A Brief Guide to Country Wine Making

Your chosen fruit governs how you extract the colours and flavour.
This introduction will guide you through making any kind of wine using any of the recipes here or even if you're making your own up.

Tips & advice.

1. Whatever fruit you use, take the time to remove leaves, stalks, stones, insects or anything rotting or mouldy.
2. A wine blend or a mixture of fruits will have a larger breadth of qualities than any single fruit.
3. Never pour a batch of wine away. Unless it definitely tastes like vinegar, it can always be useful.

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Methods of Wine Making

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There are three main methods of juice extraction. I've put them in the most commonly used order, and coincidently, from the least to the most work involved.

1. Crush all the frozen or fresh fruit with a campden tablet and add the rest of the ingredients at the correct intervals. Stir in two thirds of the sugar, then keep adding sugar a few ounces at a time until an SG of approximately 1.080 - 1.090 is achieved, then let the 'must' ferment stirring daily for a few days. When the SG falls to 1.020 strain the liquid into a demijohn.
Example fruits: Raspberries, Blackberries, Blackcurrants, Red Currants, Strawberries etc

2. Freeze fruit then thaw with boiling water, then when cool, remove all the stones or pits by hand. Add all the other ingredients at the correct intervals. Add two thirds of the recipes' sugar, then a little at a time until you reach an SG of approximately 1.080 - 1.090 then ferment for a few days, stirring daily.
Example fruits: Plums, Damsons, Sloes etc

3. Cutting, grating or chopping then leaving in water with a campden tablet for a number of days to infuse. Strain out the fruit then add most of the sugar, yeast and nutrients, then add sugar a few ounces at a time until you reach an SG of approximately 1.080 - 1.090 then ferment for a few days, stirring daily. Example fruits: Apples, Quince, Gooseberries.

Whatever flavour the wine is, some people like to place all their fruit in a muslin bag. A large teabag if you will. There are two advantages. You remove a lot of junk just by lifting the bag out and SG readings of the clearer liquid are easier to take.
However, you should know that some fruits you should squeeze the liquid out of the bag (blueberries, apples) because the colour and flavour is either in the flesh or the colour is in the skins. Conversely, there are some you should never squeeze (bananas, peaches, plums etc) because the pulp will take weeks to sink to the bottom … The bag must be suspended to allow the liquid drip out for a day or so. Damsons are somewhere in between with colour in the skins and a pulpy flesh so they need a gentle squeeze and a 24 hour drip!
Personally, I rarely use a muslin bag. When it comes to straining into the demijohn, I use a large sieve to remove most of the junk and seeds and if it's particularly pulpy, I'll make a second pass through a muslin bag then use a funnel for the final pour into the demijohn.

Common to all fruit winemaking is that one part of the process needs oxygen (aerobic) and the second part needs to be in an airtight container (anaerobic)
The first part involves stirring your buckets every single day with a sterilised spoon, ladle or stick to break any fruit crusts and stir up any pulp to introduce more oxygen. When your liquid reaches an SG of 1.020, it's time to transfer your wine to a demijohn.
The second part involves nothing but watching the air lock bubble. At several points you'll be racking off the good wine - taking SG readings will help you estimate the % of alcohol and tell you when it's time to age or bottle your finished wine.

Caveats to all this.

When making a Port Style wine, there's essentially two main differences. Firstly, you use a lot more fruit, up to double the amount of a country wine per gallon. Secondly, you add the sugar pound at a time already dissolved in water - The previous sugar is almost used up by the yeast before the next pound goes in.
This means you need to be more careful with how much liquid you add throughout the process - Say you estimate adding 3 Lbs of sugar dissolved in three pints of water, you don't want much more than 5 pints of liquid in your primary bucket. 5 pints (fruit juice) + 3 pints (sugar water) = 1 gallon (6 bottles) and the volume of sugar will create enough extra wine for topping that you'll keep in the fridge.

When making a mead, there's no sugar involved unless you want to use a brown sugar for some extra depth of flavour or you've run out of honey for topping up.
The process for preparing honey is to dissolve it in boiling water, then simmer for a while, removing any frothiness, scum or impurities that rise to the surface with a sterilised ladle or spoon.

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Wine Making is an Art and a Science.

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Be aware that when you see a recipe that lists 3 Lbs of sugar, don't put it all into your bucket at the start even if the recipe says you should. You don't know how much sugar is in your fruit, it's a guide, not a requirement - I've rarely put more than 2.5 Lbs in a gallon - That's partially because we prefer dry wines over dessert wines, but, if you put three pounds in to start with, and your SG leaps to 1.120 then you've no more choices to make - It's either going to be strong or sweet or both!

The science behind the problem is that every strain of yeast is sensitive to a specific level of alcohol - otherwise everyone would ferment vodka strength wine just by adding more and more sugar … So, for example your chosen yeast can only tolerate 11.5% alcohol - When your wine reaches that point, the toxic environment kills the yeast leaving all the excess sugar in your wine. To get around this problem people will consistently use champagne yeast because it can tolerate alcohol above 16%. While champagne yeast is very fast at turning sugar into alcohol and performs admirably during colder months, champagne yeast can also wreck delicate fruit flavours.

There's a formula to work out the approximate level of alcohol - It's the points drop from starting SG to finished SG divided by 7.4. Dry commercial wines are around 12.5% at an SG of 0.980 to 0.990 so they know exactly the starting SG they want to begin with … In this case, it's a drop of about 92 or 93 points … My rule of thumb is a drop of 100 points is around 13.5%. So, if I want a dry wine at 0.980, I don't want a starting gravity of over 1.080.

It took quite a while for me to finally understand the relationship was between the yeast, sugar and the alcohol content. The great thing was that through all my mistakes I learned a lot about blending wines and now the entire process feels much more artistic.
If you love the sound of blackberry and rhubarb crumble make a rhubarb and blackberry wine, if you love raspberry and vanilla ice-cream, make a raspberry mead with vanilla pods. If there's a jam that you love, or a warm summer day filled with elderflower blossom, make a wine with the same flavours. It's not a coincidence that these flavours work, the wheel was already invented, so use it!
There are some restrictions to this of course … don't bother trying to ferment citrus fruits, the zests are good in some recipes, but the fruit is useless in wine, they are much better suited to flavouring Liqueurs. The other thing you can't ferment is anything with oil, so you can't have a marzipan mead or a hazelnut wine … You can of course add extracts like almond when the wine is ageing though and the flavour softens pretty much like the pine resin flavour in a Retsina or the oak flavours in a Shiraz over time.

Temperature has a great effect on winemaking. The general rule is to keep them warm - A utility room or airing cupboard, near the boiler etc. But the best wine is created in steady temperatures with the least fluctuations from night to day. I've never used heating pads or thermometers, but we don't all have a temperature controlled cellar so just pick your best option and enjoy the wait!

Last piece of advice …

1. Start collecting fruit today. Plant blueberry, redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes in containers. Collect any fruit you can get from neighbour's trees, to walks in the country or supermarket knock down bins … and freeze everything.

2. When you start doing this as a hobby, don't just do one wine and wait 6 months to see if it was worth the effort - You already know it's worth doing otherwise you wouldn't be thinking about it - So my advice is, make one trip to your local hop shop, buy 4 plastic buckets, 6 demijohns, 6 airlocks, 2 hydrometers, a packet of every yeast they have, a muslin straining bag, bottling kit and 100 corks.

3. Go around to your local pub restaurant and get them to save all their wine bottles for you … you'll never have enough and you'll soon learn which brands' labels come off easiest after an overnight soak.

I think that's about all I have to say for now :)

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