Homemade grape wine is a fun way to preserve homegrown grapes, but it can easily be made with store-bought juice.
This tutorial on making wine from grapes is part of a winemaking series, and is oriented toward absolute beginners.
If you’re new to winemaking, I’d suggest you also read the other posts in this series, including:
- Beginners Guide to Making Fruit Wines, where I take you through all the steps in the winemaking process.
- Small Batch Winemaking can be done for micro-batches, making as little as 1 bottle of wine at a time, and the process and equipment are a bit different with super tiny batches.
- How to Make Mead (Honey Wine) is mostly the same, but there are some particularities when working with honey.
- Equipment for Winemaking, which covers all the durable equipment you’ll need to make your first batch (besides your ingredients).
- Ingredients for Winemaking, which covers all the other things you’ll need (besides yeast).
- Yeast for Winemaking can get complicated quickly, and there are dozens of common strains (and hundreds of obscure ones). Picking the right one is actually pretty important, but I’ve broken them all down for you.
- Winemaking Recipes can be hard to find, but I’ve put together a list of more than 50 to get you started.
- Meadmaking Recipes are even more obscure, but I’ve got you covered there too.
At this point, I have probably 20 different fruit, flower, and even vegetable wine (and mead) recipes up on the blog…but up until now, there were no grape wine recipes.
Why is that?
We make grape wines, of course, probably more gallons than any other fruit.
Growing grapes in zone 4 here in Vermont can be a challenge, but we’ve been doing it for more than a decade now, and there are plenty of cold-hardy grape varieties available these days.
We grow at least a dozen varieties of grapes and have them planted on just about every fence line on the property. As soon as a fence goes up, I’ll take a cutting from one of our most successful grapes, propagate it and get a new one working on that section of fence.
(Deer won’t jump a fence if they can’t see what’s on the other side, so it serves double duty on garden fences in particular.)
The grapes grow wild, and thrive without attention, and we’ll harvest somewhere between six and a dozen 5-gallon buckets in early September each year.
So why is there still no recipe for grape wine on the site?
Believe it or not, making grape wine is tricky…and much more complex than making country fruit wines.
It’s less tricky if you invest in a lot of specialized winemaking equipment, a refractometer to measure the sugar levels in the grapes, a lab-grade titration kit to test for ph, sulfates, and all manner of other things.
Even though we make a lot of wine, I don’t actually have those things. It’s not that I don’t know how to use them, I spent four full years hunkered down in biology labs in college…it’s just that I prefer to make wine by taste, smell and observation…just like they used to back in the day.
(That, of course, is very hard to do…and it’s still a work in progress, but the wine gets better every year…)
The main thing is, grapes are incredibly variable in terms of their sugar content, acidity, tannins, and just about everything. It’s not just by variety, though, that impacts it as well.
How grapes are grown, when they’re harvested, really everything about their cultivation will dramatically impact the finished product. The same grapevine will not produce the same sugar levels year after year, because no two years are the same.
Simple things like the timing of the rains, the cloud cover, how the grapes are pruned or trained from year to year, really everything…impacts the finished winemaking characteristics. Grapes from the same vine might literally be twice as sweet this year as compared to last year, or half as acidic.
Grapes harvested from the same vines, just a day or two apart, could have dramatically different characteristics. As grapes ripen, their sugar content rises dramatically, and their acidity drops. There’s a sweet spot in there, and vineyards really have it dialed in. They harvest when the grapes have lost most of their tart acidity and gained maximum sugar…but haven’t spoiled yet.
(Peaches or blackberries, on the other hand, will vary slightly from year to year, but only by very small amounts…at least in terms of the things that are relevant to winemaking. Backyard peaches, grocery store peaches, whatever. They’ll all make a very similar wine in terms of ABV, tannins, acidity, etc. The main difference here is the aromatics, which comes from the quality of the peaches. But nonetheless, choose high-quality aromatic peaches that are super fresh…and you can follow the same recipe to make a great peach wine no matter where you live.)
In actual winemaking terminology, these variations give grape wine “Terroir” or a “Sense of Place.” It’s also another reason you hear people in movies say, “Ahhh, 1987… that’s a spectacular vintage.”
Ingredients for Winemaking
One of the reasons making grape wine is more complicated is that, in theory, grapes have everything that’s needed for making wine…without any other ingredients. The perfect grapes have enough sugar to bring the ABV to a stable level (and still leave residual sweetness), enough acidity to promote a healthy fermentation, the right balance of nutrients to feed the yeasts, natural yeasts on their skins, and enough tannin to provide balance and good mouthfeel in the finished wine.
At least in theory.
- Sugar (or honey)
- Yeast Nutrient (or Raisins)
- Tannin Powder (or black tea, or grape leaves)
- Acid Blend (or lemon juice)
- Winemaking yeast (don’t use bread yeast, that makes a nasty wine)
With grape wine, in theory, all you need is fresh pressed grapes. You don’t even need yeast, strictly speaking, because they have plenty of natural yeast on their skins.
In practice, vineyards add all sorts of things to their wine to create an elaborate cocktail that perfectly balances their wine, even if the grapes aren’t ideal. These days, it’s more an exercise in chemistry than agriculture.
They’ll use sulfites and potassium sorbate to kill the yeast off early to control the fermentation, so there’s residual sweetness, even if there wasn’t quite enough sugar in the grapes to start with. They’ll add acid and tannin, too.
You can even take away acid, believe it or not. Modern wines are not just made with yeast, they’re made with all kinds of microbes that work the juice over and change its chemistry. The “buttery” taste in a Chardonnay is created by Malto-Lactic Bacteria that convert harsher malic acid into creamy, buttery-tasting lactic acid.
It can get complicated really quickly.
If you’re new to winemaking, I’d strongly suggest making wine with a winemaking kit. The juice included is pressed from wine grapes, perfectly balanced, and then flash pasteurized so it can be shipped. You can see how the winemaking process goes, without having to worry about all the tiny details.
Basic Steps in Winemaking
So, let’s start with the basics. This is a really quick overview for those of you who have never made wine before.
- Prepare the Fruit – For grapes, that means stemming the grapes and then pressing the juice. With red wine, the skins are left in the fermenter for primary to add color and tannins. In white wine, just the juice is kept.
- Sterilize the Juice (optional) – These days, most people opt to chemically sterilize the fruit with Camden tablets. This kills off any yeast on the fruit, and means you’re only fermenting with added yeast from a packet. It’s a more dependable method, since package yeast is more dependable and consistent than wild yeast. That said, packaged yeast is also a lot more vigorous and tolerant of high alcohol levels than wild yeast. We don’t sterilize our juice because the cultivated yeast quickly outcompetes the wild yeast on the grapes in a matter of days, and then any that are left die out completely as alcohol levels rise. If you do sterilize the juice, you’ll have to wait 24 hours for the sulfites to evaporate before adding yeast so that you don’t kill your own yeast too.
- Add Yeast – The yeast choice is very important, as it actually imparts a lot of character and flavor to your finished wine. Some yeasts contribute fruity esters as a byproduct of their metabolism, and others ferment clean…and everywhere in between. The same juice fermented with two different yeasts will yield dramatically different results. The type of yeast also determines the residual sugars in the wine, based on its alcohol tolerance. If a yeast dies off at 13% ABV, it’ll leave a lot more residual sugars than if it dies off at 18% ABV. Whatever you do, don’t use bread yeast, it’ll make your wine taste like bread…that smell when bread is rising is actually the “bread smell” esters that bread yeast puts off.
- Primary Fermentation – For the first 7 to 14 days, the wine is in what’s known as primary fermentation. The yeast are working fast and rapidly multiplying, it’s often vigorous and creates a lot of sediment at the bottom of the fermenter. There’s little alcohol at this point, so primary fermentation is often done in an open bucket that’s just covered with a towel.
- Racking – After the initial vigorous fermentation is complete in “primary,” the wine is “racked” into a clean container. This is done with a siphon to avoid stirring up the sediment or “lees” at the bottom of the primary fermenter. If wine is left on the lees, it can develop off flavors.
- Secondary Fermentation – Once the wine is racked into secondary, it’s sealed with an airlock. That’s a one-way valve that prevents oxygen from getting in, but allows the CO2 produced during fermentation to escape. This prevents the alcohol that’s produced from turning into vinegar. Secondary usually lasts about a month.
- Tasting and Adjusting – After secondary, it’s time to taste the wine and adjust as needed. At this point, it’ll taste very “rough” as it hasn’t bottle aged at all, but it should give you a rough idea of the final flavors to expect. If it’s very dry, this is where you’d add some sugar or honey, or if it’s too sweet, you can consider adding some acidity to balance (or pitching in a more vigorous yeast strain to eat up more of the sugars). You can add more tannin or really anything that might be needed. Or, if it’s good, just go right to bottling.
- Tertiary Fermentation (optional) – If you have made adjustments, you’ll need to rack the wine into another fermenter for another couple of weeks to allow things to settle out before bottling.
- Bottling – To bottle, use a brewing siphon to move the wine into wine bottles and seal them with corks. Some people opt to sterilize their wines with potassium sorbate at bottling, which prevents additional fermentation in the bottle. I do not sterilize, I just make sure the secondary is long enough that the yeast has died off, and I’ll rack into tertiary if necessary to get any last activity out of the yeast.
- Bottle Conditioning – Once in the bottle, the wine will need to “bottle condition” for a minimum of 2 weeks before drinking (ideally, much longer, more like 2 months, or upwards of a year for some varieties).
Basic Grape Wine Recipe
Ok, so how does that translate into practice?
To make grape wine, you’ll need the following:
- 12 to 15 pounds of grapes (or about 1-gallon juice)
- Wine Yeast (Red Star Cote de Blanc yeast is a good general-purpose type)
Start by destemming the grapes and then pressing them. If making red wine, leave the skins in, for white, and filter out everything but the juice. Place in a fermentation bucket that can hold at least 2 gallons (it’ll foam up as it ferments).
Dissolve the yeast packet in a small amount of water, wait 10 minutes for it to rehydrate, and then add the yeast to the grape juice.
Cover the mixture with a towel and allow it to ferment for 7 to 10 days in primary fermentation.
After the primary, use a brewing siphon to rack the wine into a narrow neck fermenter (carboy) that can be sealed with a water lock. Ferment in primary for another 4 weeks.
(Ideal fermentation temperatures for most yeasts are room temperature, usually 68 to 72 F, but check your yeast packet as some are different.)
After 4 weeks, try the wine and adjust as necessary. If it’s good, it can be bottled, if adjusted, it’ll need to be racked into a tertiary fermentation for another few weeks.
If bottling, use a brewing siphon to move the wine into wine bottles and seal with corks. Bottle condition a minimum of 2 weeks before enjoying.
So if you’d like to try your hand at making grape wine with homegrown grapes, I wish you the best of luck. It’s fun and rewarding but extremely challenging. Your first year may not be ideal, and will almost certainly require adjustment after secondary.
Nonetheless, you’ll learn a lot, and next year will be all the better.
I strongly recommend making your first grape wine with a kit, using purchased wine grape juice. It’s standardized so you know it has the right sugar/acid/tannin, and the kid will come with the perfect yeast for that type of juice. You’ll be able to learn the process without having to worry about the actual chemistry of your particular grapes.
In terms of specific recipes, there is an incredible free downloadable pdf (300+ pages) with all the custom recipes that Jack Keller wrote for his readers in his lifetime. He was a winemaking icon for many years, and he sadly passed away just a few years back. All his readers put together a big printable of all his recipes, as he shared them so freely in his lifetime. It’s an incredible resource for any beginning winemaker (and free)!
There are quite a few grape wine recipes included in there, including:
- Niagara Grape Wine (pg. 56)
- Edelweiss Grape Wine (pg. 55)
- Berlandieri Grape Wine (pg. 44)
- White Grape Cherry Wine (pg. 38)
- White Grape and Raspberry Wine (pg. 68)
Fruit wines, as I said, are A LOT easier…and most recipes yield very consistent results. Here are some of my winemaking recipes:
Fruit Winemaking Recipes
Here are a few fruit wine recipes to get you started. All of them follow this same basic process, and the only real difference is the choice of fruit and yeast, as well as the amount of acid, sugar, etc in the recipe. It’s quantities that differ, not steps.
- Blackberry Wine
- Blueberry Wine
- Raspberry Wine
- Strawberry Wine
- Lemon wine
- Banana Wine
- Pineapple Wine
- Cranberry Wine
- Elderberry Wine
- Persimmon Wine
- Pomegranate Wine
- Rhubarb Wine
- Watermelon Wine
Flower and Vegetable Wines
While fruit wines are certainly more common, the process is also the same for flower and vegetable wines. Here are a few more recipes to keep your carboy bubbling:
These are also technically “wines,” but they’re called mead when made with honey. The process is nearly the same, but honey takes longer for the yeast to consume, so you’ll need to be patient during these ferments. Otherwise, the process is pretty much the same.