Friday, March 18, 2011

The Bargain Bin

At one of the local wine shops there's a bargain bin. I think I've mentioned it before. Now, the words bargain and wine can be very scary together. But for me, it's just as scary to buy a thirty-five dollar bottle of wine that you've never tasted before because--to be honest--your chances of buying vinegar and feet are often just as good in the fine wine section as they are at the bargain bin.

Anyway, there are two bargain bins, the $3.99 bin, and the $5.99 bin. I've had good experiences and bad experiences with the $3.99 bin, and same for the other. But once in a while--and this is the really great part--I'll have an AMAZING experience with the bargain bin, usually the $5.99 bin (they rotate a greater variety in and out here). The two bottles in the picture (empty... oops) are two of my best experiences to date. The Volteo is a really great, citrus-y Spanish Tempranillo-Shiraz blend, aged in French and American oak. Often retails around $13-$20 a bottle in other wine shops, all for just $5.99. Unfortunately, when I went to the wine shop the other night, it was all gone.

The other bottle is an Italian wine from the Sicilian appellation, and I really enjoyed it. It's not an especially expensive wine to begin with, about $10 a bottle, but it is a very nice wine. I haven't got much experience with Italian wines, but this has left me with a very nice impression.

So there it is, wine: good, cheap, and fun. That's how I like it. So next time you happen to be at your local wine shop, don't be pressured to go to the higher shelves, live a little, try a few new wines. It's a lot of fun.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Add Ons

Once you've bottled up your first batch of wine, and you're starting to feel accomplished, you look at that full bottle with the cork in the top, and... to be honest... it looks kind of plain. So, you grab the scissors and the colored pencils, markers, crayons, whatever, and you cut up a piece of paper from the printer tray into rectangles and you make your very own labels! This is the funnest route.

There are all kinds of fun labels and add-ons for your finished wine. I figured out how to print wallet sized pictures on my computer, and have made my own labels in microsoft paint, and you can easily find ready-to-be-printed sticker-labels out there that will give your wine a finer, more professional look. Best of all, it's fun stuff.

One of my favorite add-ons is shrinkable pvc bottle toppers. These are the plastic parts that slip over the top of the wine bottle that you get from the Wine and Spirits shop, but they can be fitted onto and shrunken right onto your own bottles! Talk about a professional look, these things make your wine look like it was professionally made and bought from a retailer. Once again, the best part is that it's fun!
So, if you've been playing around with wine, trying to get a feel for it, had a successful batch, and have decided that you want to keep making the stuff, it's time to have a little fun. Run over to the home brew store, or go to an online home brew shop, and get yourself some add-ons. They're inexpensive, a blast to put on (I apply the guys you see above by heating up water in the tea kettle and holding the bottle with the cap over the stream of steam until they shrink down), and they give your finished wine a great presentation!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Sanitizing, washing, scrubbing, soaking, autoclaving if you can... it's ninety percent of winemaking. Or is that waiting? I can't stress enough how important cleanliness and sanitizing are. It is by far the most time consuming part of a good brew. The best rule of thumb is that anything that will touch your wine (indirectly or directly) should be sanitized. What do I mean by indirectly? If you sanitize your spoon that you use to stir your wine, then set it down on the counter, it's no longer sanitized. Unless your counter is sanitized too!

So why all the fuss? Bacteria are everywhere, and with all that sugar and all those nutrients in your wine, that's THE place that they want to be! Bacteria landing in your wine and reproducing exponentially can mean a number of things. The worst case scenario: they could make you or anyone that drinks your wine ill. While this is probably the least likely effect to occur, it's not worth the risk. Secondly, these bacteria might give off odd smells, gasses, or chemicals that make your wine taste or smell bad. No one wants that! Thirdly, they can throw off the acid balance of your wine, or spoil your wine, making it taste like vinegar or rot.

Well, that's not very encouraging. But this is: keeping bacteria out of your wine is easy. Sanitizing is easy. There are also a lot of options out there for sanitizing. The cheapest is definitely bleach, which mixed in a solution of three tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water is very effective. Soak/spray with this solution, let sit for 20 minutes, and you're good to go. This is also a very low concentration of chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) that won't kill your yeast, and won't hurt you in ingestion, even if you don't give a secondary rinse. I always give a quick water rinse to my bottles, containers, and utensils after a bleach soak, and would recommend that you do too.

Above: My melamine stirrer soaking in a 3Tbsp/gallon bleach solution.

Another popular, albeit slightly more expensive route, is to use food grade/food safe sanitizers like StarSan. StarSan is extremely popular and I would definitely recommend it, although it's not necessary.

Another interesting and important fact is that wine fermentation naturally has some built-in safeguards. These would be acidity and alcohol content. The low pH of wine is an environment that many microbes cannot survive in, and this lends to the stability and safety of your wine. If a wine's pH becomes too close to neutral, they become less stable, but this is generally of little to no concern with the home winemaker, as grapes and apples tend to keep themselves at a pH appropriate for pH, and the fruits that don't, that's when acid blend or oranges and lemons come into the recipe. (I prefer to use lemon or orange juice to increase acidity, that's why you'll often see them in my recipes.) Alcohol content is another great safeguard. Wines generally come out at an alcohol by volume content of 12% or greater. Wine yeasts can tolerate this concentration of alcohol, but most wild yeasts and microbes cannot. In fact, many wild yeasts and microbes have trouble at even four or six percent alcohol. This is just one more way in which your wine keeps itself naturally stable and safe, and explains why thousands of years ago, far before the invention of StarSan, wine was successfully fermented and stored.

No matter which method you use, the take home message is that good sanitizing habits and techniques are extremely important, and will give you a happy winemaking experience.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Medium Mead

For those unfamiliar with mead, it is a honey wine that likely predates all other fermented drinks. It is such an ancient and widely made drink that it's origins are hard to pin down, but in the west it is most popularly associated with medieval life. I love the idea of mead as an aspect of medieval Europe-- the mead hall where men would gather to boast... but this isn't a lesson on Beowulf, so here's my basic mead recipe, which I've had very good results with:

3 lbs honey
6 oranges squeezed
water to one gallon
1 tsp yeast nutrients
1 campden tablet
1 packet wine yeast

Combine honey, orange juice, water, and campden tablet in sanitized primary fermentor. This is necessary to kill the dormant, wild yeasts living in the honey. Let sit overnight. Add in yeast nutrients and yeast (Lalvin K1-V1116 makes a fantastic mead). Allow fermentation 14 to 18 days. Rack. Rack every three months until very clear. Fine sediment will likely appear on the bottom of the bottle, this is the nature of the honey.

Hint: One way to get beautifully clear mead and to avoid sediment in your bottles is to bring the honey and water to a boil before beginning. Once boiling reduce to simmer. During boiling and simmering a foam will come to the top of the liquid. Skim this off. If you do this for an hour, your mead will clear very well, and you'll see no sediment at the bottom of your bottles over time. This is also very effective at killing the natural yeasts so that no campden tablet is required. It is my preferred method.

Hint two: The better the honey, the better the mead. The local guy that makes honey likely cares about his product a lot more than the supermarket chain, and chances are his price is either lower or competitive.

Hint number three: Mead can be slightly astringent, almost herbal, but not at all unpleasant. This can also be complimented by paying close attention to the type of honey you're using. If you're using raspberry blossom honey, you might try throwing in a handful of raspberries into the fermentor. Wildflower honey might take on a summery twist by chopping a peach into the fermentor.

Related Recipes: meddyglyn, light mead, sweet mead, apple cider, pear cider

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Apple Cider

I have these three aunts that make loads of hard apple cider every fall and age it in oak barrels. No, they're not shut ins. No, they don't live together! No, they're not witches! Well, I don't know what they do, but their cider is incredible, a local delicacy. You don't have to age your cider in oak barrels, or even press the apples yourself, though, so here's the gist of it:

1 gallon apple juice (from 15-17 lbs of Apples)
1 c. sugar
1/2 c lemon juice
1 campden tablet
1 tsp yeast nutrients
1/2 tsp pectic enzyme
1 sachet champagne yeast

Combing apple and lemon juice, sugar, nutrients, pectic enzyme, and campden tablet. Mix, and allow to sit overnight to kill off wild yeasts. The next day, add in champagne yeast and top with an airlock. Champagne yeast ferments a little slower than other yeasts. After 15-20 days the mixture should stop fermenting. Transfer to secondary fermentor and store for one month or more before bottling. Age one year if possible, but if you can't, give it a try!

1.)Apples are high in pectin, your wine might take a long time to clear or not clear at all without pectinase.
2.)Pressing your own apples is super easy if you have a fruit press (can also be used for grapes etc.), but can be more difficult if you don't. In a few months I'll post showing how a press works, and give you all the details. A better option is to use organic/natural apple cider from your supermarket (make sure there's no sodium benzoate or sulfur compounds). The even better option is to go to your local orchard and pick up some unpasteurized apple cider they've pressed and use that. If they pasteurize, that's okay, but cold pasteurization is better: this is where they shine an ultraviolet light through the cider to kill bacteria, and it doesn't change the flavor at all.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

White Hillbilly Wine

After the original hillbilly wine, I decided that the natural order of things would require that I make a white version of my hooch (I really don't care for that word). I came up with a similar one-gallon recipe, and gave it a whirl. I'll admit, I'm more inclined to make the red again. Having said that, I made 10 bottles of this stuff originally, and have sampled two as they're aging. The first one, about a month after bottling, was a little bit harsh, and the second bottle was much more palatable. I think it's safe to say that given time to age, this wine will soften, and develop a slightly more complex flavor. I wouldn't put up the recipe if I didn't think so (not that I have any problem with sharing my disasters!).

White Hillbilly Wine
24 oz. white grape juice, frozen, concentrated
2.5 cups sugar
water to one gallon
wine yeast

Add concentrate to sanitized one-gallon vessel. Add in the sugar and yeast. Bring to one gallon with water (make sure there's some headroom, this recipe is a lot like the red Hooch and tends to foam up a little on the first day). Shake it up, put on an airlock and let the fun begin!

12 to 16 days later fermentation should stop. You can now rack the wine into a new vessel. Fit with airlock. After one month you can bottle! (one month is conservative)

Tips: Let your concentrate reach room temperature, or even warm it up in the microwave a little before beginning. The yeast won't begin to ferment at cold temperatures. Beware though: if the mixture is over 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) the yeast will die. Keep them happy!

Related Recipes: Easy Apple Cider, Hillbilly Wine, Easy Mead.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What do you really need?

Good question, right? How much stuff do you really need? How much are you going to have to spend? I know that I've stressed in previous posts that this can be a really low-cost hobby, but I really want to drive the message home here. This is my supply drawer. Yup. That's pretty much everything. A strainer, some funnels, some plastic tubing, balloons, an alcohol content measurer, some transfer pipettes for checking alcohol content. What's not in the picture? Ingredients and containers. Which for a beginner means milk jugs. What could I get by without having? Everything in the picture. Seriously. That's how easy this can be!

What do we have down here? Oh, this is my works in progress area. That's right, a rubbermaid bin with some one gallon fermentation vessels in it. And some wine I bottled in the last few months. By the way, did I mention where all of my wine bottles come from? I save them! Use them over and over again, have family and friends save them. Grab them from you neighbors the night before the recycling gets picked up. They're everywhere, and they're free! Although you should be wary of telling everyone you know that you're in need of wine bottles. I have three aunts that make a heavenly apple cider every year, up to about 800 bottles of it I believe, but they have several thousand bottles to sort through because everyone has been saving bottles for them for several years! They prefer champagne bottles because they're thicker, stronger, and are great if you want to make a bubbly wine or cider or mead.

When you start out, do everything as cheap as you can, then as you learn more and do more you'll acquire more tools, timesavers, and tips. Two great things that I wouldn't skimp on are yeast nutrients and pectinase (pectic enzyme). These both run between two and five dollars, and give you a lot for the money. I've only ever bought either of them once, still using them. The nutrients keep your yeast happy, and can make for an overall easier experience, and the same goes for the pectinase. This breaks down the carbohydrate pectin, which is a jelly-making molecule found naturally in fruits. Using this before and during fermentation of your fruit wines usually guarantees a faster clearing time for your wines, and some high-pectin fruit wines won't clear at all without using pectinase. It's much easier to clear a wine before (and early on in) fermentation than after the fact.
Take home message: just go for it! It's cheap, easy, and fun. And when your significant other tells you that they don't want bottles and buckets and smells all over the place, remind them of just how neat and easy it is, and that fermentation smells like fresh bread and fruits. (Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, but at the time it'll sound good.) Until next time...