use apple juice with preservatives added. If preservatives such as “Sodium Benzoate” and “Potassium Sorbate” are in the juice, it will not ferment into apple wine. Pasteurized juice and juice with added ascorbic acid are fine for winemaking.)
How to Make Apple Wine
The basic process for making apple wine is the same for any small-batch country wine. Start with a juice of some sort, add in a bit of sugar for sweetness, along with other winemaking additives, and then a strain of winemaking yeast.
Allow the mixture to ferment for about 7 to 10 days, until most of the very active fermentation is complete. Then siphon the mixture over to a clean fermentation vessel (leaving sediment behind) and allow the mixture to ferment more slowly, in a cool dark place for another 6 weeks to 6 months.
At that point, bottle the wine, allow it to bottle age for at least a few weeks (preferably a few months) before drinking. Simple enough!
Additives for Apple Wine
Since the main difference between hard cider and apple wine lies in the additives, what is added to apple wine?
In all honesty, this is a bit subjective based on both your tastes and the starting juice. If you’ve pressed the juice from wild apples, you may already have a bit of tannin present. Some backyard apple varieties are also sweet/tart, and contain plenty of acids. You’ll need to evaluate based on your starting juice.
For each additive, I’m providing a good range, to allow you to adjust the recipe. The base recipe I recommend, if you’re using generic storebought juice, is somewhere right in the middle.
- Cane Sugar or Brown Sugar ~ Cane sugar provides a clean sweetness, while brown sugar will enhance the apple flavor with warm caramel notes in the finished apple wine. The molasses also provides nutrients for the yeast, which is a good option if you’re not using added yeast nutrient. Add about 1lb of sugar for one gallon of wine, but up to 1 1/2 pounds for higher alcohol levels and/or more residual sweetness.
- Yeast Nutrient ~ Generally recommended for any type of country wine, yeast nutrient provides micro-nutrients that may not be available in wines not made from grapes. Add 1 tsp per gallon of wine. Lacking yeast nutrient, brown sugar as the sugar source, plus a handful of raisins added into the primary is a good substitute to nourish the yeasts.
- Acid Blend ~ A blend of different acid sources, usually including 50% malic acid, 40% citric acid, and 10% tartaric acid. A slightly acidic environment allows the yeast to work properly and balances flavors in the finished wine. Recipes for apple wine vary from 1/2 tsp to 1 1/2 tsp acid blend per gallon, and if you really want to nerd out you can titrate the juice determine exactly how much to add…or you can just choose a middle of the road amount and call it good. I added 1 tsp acid blend per gallon. Lacking an acid blend, lemon juice is a good substitute, though it’s citric acid instead of a blend. One tablespoon of lemon juice will acidify as much as 1 teaspoon of acid blend powder.
- Wine Tannin ~ Powdered winemaking tannin takes the place of tannin-rich astringent apples, and helps to improve flavor and balance the mouthfeel of the finished apple wine. Without it, the wine will have a one-dimensional sweetness and thin body. Apple wine recipes vary from 1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon per gallon, and I’m choosing to use 1/4 tsp wine tannin powder per gallon. Lacking tannin powder, add a cup of strongly brewed black tea, or a few grape or currant leaves. This is less exact, obviously, but it will add tannins to help balance the apple wine.
- Pectic Enzyme ~ Breaks down the natural pectin in apples and causes it to sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Using a pectic enzyme is optional, but it’ll greatly improve the clarity of your apple wine. Add 1/2 teaspoon of pectic enzyme per gallon of juice at the start of the fermentation. Lacking pectic enzyme, you can improve wine clarity by racking it repeatedly. Once the wine is moved to secondary, rack it into a clean fermentation vessel every few weeks until it has good clarity.
You can buy pectic enzyme, acid blend and wine tannin together in a kit for just a few dollars, and then all you need is a small packet of yeast nutrient.
Choosing Yeast for Apple Wine
Believe it or not, the yeast strain contributes a lot of flavor to the finished wine. Some strains add fruity flavors, others ferment cleaner with minimal added flavors. Some have very high alcohol tolerances, like champagne yeast, and will ferment very dry unless you add a lot of extra sugar.
For apple wine, choose a wine yeast with moderate alcohol tolerance, that either ferments clean or adds light fruit flavors. Good yeast choices include:
- Lavin D47 ~ Adds a strong fruity, floral character to wines with spicy aromas that would add complexity to apple wine. Only a moderately vigorous fermenter and may start slowly. Alcohol tolerance to 15%.
- Lalvin QA23 ~ Usually chosen for white wines because it adds a clean, fruity taste to the finished wine. Ferments quickly and settles out relatively fast to help clarify the wine. Alcohol tolerance to 16%.
- Red Star Premier Cuvee or Lavin EC-1118 ~ Generally known as champagne yeasts, these are strong fermenters with a neutral taste. This yeast has a high alcohol tolerance (around 18%) and may result in an apple wine that’s a bit on the dry side.
A single packet of wine yeast is enough for 5 gallons, so you don’t need the whole thing. The amount added isn’t critical, since the yeast will multiply quickly anyway, but add roughly 1/5 to 1/2 of the packet for a gallon of juice. Start by dissolving the yeast in a bit of water and allow it to rehydrate and wake up. If it’s added directly to the apple wine, the sugar in the juice can shock the yeast before they’re fully rehydrated.
Generally, yeast packets come with thorough instructions printed on them, and some work a bit differently (such as liquid yeast). Just follow the instructions on the packet.
(I do not recommend using bread yeast! It will literally make your wine taste like a loaf of bread. Since it’s not made for extended ferments or winemaking, it’ll also add off-flavors as the yeast struggle to adapt to the high sugar liquid wine environment.)
Equipment for Making Apple Wine
If you’re an experienced winemaker, you already have all this equipment on hand. If this is your first batch of homemade wine, you’ll need the following equipment:
- One Gallon Glass Carboy (x2) ~ A narrow neck fermentation vessel, also called a carboy, will hold the apple wine while it ferments. You’ll need two, since the wine needs to be moved to a clean container (leaving the sediment behind) after 7-10 days of active primary fermentation. They often come in a kit with a rubber stopper and water lock together.
- Rubber Stopper and Water Lock ~ Basically a one-way valve that allows CO2 to escape, but prevents contaminants from entering the fermentation vessel. A water lock is essential because without it the brew is at a high risk of turning into vinegar during secondary. Not the end of the world because then you have apple cider vinegar, but definitely not apple wine.
- Brewing Siphon ~ Used to move the apple wine from one container to another, and for bottling. Using a siphon allows you to move the ferment without disturbing the sediment on the bottom by simply pouring it from one container to another. Pouring carefully, you can technically get away without one, but it’s a lot easier to use a siphon and it’ll result in a finished apple wine with more clarity.
- Wine bottles ~ The best option for bottling, wine bottles will allow the apple wine to be stored for longer periods. Corks naturally breathe, and apple wine in a wine bottle will improve over time with bottle aging. Beer bottles are also an option, but better for short term storage. Flip-top Grolsch bottles work as well, and they’re really convenient because they’re reusable and come with the cap attached for quick bottling without additional equipment. Wine bottles can be reused, provided you wash them and clean them with brewing sanitizer between uses.
- Bottle Corker ~ If you’re using wine bottles, you’ll need a corker as well. Be sure to use clean, new corks for bottling the wine. (If using grolsh bottles, corks and a corker are unnecessary.)
- Brewing Sanitizer ~ A one step no-rinse brewing sanitizer cleans and sanitizes all equipment before use, preventing contamination and resulting in a more predictable winemaking experience. Without it, there’s a greater chance of infection by acetic acid bacteria (that will turn the apple wine to vinegar).
Making Apple Wine from Store-Bought Juice
I’m starting with a jug of organic apple juice from our local coop, and it conveniently comes in a glass carboy. That saves money on buying a carboy, which even empty tends to cost around as much as this jug of juice.
You’ll need a bit under a full gallon, and in the end, I had 1 1/2 cups of spare juice from this gallon after I added the sugar and other additives.
Start with about 3 quarts of apple juice in the carboy (or if you have a gallon like I do, pull off 1 quart of juice). Place 2 cups of juice in a saucepan and start to warm it on the stove. Add cane sugar, yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme, acid blend and winemaking tannin (basically, everything but the yeast). Whisk to dissolve.
It’s not necessary to boil it, just warm it until everything’s dissolved. Then allow the mixture to cool to room temperature before pouring it into the fermentation vessel with the other juice.
(You should still have 2 cups of juice set to the side for topping off the container.)
Dissolve a small amount of yeast, about 1/4 packet, in about 1/4 cup of water. The yeast needs to rehydrate in water (not juice) so they’re not shocked as they wake up. Allow the mixture to sit for about 10 minutes until the yeast is dissolved and it starts to visibly foam (slightly).
Pour the yeast into the fermentation vessel with the juice and all the other ingredients.
At this point, take a look at the fill level. The jug should be mostly full, and you’ll want to add a bit of the extra juice to bring it up to the neck of the fermentation jug.
A wine needs headspace to bubble, but at the same time, the smaller the area in contact with air at the top of the container the better. For that reason, fill the jug up to the base of the neck of the carboy. This should leave around 2-3 inches of headspace, but minimize the air surface area. Cap the carboy with a water lock. Fermentation should begin with 24 to 48 hours.
Allow the mixture to ferment in “primary” for about 7 to 10 days. This should be a period of very active fermentation, and you’ll need to watch it to make sure that the wine doesn’t bubble up into the water lock. If it does, simply clean out the water lock, refill it with clean water and re-attach it.
At the end of the primary fermentation, use a brewing siphon to rack the wine over into a clean fermentation vessel, leaving the sediment behind. This step is important, both for the clarity of the apple wine and the flavor.
The length of primary fermentation depends on the temperature and your choice of yeast. If it’s bubbling actively, leave it in the primary. Once things settle down, it’s time to move to secondary.
Leaving apple wine on the “lees” at the bottom of the primary fermentation container can create off-flavors, and since most of the sediment is produce in the primary fermentation, it’s good to move the wine to a clean container as soon as the active fermentation step is complete.
Re-apply the water lock and place the apple wine into a cool, dark place for secondary. While it needs to be actively watched during the primary fermentation phase, secondary is much more sedate. You likely won’t see it bubble much, as the yeast is working much more slowly.
Time is secondary is base on your patience. More time (to a point) will yield a better wine, with a mellow flavor complex flavor profile. Young wines can sometimes be harsh.
I’d recommend allowing the apple wine to spend at least 6 weeks in secondary, or as much as 6 months.
After secondary fermentation, bottle the wine in corked wine bottles (preferred), capped beer bottles (less optimal) or flip top Grolsch bottles (a good middle ground, and convenient). Wine bottles allow the brew to “breathe” and are the best option if you’ll be storing the wine in the bottle more than 1 year.
Allow the apple wine to bottle-condition for at least a month, but preferably longer, before drinking.
Sulfites and Stabilizing Wines
Most recipes for apple wine involve Campden tablets (potassium metabisulfite) to sterilize the juice before fermentation. Some involve adding both Campden tablets and potassium sorbate at bottling time to kill off the yeast and stabilize the wine. Killing off the yeast at the end of fermentation ensures that the wine will be a still wine without bottle carbonation, and allows you to back sweeten the wine to your tastes without restarting fermentation.
Personally, I never use Campden tablets or potassium sorbate in winemaking because I consume enough chemical preservatives from modern food sources, and I’m not about to intentionally add them to my homemade goods. That said, if you’re open to adding them, they’ll result in a more predictable final product.
Add one crushed Campden tablet per gallon of juice before adding any other ingredients, and allow the juice to sit for 24 hours before proceeding. To stabilize the apple wine at before bottling (or back sweetening), add BOTH one crushed Campden tablet and 1/2 teaspoon potassium sorbate per gallon.
Once stabilized, add sugar to taste. Make a simple syrup by dissolving equal parts sugar and water together in a saucepan, and then add that to the wine before bottling. Amounts will vary based on your taste, but I’d suggest starting with about 1/2 cup of sugar for one gallon of apple wine. For more information on back sweetening and adjusting flavors at bottling time, there’s an informative discussion on this winemaking forum.
- Start by removing about 1 quart of juice (4 cups) from the gallon, and then pour the other 3 quarts into a fermentation vessel.
- Place 2 cups of the removed juice in a small saucepan, and set the other 2 cups aside for topping off the fermentation vessel later.
- Gently warm the juice in the saucepan. Add all the ingredients (except yeast) and stir to dissolve. Turn off heat and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
- Pour the sweetened juice mixture into the fermentation vessel with the other apple juice.
- Dissolve the winemaking yeast in a small amount of unchlorinated water (about 1/4 cup). A packet is sufficient to start fermentation in 5 gallons of juice, so only use roughly 1/5 to 1/2 the packet. Allow the yeast to sit for about 10 minutes to rehydrate.
- Add the wine yeast to the fermentation vessel with the juice.
- Top off the fermentation vessel with some of the apple juice you set aside at the beginning until the level of the juice is at the base of the neck of the fermentation vessel. Be sure to leave 2-3 inches of headspace to allow the mixture to bubble.
- Cap with a rubber bung and waterlock (filled with water) and allow the mixture to ferment in primary for about 7 to 10 days. Fermentation will be very active, and may bubble up into the water lock. If so, clean out the water lock and re-attach it as necessary.
- After primary fermentation, use a brewing siphon to move the ferment to a clean fermentation vessel, leaving any sediment behind.
- Re-cap with a water lock and allow the mixture to ferment in a cool, dark place in "secondary" for at least 6 weeks, but preferably longer, like 6 months.
- When fermentation is complete, bottle the wine in wine bottles and allow it to bottle age for at least a month but preferably longer before drinking. If you'd like sweet wine, back sweetening may be necessary at this point. See notes for instructions.
Amount of Juice ~ You'll need slightly less than 1 gallon of juice for this recipe, since the other ingredients take up some space in the carboy. I started with one gallon of juice and had 12 ounces left at the end as "extra." You may have more or less depending on your choice of fermentation vessel.
Yeast ~ For apple wine, choose a wine yeast with moderate alcohol tolerance, that either ferments clean or adds light fruit flavors. Good yeast choices include Lavin D47, Lalvin QA23, Red Star Premier Cuvee or Lavin EC-1118. See notes within the article for specific qualities of each yeast.
Stabilizing and Back Sweetening ~ If at the end of secondary, the wine is too dry for your tastes, back sweetening is an option. First, move the wine to a clean container (to avoid stirring up the sediment), then add 1 Campden tablet and 1/2 teaspoon potassium sorbate to stabilize the wine (kill the yeast). If the wine isn't stabilized before adding more sugar, it will rapidly ferment in the bottle with the added sugar and can cause bottles to burst under pressure.
Once stabilized, add sugar to taste. Make a simple syrup by dissolving equal parts sugar and water together in a saucepan, and then add that to the wine before bottling. Amounts will vary based on your taste, but I'd suggest starting with about 1/2 cup of sugar for one gallon of apple wine.
See notes within the article regarding stabilizing and back sweetening.
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