Here in Northern California, we’re enjoying the warm days of July by hosting barbeques, enjoying picnics at the beach and cooling down with a quick evening dip in the pool. And of course, we’re making all this fun even better with a lovely bottle of our home made wine!
But in just a few short weeks, we’ll prepare our fermenters, sharpen our picking shears and check our shopping list to ensure we have a smooth pick in the wonderful growing region east of San Francisco.
Here are a few tips on how we get prepared for harvest season:
Finish bottling last year’s wines.
After of year of bulk aging, we normally have quite a bit of wine in carboys and kegs ready to bottle. I’ve spent the last few months washing bottles and filtering one batch at a time. Bottling is such a fun day when all of that work is done up front. Then we hold a big party where lots of wine flows and a lots of corks get used. This clears out all our containers so we’re ready to fill them up again!
If you’re still bottling from last year, we can help!
This year, we plan to pick Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre for a GSM blend that we’ve tasted many times in Southern Oregon. We love these varietals and have reviewed what our grape supplier has on hand. So far, we’ve only made Syrah as a single varietal and loved it! We’re looking forward to seeing how these grapes do together. Our expectation of this blend is to pick 250 lbs of Grenache and about 100 lbs each of the Syrah and Mourvedre. But we always blend to taste, so we’ll see. This should give us about 28 gallons or so of finished wine.
But as we prepare for harvest, we always inspect the primaries and carboys we have to make sure there isn’t any deep scratches or stains on them. We make sure our press is ready (we have a Blichmann Wine Easy). This year, we will be aging in our new barrel to see what level of complexity the micro-oxidation adds! If any of our equipment needs replacing or repairing, we know long before we need to use it!
If you need to replace or expand your equipment, we offer lots of options.
Now is when I start checking the wine making additives I need for the style of wine I’m going to make. I make sure I have the yeast I want to use, sanitizing powders, any enzymes or malolactic bacteria that I want to add.
I don’t want to be caught short at the start of fermentation and realize I don’t have what I need for a healthy ferment!
I know my list because I use EnoFile to check my “Start Fermentation” step from last year.
EnoFile will give you a list of supplies that match last year’s ingredients. If you don’t have a list, we’re happy to make some recommendations:
While attending the Winemaker Magazine conference this year in San Diego, California, I thought I would be asked about how to make dessert wines. After all, I participated on a panel about them. However, I was surprised that most questions were about how to make the sparkling wine I had won an award for the previous year. It’s not easy to make a sparkling wine as it takes many steps beyond still wine. Because of these extra steps, there are more ways that a sparkler can go wrong. However, the end result is worth it as the bubbles will awe your friends and get you interesting questions at conference!
And although sparkling wine can be made by injecting carbonation (much like making beer) or by leaving the wine in champagne bottle and pouring off the additional lees introduced with the second fermentation, I prefer the méthode champenoise. This method pops the lees plug out of the wine at the end of the process, leaving you with a crystal clear bubbly!
These are my instructions, with details to help you make your own award winning champagne!
1. Make a still wine with high acidity, low sugar
My first batch of sparkler started with a full strength chardonnay. And although I was able to figure out how to freeze the neck to disgorge the wine, what I didn’t realize was that my wine already had too much alcohol to make the sparkler I wanted. In addition, it was not acidic enough to taste the way I wanted. Instead it was heavy and “beery.” It was a lesson learned to pick my base wine more carefully.
The base wine should be a naturally highly acidic wine. For my award winner, I chose Reisling and then mixed it with a Chenin blanc/Sauvignon blanc blend, but you could choose a Chardonnay, a Semillon or even a Blanc de Noir from Pinot noir grapes.
You can even start the sparkler with a kit wine. No matter what you start with, you may have to adjust your must to aim for a higher acid level and lower starting Brix.
Starting Specific Gravity/Brix: 1.065/17°
Potential Alcohol: 9%
Total acidity (pre-fermentation): above 8 grams per liter
2. Protect it carefully while clarifying
Once your wine is finished fermenting, you should go ahead and complete all the steps to clarify. You want to control any chance of pectin haze or tartrates once you put it back in the bottle for secondary fermentation. Protect it with 50 ppm potassium metabisulfite and add a finishing additive if you have one. I usually wait 3 months after the SO² addition, but rack just before the second fermentation in bottle. I’ve also cold stabilized my wine down to 32° F for 30 days to ensure any tartaric crystals drop out at this temperature. Since you don’t want to get your SO² levels too high, it’s best to keep the wine cool (down to 60° F, if you can) and topped up as close to the bung as possible during this period.
Any fining agent you put in at this stage will help the lees slide down the side of the champagne bottles later (See Riddle me this, below).
Potassium metabisulfite (.3 grams per gallon)
Chitosan (5 ml per gallon) or Bentonite (2.5 grams per gallon)
When wine is finished fermenting, rack off gross lees into carboy.
Add potassium metabisulfite and fining agent. Top up wine in carboy to within 1/4″ of the stopper.
Keep temperature between 60-65° F and set aside for 2 months.
Rack and top up wine in carboy to within 1/4″ of the stopper.
Cold stabilize by placing in refrigerator at 32° F for at least 1 month.
Important: If you started your wine with kit juice that came with potassium sorbate, throw it out! The potassium sorbate will prevent a refermentation in the bottle (not what you want in a sparkler). My second attempt at bubbly was from a Riesling kit, but I accidentally added the sorbate at clarification. I hit my forehead with a “Doh!” after my clarifying step, and that’s how my “Unbubbly Riesling” got it’s name! So I bought another kit and started again. Needless to say, I threw out the potassium sorbate as soon as I began the fermentation!
Get an extra refrigerator: I am lucky enough to have a garage that can store an extra “drink” refrigerator. When I need to cold stabilize, I remove the sodas and beer and turn the temperature down to its lowest setting. I can fit up to 4 — 6 gallon carboys into the fridge at one time. If you have room, you can use this fridge for both cold stabilizing and for cold fermentation when needed (but cold fermentation is a topic for another article).
3. Inoculate with a yeast, sugar boost
The trick to sparkling is to trap CO² in the bottle, so after we have clarified our still wine, much of the CO² from the original fermentation will have dissipated. We will need to add additional yeast and sugar to sparkling bottles. But before this, remove 1 bottle of the still wine (or 750 ml) and cork it to use later to create a dosage (see Make a Dosage, below).
Once the sparkler is in the bottle, to help the yeast along and integrate the complex flavors in the wine, gently rock the bottles back and forth to stir the lees into the wine. The lees are the key to making great tasting sparkling wine.
By mixing the lees into the wine at the beginning of the bottling process, you’ll help the lees stay healthy and complete the re-fermentation.
Create a yeast starter according to package directions. In 15 minutes, increase the water portion to 250 ml and add 250 ml of wine. Allow to sit 1 hour. After 1 hour, add another 250 ml of wine. Allow to sit 1 hour.
Sanitize your new champagne bottles and caps.
Rack wine into primary fermenter while yeast starter is completing final hour.
Stir sugar into wine until dissolved. Add yeast starter.
Fill champagne bottles to within 1/4″ of top of bottle.
Cap bottles. Store at 70-75° F for at least 10 days to help complete fermentation.
Gently mix the wine by lifting each bottle and rock back and forth 2-3 times. Store bottles in wine box. Repeat daily for 3 months.
Do not re-use sparkling bottles: Although you might be a environmentally or economically conscious and reuse bottles, I warn you not to re-use sparkling bottles. These bottles can get micro-fractures due to the pressure of the previous use that can be invisible to you. These stress fractures may cause the bottle to weaken under the new pressure of your sparkler. Fireworks might work on July 4th, but I don’t want them unexpectedly in my cellar!
Rent a bench capper: After losing 1/3 of my bottles in my second batch of sparkling to unseated caps, I vowed I would never use a hand capper again! My local retailer provides bench cappers that push the cap evenly onto the bottles, just like a floor corker! We’ve made enough sparkling, cider and beer to make buying a bench capper worth it!
4. Riddle me this
To later disgorge the sparkling wine, the yeast must be high in the neck of the bottle next to the cap. Even upside down, yeast may not settle near the cap on it’s own because it’s so fine it can get stuck on the sides of the bottle. By riddling the bottles, you loosen any yeast from sides of the bottle and clear any particles from the wine above the neck. We don’t need a fancy riddling rack to get the lees near the cap. We can use the boxes our champagne bottles came in!
Inoculated champagne bottles
After the wine has been in the bottle for 12 months (or longer if you desire), place wine boxes in a location where the upside down bottles can be partially removed every day.
Lift each bottle 4″ out of box, quickly twist 1/4″ turn and drop back into box daily. Repeat daily for 30 days.
Make riddling easy by making it a daily habit: Try to find a place you sit every day to complete the riddling procedure so it becomes part of your routine. I placed my wine boxes where I drink my coffee every morning and completed riddling before the coffee was ready.
5. Make a Dosage (optional)
If you like an extra dry champagne like I do, then you’ll want to create a dosage and add to the wine after disgorgement. However, if you’re happy with a dry sparkler, then you can skip the dosage.
In any case, you’ll want to test with one bottle of your sparkler to know just what you like. This is the time you can check to see what your final ABV will be as well as your pH and acid levels. The acid should be higher than when you inoculated the original wine due to the dissolved CO².
Final ABV % (at end of second fermentation): 11.22%
Total acidity (with carbonation): about 12 grams per liter
Ingredients needed (30 ml per bottle):
Dosage Wine (15 ml per bottle to dosage or 75 ml per gallon of wine)
Dextrose (15 grams per bottle to dosage or 75 ml per gallon of wine)
Take readings and test sugar addition using one bottle of unsweetened champagne. The dosage should be to your taste and can be left out if you prefer.
Make a solution of wine, dextrose, potassium sorbate, potassium metabisulfite for each bottle to be disgorged. Chill overnight to 35-40° F.
Don’t forget the potassium sorbate: The dosage will add more sugar to your wine and we don’t want to continue a further fermentation. An addition of potassium sorbate with any sugar you add will keep the fermentation from starting again.
Use measurements that work for you: I find it easier to work with liters in doing measurements of additives and weighing small additions of additives, so find a conversion calculator to help you if you’d rather deal in ounces. U.S. measurements do not go low enough to help you with tiny amounts of dry ingredients, so it may be easier to work in gallons.
Chill your dosage: Make sure your dosage is as cold as the champagne you add it to. Otherwise, you can cause a volcanic eruption as you add it to the wine.
Make about 25% more than you need: Although my original measurements per 1 ounce dose were correct, because of the disgorging loss, we ended up adding slightly more than expected for each bottle. This left us short when we got to the end of the bottles. Fortunately, we had a bottle of raspberry port to use for the dosage on some. The rest were left extra dry.
Many people leave the lees in the bottle and drink their sparkler without riddling, but there’s something in my nature that won’t let me shy away from a challenge! Instead of either pouring my bubbly with a bottle full of lees or carbonating my still wine, I have to do it méthode champenoise. So I will describe my process for disgorging , which may need a bit of practice.
bottle opener (or a disgorging tool, which can be ordered online from France)
Fill 5 gallon buckets with ice 3/4 full . Sprinkle rock salt to reduce the temperature.
Place champagne bottles upside-down in the ice. Let stand for at least 45 minutes, until you can see crystals form in the neck at the top of the yeast plug.
Pointing the bottle downward and away from you into a box or empty space, hold the neck with your thumb close enough to cover the opening once the plug is out.
Quickly uncap the bottle, cover the opening with your thumb and turn the bottle right side up in one smooth motion. This should be quick as to prevent too much wine flowing out with the frozen plug!
Keep your thumb over the opening until the CO2 subsides enough to let go
Slowly add a 30 ml (or 1 ounce) dosage and cap your wine.
After wine is capped, rock bottle back and forth several times to integrate the dosage.
Chill your sparkler before disgorging: Place your champagne bottles into a cold refrigerator at the coldest setting for at least 1 week before disgorging. Be extra careful when removing so you don’t disturb the lees!
Don’t waste your wine: Practice the uncapping and thumb covering a few times on a water filled bottle. It’ll help you get the hang of the motion before you deal with spraying sparkling wine!
Watch temperatures: Disgorge Champagne while it’s cold outside. You don’t want to fight the temperature outside the bottle while freezing the necks.
Choose the closure that works for you: After trying plastic champagne corks and Belgian corks at disgorgement, I’m finally going to only use bottle caps. Using plastic on my first batch, I could not get them out of the bottle without a workbench vice (seriously!). Using Belgian corks, we put them in far enough to hood them, but they’re so long, they require a cork screw to remove.
Top up: If using bottle caps after disgorgement, you may have to sacrifice one bottle of sparkler to top up the bottles before capping. Don’t leave more than 1″ of headspace. If you don’t mind a slightly sweeter sparkler, you can use leftover dosage to top up.
Now that your champagne is clear and complete, all you have to do is wait at least 6 months in bottle for your wine to be ready. My award winning wine was 24 months old from start of fermentation to opening. Make a bunch, so you can open and try it at intervals to see how it’s doing!
After making wine for 7 years using carboys, and always aiming for a little bit richer, a little more complicated red, we knew we had to up our game. At the Wine Maker Magazine annual conference last year, I attended a session discussing of the benefits of aging wine in barrels. It turns out that tannins in wine – particularly red wine – interact with oak to generate structure and body, not just an oaky taste. Of course there’s much more to it than that.
Even though all our wine making has used carboys, this conference inspired my thinking. Could we use a barrel in our wine making? Although we thought we could make better wine, we were daunted. We knew it would cost more but didn’t know much else. I started doing some research so I could get Susan a barrel for Christmas. It turned out we needed a more than just a barrel!
I asked staff at our local winemaking store.
The idea of containers suddenly becomes more complicated
There’s bewildering array of barrels for sale. The most common size for home winemaking is 30 gallons, but you can get barrels in other sizes ranging from 1 gallon to 30,000 liters. They can be made from various materials including French, American and Hungarian Oak. It might be made from French oak, but made in Italy. You can choose to buy new or used. You can get a carboy for less than $30 but barrels start in the hundreds. Knowing Susan likes the subtleness of French oak-aged chardonnay, I bought a new 13-gallon barrel made of French Oak from The Vintner Vault in Paso Robles, California.
You’ll spend time caring for your barrel – much more than for a carboy
It turns out you can’t just clean, dry and re-use barrels. When you first put liquid in them the wood swells. If you then allow them to dry out, the wood contracts and can split, ruining them. So you need to keep them full of wine or a storage solution (typically water containing citric acid and potassium metabisulfite). That means sequencing a series of wines one after the other or using a storage solution in-between batches.
As always with winemaking, you must clean your vessel after using it. Think about that for a moment. It’s easy to clean a carboy that weighs about 45-50 lbs, but barrels can weigh 30 pounds even with no liquid! The only opening is an inch-sized hole, so it’s pretty hard to see what you’re cleaning on the inside. What if the barrel needs to be moved? You’re not going to move it if it’s got 13 gallons of liquid in it.
Before we could use our barrel, we spent an afternoon designing and assembling a barrel dolly. Using rolling casters and 2x4s cut to cradle the barrel, we were able to create a serviceable dolly that has helped to move the full barrel around our flat, concrete garage floor.
You’ll need more than just a barrel
Particularly early in a barrel’s life, wine needs to be removed promptly to prevent over-oaking. I didn’t want wine that tastes like wood juice (too much oak and we couldn’t make the delicate French Chardonnay Susan enjoys). To remove it on time, the wine needs to come out of barrel and be stored somewhere else before it gets bottled. I realized I needed a variable-volume fermenter larger than the barrel, too.
Knowing wine disappears gradually through a barrel via evaporation, we needed to protect the wine from the air gap evaporation leaves. Since we didn’t want our wine to oxidize, as headspace develops the barrel needs to be topped up. So I bought a 5-gallon keg to supply top-up wine. Of course the top-up wine can’t be allowed to oxidize either, so I needed a tank of inert gas to expel oxygen from the keg. I chose argon, but in addition I needed the hoses and connectors to supply it to the keg. The list was growing.
Finally, you can transfer all this wine from one place to another using your trusty siphon but that might take a while. As valuable as it is, a trusty siphon will not work to move wine from a barrel that rests on the floor to a tank that is on a table. A better solution is a transfer pump.
The full list:
13.9 gallon barrel
Variable volume fermenter (110 liters)
5 gallon keg with hoses, hose clamps and connectors
Argon cannister and regulator
Transfer pump and filter (to protect the motor from particulate matter)
A barrel dolly
So here we are. We ended up with a lot of paraphernalia to connect everything together. It’s not just a barrel.
You’ll make better wine
We’re still in the process with our first few barrel batches. We used it first to ferment some Chardonnay, then some Vigonier in the barrel. Now we’ve moved to reds so we pumped in the 2017 Petite Sirah we had aging in carboys. Although we’re not finished with any of them we’ve tasted each and we’re encouraged. It’s tasting good! I now know first hand that there are good reasons to use barrels to develop better tasting wines.
Turns out, if you have a wine making wife like mine, a barrel makes a really good Christmas gift. Just don’t do it without realizing what you’re committing to!
Having gone through a fair amount of learning about winemaking over the past 7 years, I’ve made my fair share of foibles. I’ve opened wine that had a sparkle when it should have been still and I’ve smelled bottles of vinegar instead of the anticipated berries. My worst mistake was throwing out a fruit wine before I played more with sweetening. No one likes to admit their mistakes, but winemaking is an adventure and without someone constantly by your side coaching you, it’s easy to find yourself with unexpected results!
If I was starting my first wine kit today, I would give my first time winemaking self this advice:
Use food quality sanitation procedures – The reason that home made wine has a bad reputation is because your grandfather did not sanitize (sorry, I’m sure YOUR grandfather made very good wine)! I cannot stress enough how important it is to make certain that the equipment you use is clean AND sanitized so your wine will be the best it can be. I remember washing dishes in a pizza restaurant long ago and this is the concept necessary for wine making equipment. Three sinks: Wash in detergent (unscented like PBW), rinse in clean water, dip in sanitizing solution (no rinse like Star San). If you don’t have 3 sinks (and I only have two), just start with the cleaning step and repeat with the sanitizing step.
Follow directions, but don’t be too exacting – The instructions for kit wines always give a temperature range and dates to work with, both of which will adjust for the conditions you have in your winery. My first kit red wine advised a temperature range between 72-74 farenheit. I started it in January when temperatures in my house didn’t rise above 65 degrees, so I placed a space heater in the laundry room where I kept the primary fermenter. Needless to say, my electric bill was out of control that month. I also found in my next kit that the fermentation would have completed just a day or two later if I’d allowed the temperatures to fluctuate within my heated home. Just don’t try this if your temperatures drop below 60 F; invest in a brew belt or a heating pad.
Rack more times than suggested – In my early days, I concentrated on keeping the siphon still while racking, not to stir up sediments. Sometimes that cane just wouldn’t stay still! Sediment can stir up and make a slight cloud in your clear wine. If this happens, don’t proceed to bottling without allowing the wine to settle and racking again and again until NO sediment remains. And a re-settling takes about 2 weeks. If you do bottle and you see small debris in your bottles, then likely you bottled too soon without enough racking. It won’t hurt your friends or family, but I’m warning you; they may compare your wine to your grandfather’s!
Use a drill for degassing – If you’re going to try to vigorously stir with a manual spoon, do not expect to remove all the CO2 from the wine. The only way to completely degas is if you use a drill mounted stirring device. I have the wine whip, which degasses with just a few whips both forward, then backward using a rechargable drill. The only thing you’ll want to avoid is a degassing volcano as the CO2 swiftly leaves the wine. Remove a bit of wine before degassing to protect your floors from overflow. A drill mounted stirring device should not be used for anything smaller than 3 gallons.
Keep you wine levels close to the stopper – As you rack your wine further and further down leaving sediment behind, you’re likely to start seeing more and more headspace. Always keep your smaller carboys filled to the top to avoid the contact with air that can oxidize your wine too early. You can use a similar commercial wine or you can use a topping up device that displaces the air-space above the wine. I use a product called Better top ups and using multiples can bring the level of wine right up to the top no matter what size carboy you have. For smaller jugs, I also keep clear marbles on hand and they work in the same way.
Wait longer than they say to before drinking your wine – Yes, the kit you’ve bought says 6 weeks (maybe 4, maybe 8) till drinking – it’s LYING! If you try it, you will not have given the wine enough time to find it’s “feet.” If you perform all the steps of your winemaking kit perfectly, you still need to wait at least 30 days after bottling to have it taste like it did before bottling. And if you have made a red wine, it will not start to taste like what you expect from commercial wineries unless you wait at least 6 months, more likely 1-2 years. I now wait 3 years before drinking my reds because they have matured enough to taste like the varietal I wanted. Whites, are better if you give them 3 months in the bottle, but I drink them after 6 months in the bottle.
Buy bottles and corks when buy your kit – Because bottles and cork supplies come in various quantities that do not match, it’s better to be over prepared than caught short on bottling day! I always plan for bottles and corks when I start the kit, rather than at the end so I know I have enough supplies on hand. I’ve made mad rushes to get the supplies I need on the day I need them and bottling is nerve-wracking enough!
Get a floor corker – My life changed for the better when I bought a floor corker! Prior to the floor corker, I was using a handheld job that required two arms to come down at the same moment to correctly mount the cork in the bottle. Often the corks would stick out from the bottle a bit and sometimes they would pop out the side. A floor corker changed all that. Now I can cork 30 bottles faster than you can say wine maker! It was a step up in cost, but also a valued step up in efficiency.
Wear gloves when working with chemicals – I had serious concerns when I saw all the warnings on the labels of the cleaning and sanitizing solutions I was going to use. I bought a cheap pair of dishwashing gloves and I use them exclusively in my winemaking. The better ones are fleece lined, but they’re hard to come by. If you or someone you know has ready access to fleece lined dishwashing gloves, leave me a comment! In the meantime, I buy the thickest ones they sell at the grocery store. Just be careful if you’re allergic to latex!
Write down everything and take pictures – The adventure of winemaking has consumed my life and I’m sure my friends are sick of hearing about it. However, every once in a while I come across someone who hasn’t heard I’m a winemaker and I whip out my photos to show them. I’m proud that I have a giant fermenter in my garage! Or perhaps they want to know what 100 lbs of grapes looks like. I have my cell phone with me at all times during my winemaking process and I capture all my notes and photos in the EnoFile the home winemaking app! Your notes from today will be invaluable as you try to remember what you did in next year’s batch. Keep them handy.
Find a winemaking community and ask questions – Finally, this hobby has many enthusiastic participants from the novice to the expert and many of these people have questions just like yours and perhaps the experts have already answered them! I belong to several winemaking groups on Facebook that will welcome you into their folds. All you have to be is a lurker and you’ll see lots of valuable information. And if you have a question, there are many people happy to help.
Winemaking is not hard, but it can be intimidating. Kit wines make things easier, but a few basic learnings can help make your first wines something to cheer about.
If you’re like me, you started your winemaking hobby with kits. Many people start this way. I won’t add to the great debate about whether “real winemakers” use kits or real winemakers only use grapes. Having made both and having made great and terrible wines both ways, I know it’s not that simple.