Imagine you work in wine tourism for 10 years explaining visitors how to elaborate wine. Would you be curious enough as to try and make your own wine at home? Well, this is my story and I want to share it with you.
Just a bit of context: the more I learn about wine, the more I like it and the less picky I am – maybe that´s why I loved my own wine. One day I was with a group of people visiting the winery Kaiken. We were about to taste those fabulous wines when I see a styrofoam cooler full of grapes (around 6 or 7 kilograms.
“You want them?” asks my host Lucia. “We´re throwing them away.”
So of course I said yes. Those bunches were samples from the vineyard. They had just been checked for ripeness, so as to decide how much longer before harvest time. I took them home with me and put them in the fridge until I could start to play the alchemist.
As I would always explain to people on my tours – everything you need for making wine is already on the grapes. The pulp melts and becomes juice. The sugar and acidity are in the pulp, the color is on the skin of the grape together with the yeasts that will turn sugar into alcohol during the fermentation Tannins are on the seeds and skin. What am I waiting for? I had to see it for myself.
The first time I made wine, I used a plastic bucket for the fermentation. I showed my wine to a friend that´s a winemaker and he said it smelled like apples. This smell is the beginning of oxidation and it means too much oxygen during fermentation (meaning: only good for dressing your salad). So I used it for cooking “carne a la olla” (Argentina’s version of beef bourgignon). There was no way I was going to throw my baby wine away.
So the following year, I got my grapes and had to give it another try. Keep this description for trying your own.
1 Equipment: You need a big and empty water bottle (6 liters).
2 The Crush: Squeeze in each grape, one by one, by hand. It took me about two hours to do so. The whole grape goes inside, but you do have to squeeze it, so you help to separate the juice from the skin. So you´ll end up with the pulp and juice, skins that will be floating on top, and seeds that sink. There are three very important details: no stems inside the bottle. Don´t fill the bottle to the very top. Leave at least 20% empty, and don´t close it super tight. Leave it a bit loose. You´ll see why.
3 The Fermentation: I kept the bottle in my bedroom, because the temperature was the right one. Just find a place in your house where there´s no abrupt changes of temperature – warm is what you need (20 to 28 celsius). So at night, I could hear and smell the fermentation going. It was magical. I have to admit I was nervous to think that if something went wrong, I had to wait a whole year for more grapes.
What started happening inside this bottle is that, with the warm temperature the yeast wakes up from their lethargy and start turning the sugar into alcohol, and releasing CO2 while doing so. We don´t need bubbles in the wine, that´s why this bottle is so useful. It allows you to release the gas, and you do it twice a day by twisting the cap open and then close it a bit loose again. It makes the same noise of opening a soda bottle.
4 Maceration: Also twice a day, you gently tip the bottle up and down (be careful with the loose top – close it tight for this purpose, and then back like it was) so as to mix up the juice with the skins that are floating (the gas, on its way up, places the skins on top). Mixing skins with juice is crucial since the color, flavors, aromas and tannins will be transferred from the skin to the juice. Another tip: If you fear temperature is higher than you need, just put the bottle on the fridge for 10 minutes, to cool it down a bit. I only needed to do this twice during the fermentation process.
5 Test It: Every two days you taste your half way wine, and you´ll notice it´s less sweet every time, since the sugar is slowly turning into alcohol. You´ll also see it´s a bit fizzy on the tongue, like a soda that´s been open long enough on your fridge.
6 Filtering: After a couple of weeks, when you stop hearing the mumbling of the gas coming out, no more bubbling, no more apparent activity in there, then it´s ready. You will need a mesh fabric to separate the skins. Put the wine (yes, It´s wine now!) in a jar, and the solids on the mesh. Gently squeeze the mesh to rescue all that wine soaked on the skins (for this I used a pan), and mix that wine with the one waiting in the jar. No matter how good the skins smell after you do this, don´t feed it to your dogs.
7 Bottling: Get some wine bottles with screw caps instead, and fill them up with your wine to the very top, so there´s almost no oxygen in them. Don´t get too excited: you won´t get more than maybe 3 bottles of wine; there´s a big percentage of solids on a wine grape.
8 Storage: Regarding storage, keep the bottles at no more than 20 celsius, and make sure they´re not exposed to sources of heat, since it could ruin your precious wine. In this case, horizontal versus vertical is not an issue since there´s no cork in need of moisture. Just think of a place in your house that is not very warm with steady temperature. (Ideally, basement. If not a closet or laundry room).
9 Aging: Let it rest a couple of months before you try it. I waited a year for one of the bottles, and it was the nicest one in my opinion.
10 The Tasting: When you do taste it, when you open the bottle, there may be a bit of fizziness. I just poured it into my wine glass, aerated a bit, and eventually the gas vanished. My wine was delicious, very intense in color and tannins. This is why you don´t have to squeeze the solids that much, otherwise it can be too intense. It was very fruit-forward, and I shared with friends and family. Stained teeth, happy smiles. Just make sure there´s no “know it all” type of person around, ready to criticize your wine because it´s a bit fizzy, or telling you that you will poison them.
The grapes were amazing. So I don´t take the credit for the beautiful wine I made. Right now I sound like my dad when someone tells him “you are a great barbecue man”, and he replies “I´m not – it´s the butcher that sold me great beef”.
But I did feel proud of myself, and did it again the following and the following year. Ever since then you can read “oenologist” on my CV. Just joking. Now I want to grow my own grapes…