Common Mistakes in Wine Making
Winemaking equipment, such as pails, carboys and spoons often seems similar to items that may be around the home. However, in many cases, proper winemaking equipment and utensils are made of special materials, and this can influence your finished product. Re-using plastic pails from other sources, like buckets that previously held food products, is always a mistake. The food odours will have sunk into the plastic, and will taint the wine. Also, plastic items not intended for food purposes, such as brand-new garbage pails must never be used for winemaking. The pigments, UV protectants and plasticisers (chemicals used to keep the plastic from becoming brittle) will leach into the wine, and could affect your health.
CLEANING & SANITATION
90% of all winemaking failures can be traced to a lapse in cleaning or sanitation. (Cleaning is removing visible dirt and residue from your equipment. Sanitising is treating that equipment with a chemical that will eliminate, or prevent the growth of, spoilage organisms). Everything that comes in contact with your wine must be clean, and properly sanitised, from the thermometer to the carboy, from the siphon hose to the bung and airlock. One single lapse could cause a failure of your batch.
FAILURE TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS
Wine kit instructions may seem to be long and complicated, and the urge is to simplify them, or to standardise steps between different kits. This is always a mistake, for several reasons. First, the kit instructions are based both on sound winemaking techniques, and empirical trials. This means that not only did a wine expert write the instructions based on book learning, he/she followed the instructions to the letter, hundreds of times, to make sure they worked. Second, if your kit fails to ferment correctly, or clear sufficiently, there may be no easy way to correct it if you have not followed the directions. This is sometimes a problem in that kit instructions are very different from those for wines made from fresh grapes. Trying to use the techniques described in winemaking textbooks will usually lead to problems: wine kits are another kettle of fish entirely.
Water is not quite as critical as many people think. In fact, if your water is fit to drink, it is usually just fine for winemaking. However, if your water has a lot of hardness or a high mineral content, especially iron, it could lead to permanent haze or off flavours. Also, if your house is equipped with a salt-exchange water softener, that water can’t be used for winemaking. If you’re in doubt, go ahead and use bottled water to make your wine: you’ll appreciate the difference.
POOR YEAST HANDLING
If you look at the instructions in your wine kit, they will likely instruct you to sprinkle your packet of yeast directly on to the must. Yet if you read the yeast package (and many winemaking textbooks) they recommend rehydrating the yeast. If the objective is to deliver the maximum number of yeast cells to the must, which technique is best?. When performed correctly, rehydrating gives the highest live cell counts, and the quickest, most thorough fermentation. The catch is, it has to be done precisely correctly. On the other hand, simply dumping the yeast onto the top of the must should result in lower cell counts. Empirical evidence shows this isn’t the case. Generally, a five-gram packet of yeast will have less than a six-hour lag phase on an average wine kit. This is perfectly acceptable, and isn’t long enough to allow spoilage organisms to get a foothold in your wine. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot simpler than going through the rehydrating process, fraught as it is with risks. You can rehydrate your yeast if you absolutely want to, but be sure to do it accurately and precisely. The rest of us will tear open the package and dump it in, and spend the extra time sampling our last batch!
POOR TEMPERATURE CONTROL
Kit instructions tell you to ferment your wine within a specific temperature range. We recommend 20 - 25 C (70 F to 77 F). Yeast thrives between these temperatures. This is one of the situations where kit instructions are different than commercial winemaking techniques. In commercial wineries, some white wines are fermented cooler than this, sometimes below 55 F. Commercial wineries have the luxury of taking a year (or two, or three) before they bottle their wines, so they don’t have a problem. For the home wine maker though, if the fermentation area is too cool the wine will ferment very slowly. This will lead to an excess of CO2 gas (fizz) in the wine, and it may not be ready to stabilise and fine on the appropriate day. Even worse, the kind of fining agents included with kits don’t work well at temperatures outside of the 20 - 25 C (70 F to 77 F) range. Below 19 C (68 F) your wine kit may not clear at all!
ADDING SULPHITE & SORBATE AT THE WRONG TIME
Sulphite and Sorbate, the stabilisers in the kit work to inhibit yeast activity. If, by mistake, you add them too early your wine may not finish fermenting. If you add the sorbate on day one, the yeast will never become active, and the kit will not ferment.
LEAVING OUT THE SULPHITE
Some people believe that they are allergic to sulphites, and want to leave them out of their kits. While this is their option, it’s a bad idea. True sulphite allergies are terrifically rare, and if someone has a reaction to drinking wine, it’s almost always due to some other cause. Besides, yeast make sulphites themselves during fermentation, so no wine can ever be sulphite-free, no matter what. Without added sulphites the kit will oxidise and spoil very rapidly. It will start to go off in less than 4 weeks, and be undrinkable in less than three months. Also, if the sulphite is left out, but the sorbate is added, the wine will be attacked by lactic bacteria, which will convert the sorbate into the compound hexadienol, which smells like rotting geraniums and dead fish. The bottom line is this: if you do not add the sulphite to the kit, neither your retailer, nor the supplier can guarantee the wine, so think carefully before you do it.
On day one, the kit needs to be stirred very vigorously. This is because the juice and concentrate are very viscous, and don’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, throwing off any gravity readings, and making the yeast work extra hard. When it comes time to stabilise and fine the wine, it has to be stirred vigorously enough to drive off all of the CO2 it accumulated during fermentation. 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 gas be driven off so the fining agents can work their magic.
Wine kits are ready to bottle in 28 or 45 days; they’re not ready to drink! If you really, really can’t wait, the minimum time before a kit tastes good is about two weeks. This is long enough for the wine to get over the shock of bottling, and begin opening up to release its aromas and flavours. Three months is much better, and the wine will show most of its character at this point. For most whites, however, and virtually all reds, 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 omelette out of a pan before it was half-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!