A Beer Brewers Guide to Wine Making

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While brewing beer and making wine share the same fermentation process there are some notable differences between how each is made. So here is an introduction to wine making for the beer brewer.

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There is a saying among winemakers that "wine is made in the vineyard not in the winery". At first this may seem a little backwards but it is surprisingly true.
When making beer you extract flavor and sugar from the barley and then add character through hops and spices before fermenting it into the finished beer. Thus much of a beer's final flavor profile is controlled by what the brewer decides to put into the beer.
Wine, on the other hand, starts with ripe, balanced grapes which are crushed and fermented without adding anything save for sulfites for stability. Any character added to a wine come after fermentation through the use of oak. Up until fermentation ends the winemaker's job is to do as little as possible and let the yeast do the hard work.
Wine grapes (vitis vinifera anyway) are the perfect fruit for fermenting. At optimal ripeness vitis vinifera grapes have the ideal sugar levels, pH, yeast nutrients, tannins, and flavors to produce a great wine. With great grapes you won't need to add any sugar, additives, or anything to ferment the must. In established wine making areas nature even provides the best possible yeast which collects on the skins of the grape so all you have to do is harvest the grapes and protect the fermentation from spoilage and oxidation.
The character of a wine comes from two places. First, the land and environment the grapes were grown in. This is referred to as terroir which loosely translates to "a sense of place". So the soil, temperature fluctuations, fog, inclination of the sun, and orientation of the hillside (among thousands of other influences) all impact the flavors the grapes have to offer.
Heavy handed winemaking practices can destroy this sense of place. Slow, gentle fermentations are key for preserving the uniqueness that each vineyard can offer.
Second, wines gain character from wine making practices employed after fermentation has ended. This is referred to as "elevage", meaning "to elevate the wine's quality". Winemakers accomplish this by aging on oak, aging on the dead lees (sur lie aging), malolactic fermentation, and by blending different varietal wines.
So to make great wine you start with the highest quality fruit you can, ferment the must with as little interaction as possible, and then elevate your wine through post fermentation methods.
Where to Start
The easiest place to start with wine making is with a kit. They include a grape juice concentrate along with all the additives you'll need to successfully complete the kit. Most will take you between six and eight weeks to complete though don't be afraid to let it go longer if need be.
Just like with grapes, a higher quality kit will result in a higher quality finished wine. Price, it turns out, is a pretty good indicator of the quality of a kit. Because each kit contains the same additives and roughly the same amount of grape juice concentrate the only variable from one kit to the next is the quality of the fruit that went into it.
An entry level kit will cost around $70 and the higher quality kits will be upwards of $200. You may be tempted to start off with a cheap kit to see if you like it but I would suggest starting with a kit one level up from the least expensive ones. In my experience it's well worth the extra $10.
The highest quality kits will often contain a package of grape skins that are added during primary fermentation to aid in color and flavor extraction. It doesn't add much in the way of extra work for you the wine maker but can give your kit wines more character.
Most kits on the market will produce six gallons of wine which shakes out to roughly 30 750ml bottles. One exception is dessert wines such as port kits which produce three gallons.
Beyond Kits
If you really want to skip the kit scene and start with even higher quality raw materials I recommend looking into frozen must. Places like Brehmm Vineyards will harvest, crush, press, and test the grape juice before freezing it in buckets.
Typically must is sold in five or six gallon buckets and can cost anywhere from $100 to $300 plus shipping (which is significant as the buckets are transported in refrigerated trucks).
Kits and frozen must are the best places to start with winemaking largely because you're working with the juice instead of the fruit. Working with the fruit requires equipment such as crusher destemmers and basket presses so not only will you be learning the ropes of making wine but also using new equipment.
Many home wine making supply shops rent this equipment for very reasonable rates, however, because all wine making grapes are harvested at tge same time there is often a rush of winemakers trying to rent at the same time. The last thing you want is freshly harvested grapes sitting around the garage for two or three days while you wait for equipment to become available.

I recommend starting with kits (they also include great instructions) or frozen must (no instructions) and then working your way up to grapes. By the time you get to working with grapes you'll have the wine making process down and will be able to focus on learning to process the fruit.
Wine Making Equipment
As a brewer you probably own most of what you need to make a wine. At a minimum you'll need the following
  • a plastic primary fermenter (7.9 gallon capacity)
  • a six gallon carboy
  • 30 clean, empty wine bottles
  • 30 corks (maybe a couple extra just in case)
  • a corker
  • racking cane / autosiphon / or a pump for racking
You can, of course, skip bottling all together and keg your wine. There are a few commercial wineries here in Colorado that do this and serve it on tap. Kegs can influence the flavor of the wine over time but it's still a great option if you'd rather not deal with all those bottles.
A Word on Oak
In the wine world oak is "the winemaker's spice cabinet". Oak can impart oak flavors, of course, but also spices such as vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and much much more.
Oak from different places will impart different flavor profiles on the wine. American oak is known for being an aggressive source of oak whereas French oak is more subtle and smooth.
Aside from oak origin you can also use different oak toast levels. Toasted oak comes in four different levels; light, medium, medium plus, and heavy.
Light toast will impart "green" or vegetal flavors and, on the other end of the spectrum, heavy toast will impart spice flavors, vanilla, and smoke. One of my favorite Zinfandel's is aged on heavy toasted oak and tastes like you're drinking wine by a campfire.
While you can purchase small barrels be warned that they are a lot of work to maintain. Instead consider using oak adjuncts such as oak cubes, chips, staves, or spirals. These may be placed inside your carboy to provide the oak flavors but without the headache of maintaining a barrel.
There is another saying among wine makers that "It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine". Meaning that after a hard day of harvesting in the vineyard a good beer goes a long way. As a brewer you've got a leg up!
Matt Williams is the latest writer to join the HomeBrewTalk team. Teaching people how to make wine through his website and podcast over at Winemaker's Academy, if you have any questions for him just head over to the Academy contact form and send him an email. He'd be happy to help you get going.
Good article. I have homebrewed for over 20 years but just made my first wine kits in 2014. I would suggest starting with a white wine kit like a Pinot Grigio as they don't take nearly as long as reds to become drinkable. The first Pinot Grigio kit I made was good after aging 3 months but great after 5. I now have a super Tuscan red I made in October aging that I won't touch for at least a year and probably will peak after 2. I have kegged my first two Pinot Grigios and use argon to dispense and it works great and is so much easier than bottling. My kits were 6 gallons so I keg 5 of them and then fill 5 bottles with the rest.
Really good article but wine is more than grapes. Grapes are a small subset of the fruit that can be made into wine. Wine can be made from berries (from strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries), from fruit with pits (mangoes, plums, cherries , peaches, apples, pears) , from fruit with skins that need peeled (bananas, oranges, persimmons). It can be made from flowers - dandelions or hibiscus or from vegetables - carrots, parsnips, rhubarb.. You can ferment fresh fruit , frozen fruit or juiced fruit... so you don't need to spend $100 or more on kits.
+1 on winemaking comprising many, many more fruits and other substances than just grapes. Here's a classic website on the topic, famous in the online world of so-called "country" winemaking:
I brewed all the wine for my wedding and can attest that bumping up from the base level kit makes a huge difference in quality. Our experience improved it a little but nothing makes as big a difference as quality must.