The following guest post is from Robert Lobitz on behalf of BiteSquad.com, a proud sponsor of The Reverse Wine Snob.
We are all gathered here to witness the joining of these two, grapes and yeast, in holy matrimony. Is there anything more beautiful that the result of this wonderful meeting? Yes. There are lots of things more beautiful than a good glass of wine but that ruins my hyperbolic metaphor. There is an air of mysticism and magic with which wine producers want to surround their process to try and justify a markup on their bottles. I hate to tell you, but the actual process is pretty much the same for every wine; from that surprisingly good box wine you got from an online food delivery service to that bottle you would have to remortgage the house to afford. It’s time to pull back the curtain and reveal a few secrets.
There are three major elements to wine making: grapes, yeast and time. The importance of grapes is obvious — they are the source of the juice that actually transforms into wine. The yeast is the magic ingredient that causes the fermentation process to take place. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the yeast used in the process of fermenting beer, but they are more like close cousins than identical twins. Lastly is time, which is often the biggest factor between a great wine and a similar wine that I wouldn’t use for cooking.
For the home wine maker grapes are the simplest part of the process. Unless you want to start your own vineyard and crush your own most hobbyist wine makers make use of pre-blended concentrates that can be bought online or from a specialized homebrewing store. I want to be clear that this concentrate is not the canned grape juice that you can buy in the freezer aisle, so don’t slap a bunch of those onto your next food delivery from Peapod and think you’re making out like a bandit. These are carefully blended by actual wine makers for the purpose of wine making. They contain no preservatives, are quite concentrated and produced very gently to avoid removing the subtle complexities. All you have to worry about is mixing it with the right amount of clean water and making sure that only the yeast you want to ferment this concoction will have a fighting chance.
That brings us to the second factor, which is yeast. There are hundreds of different varieties of yeast for sale and those are only the tip of the iceberg — there are countless varieties that are completely wild and unpredictable. Understandably these are not commonly used in the fermentation process. Many of them are floating around in the air and will happily set up shop in the perfect environment you’ve created for them. We keep these wild elements at bay by simply sanitizing anything the juice comes in contact with and introducing a strong colony of our chosen bugs. To do this you will need to choose a vessel that lends itself to sanitization, such as the large glass carboys that are so popular in the hobby wine maker world and then use a good sanitizing solution designed for this purpose. Do not use soap as it is hard to remove and can taint the final product. I don’t suggest bleach for the same reason as well as the fact that to rinse away the bleach you need to use unsanitized water, which really defeats the purpose. Star-San is an awesome, cheap and easy to use product that I suggest. Now you just need to choose the right yeast for the wine you are producing and let them go to work.
Lastly, we have time. This is the big one, so I am going to try to be brief. Fermentation takes time and the process needs to be undisturbed for a good long while to complete properly. This means that you need to let the gases produced by the yeast escape without letting anything else back in. Special airlocks are sold for this exact purpose. They are cheap and very effective so there is no reason to not just buy one rather than fiddling with a homemade solution. It is best to ferment during the coldest months to avoid overheating. If you have a cellar, do it there. The wine cellar is not just a part of the lore of wine snobbery. You want relatively cool and consistent temperatures for this process. Once the fermentation is done you can begin the aging process. This takes A LOT of time. Some wines are ready to drink at younger ages, but some will take over a year to fully mature and become drinkable. You can now transfer your wine to a new container and let it rest on its own or you can oak age it with the addition of toasted oak chips. I even know some home wine makers who have purchased full sized wine casks for aging their homemade potions but that’s on an entirely different level.
This process can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. It’s definitely not as easy and simple as tacking a bottle of wine onto your next food delivery, but it’s not the arcane process known only to mad alchemists that many would like to pretend that it is. I hope that this little primer has encouraged you to consider this rewarding and delicious hobby or even just helped you to think critically about those very expensive bottles of wine we love to tell people about. Now you know their secrets. The biggest one being that it’s not impossible to make good wine with only a moderate level of effort — but that doesn’t sell expensive bottles!
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