Why make your own wine?
Why indeed, if you live in a part of the world where wine is made and is cheap! Here in England, however, a decent bottle of wine isn't cheap, and a lot of the cheaper ones are made to be drunk 'young', so don't keep. I think that the main thing, though, is the knowledge that it is home-made, and usually just as good, and sometimes better, than those you can buy. Taste tests here have indicated that my elderberry wine and a decent French red wine, are very much alike, and only a real connoisseur could tell the difference.
Wines to suit the seasons and
the festivals can also be made - elderberry for Samhain, hawthorn flower
and berry for the May celebrations, sloe for Midwinter, and whatever fruit
or flower is in season at the time of the festivals in your part of the
world. This does of course require that you plan ahead!
Twenty five years ago, a friend thrust a demijohn (wine fermenting vessel) into my hands with the instructions, "Get three pounds of elderberries, three pounds of sugar, and add boiling water to a gallon, in a bucket. Add yeast when the solution is lukewarm." Four years ago we drank the last bottle made from this batch, and it tasted like good quality port! Fortunately for me, elderberries are good fruit with which to begin one's wine making adventures, for there was no need to worry too much about whether the ingredients necessary for an acceptable wine were 'balanced'.
Wine making is easy, though some instruction books make you think that you need a higher chemistry qualification in order to do it, but you don't - you can even get by without a hydrometer if you don't want to use one. With home wine making you can experiment, and if you write things down you just may be able to reproduce one which turns out really well. Or you may not! There are two schools of thought here; one, like me, says experiment and be prepared for the wine which results, and the other says that you must weigh and measure meticulously, you must use certain recipes and pieces of equipment and keep the temperature just right. You can read what all the books say and then choose which path to follow, or you can take the best ideas from both.
One requirement is necessary whichever method you use - absolute cleanliness of equipment.
(link to an article on this)
Admittedly, some ingredients are trickier than others, but basically you need the following:
Sugar, in any form - sucrose, fructose, maltose, glucose etc. This will be used by the yeast for food, and will be converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Flavour - from fruit, vegetables or flowers. Flavour and sugar will both be present in fruits, but one adds more sugar to make a stronger wine. (up to a point)
Acid, to provide the correct environment for the yeast to work most effectively. Wine-making shops sell a variety of acids, but lemon juice works well in most cases.
Yeast nutrient - the yeast's equivalent of 'vitamins and minerals' in its diet. I'm afraid you have to buy this! Some wines don't need it, but others definitely do.
Tannin - to give body to those wines which appear 'thin', like the flower wines. You can buy grape tannin as either a liquid or a tablet, but, being English, I usually use a cup of strong tea to provide the tannin.
Finally, the yeast needs warmth for it to work effectively.
Fortunately for me, elderberries need no extra acid, nutrient or tannin because they are all present in the elderberries themselves, and my first attempt at wine making was successful!
Yeast is a micro organism which can multiply with amazing rapidity, given the right conditions, and does so by a process called 'budding'. When the 'bud' is large enough it breaks off and continues an independent existence, budding itself twenty or thirty times before it dies. Like all living things, it must feed and it must produce waste products, which for a yeast cell are sugar and alcohol respectively. It is of course the alcohol which we are after!
The first fermentation needs oxygen, so is called aerobic fermentation, and takes place vigorously for a few days. A secondary and slower fermentation takes place then, without air - an anaerobic fermentation. Alcohol is produced in both fermentations.
A generation or two ago, our parents and grandparents made superb wines, though they had no access to wine yeast, nutrient or grape tannin tablets. They either relied on the natural yeast on a fruit, or they spread bakers yeast (fresh, not the dried ingredient one buys today) on toast, and floated this on the surface, and it seemed to work, though it has to be admitted that their results were more variable! Today we can buy different yeasts for different purposes and presumably make
(link to different yeasts)
the process more efficient and the results reproducible.
One of the most delightful wines I ever made was a yellow plum wine. Mashed and made up to a gallon with water, they were left in a bucket, with no added yeast, just loosely covered with a cloth. After a couple of weeks, a thick mould had formed on the top. I peeled it off and strained the mush through a cloth, into a demijohn. When clear, the wine was just perfect! A second attempt at doing this resulted in a poorer wine, and to this day I don't know why.
Only grapes contain enough natural sugar to make a good, strong wine; all other fruits, vegetables and flowers need extra sugar. Too little sugar will make a very dry wine which may not keep - too much will result in an over-sweet wine with possibly a low alcohol content, because too high a sugar concentration will kill the yeast.