I got my start in homebrewing in the middle of the desert. I was stationed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, and alcohol of any form was prohibited. On a whim, we decided to try making our own wine. I really didn't know the actual technique beyond a vague idea--your take fruit, water, sugar, and yeast, let it ferment for some length of time (was it 2 days? 2 months?), and you had wine (or something close to it).
So I combined several packages of freeze-dried fruit from our MRE (Meal, Ready-To-Eat) packages, some sugar, and bread yeast. I rigged up an airlock with a piece of medical tubing, duct tape and a water bottle. After a couple days it was bubbling, so it must have been working! I gave it probably a week or so, then strained it through some mosquito netting. I don't think I'm a good enough writer to capture the unique taste that resulted from this whole process, I'll just leave it to your imagination!
So How Do You Actually Make Wine?
A simple wine fermentation involves adding yeast to a mixture of fruit, water and sugar. Then the yeast eats the sugar, turning the mixture into approximately half alcohol and half carbon dioxide.
For example, if you had a gallon of juice with 2 pounds of sugar in it, and let the yeast consume it all, you would end up with a gallon of wine that had about 1 pound of alcohol in it.
Of course this isn't exact, you probably won't get exactly a 50/50 mixture of alcohol and carbon dioxide, but it's pretty close. And you don't necessarily need to pour in all that sugar either--the fruit (or juice) that you start with will have sugar of its own.
How To Make Wine At Home From Bottled Juice
There are basically two methods of making your own wine at home--you can either buy the individual tools and ingredients you need, either online or from your local homebrewing store, or you can buy a simple kit that contains everything you need.
First let's look at a kit by Spike Your Juice.
The kit comes with a fermentation lock and stopper that should fit almost any bottle of juice, six packets of yeast (with a bit of sugar added), and six labels for your newly-spiked juice bottles--you don't want the kids confusing their grape juice with your grownup version!
The manufacturer recommends any 64 ounce (or so...) bottle of juice that doesn't contain any preservatives. Just like making hard cider or grape soda, the preservatives in juice would kill off the yeast. Also, the juice needs to have at least 20 grams of sugar per serving--you have to give the yeast enough to eat to produce alcohol!
I started with a 48 ounce bottle (I figured that was close enough) of Welch's Farmer's Pick Grape Juice at room temperature; the same juice I had made grape soda with previously.
The instructions say to just pour in the packet of yeast, but as you can see the yeast just kind of sits on the top, so I gave the bottle a bit of shake as well to mix things up.
Then you simply insert the stopper with the airlock, fill the airlock with water, and let the fermentation begin.
After anywhere from 8-48 hours, you should see tiny bubbles forming in the juice--it looks a bit like a bottle of soda after it's been opened. The bubbles will escape through the fermentation lock (or airlock); the water allows the carbon dioxide that is being formed to escape, but does not allow the outside air in, which could let in unwanted strains of bacteria.
The manufacturer says that you can drink your spiked juice after only 48 hours. I really didn't think that was near enough time to produce much alcohol, so I decided to track the progress using a hydrometer.
A hydrometer is a specialized tool that measures the ratio of the density of a liquid compared to the density of water--a number that is called specific gravity. If you know the specific gravity of your juice at both the beginning and end of the fermentation process, and plug those numbers into a simple formula, you can calculate the percentage of alcohol by volume.
To start, I took a measurement of the pure grape juice, before the yeast package was added. The specific gravity was 1.066.
Then, I measured the juice after 48 hours of fermenting, and got 1.062.
The formula for calculating alcohol by volume is: ABV% = (OG - FG) x 131.25, where OG is the Original Specific Gravity, and FG is the Final Specific Gravity. So, plugging in the numbers I measured, I came up with .525% alcohol by volume. Not a very high percentage at all, and a quick taste confirmed it--I had basically made grape soda at this point, with the yeast giving it a bit of a fizz.
This will give you an idea of what percent of alcohol by volume is in various drinks:
- Kombucha--.5% or less
- Beer-- 4% to 7%
- "Boone's Farm" types of fizzy, fruit wines-- 4% to 6%
- White wines--about 10%
- Red wines--about 12%
So I put the fermentation lock back on to give it more time. I noticed during the following day that I was getting way more bubbles than the first 48 hours; you could tell that the fermentation process had really kicked in.
After another 48 hours (so 4 days total), I again measured the specific gravity, and this time got 1.02. Plugging that number into the formula gives an alcohol by volume of 6%. At this point it was less like grape juice and more like a slightly dry red wine--it kind of reminded me of the communion wine we've always had in church.
There was also a visible difference in the color of the juice--it had become a lighter shade, as you can see in the jar on the left.
One thing to remember about how fermentation works is that the yeast is eating the sugar and turning it into alcohol, so the higher the alcohol content goes, the less sweet (or more dry) the wine will be.
If you continued to let the juice ferment, it will eventually reach about 12%-14% alcohol by volume, although this may take many more days (or even weeks). You can slow (but not stop) the fermentation process by placing the juice into the refrigerator. You should NOT place the original cap back on the juice bottle unless you can do it very loosely--the fermentation process will still be going on, and could eventually cause the bottle to explode. Instead, just leave the fermentation lock on, or if you don't have room for something that tall you can remove it and leave the stopper in. The stopper has a hole at the top that will allow the carbon dioxide to escape safely, but this also means your juice/wine will quickly lose any carbonation it still has.
Don't forget to label your newly-spiked juice!
While the Spike Your Juice kit certainly makes the process easy, it's definitely not economical--the kits itself costs about $20, and comes with the airlock, stopper, 6 yeast packets, and 6 labels. In comparison, you could purchase a pair of fermentation locks and stoppers for about $6, and a package of wine yeast for less than a dollar. One package of yeast should be enough to ferment as much as the 6 packets in the kit. At that price you can even buy a hydrometer and still have spent less than the Spike Your Juice kit.
To make wine using your own ingredients (rather than the kit), you would follow the same basic process, except you may want to proof your yeast at the start (make sure it is still alive and ready to eat all that sugar).
I've talked about proofing yeast before when making hard cider and soda, and the process is the same. Heat a small cup of juice up to about 100 degrees (not too hot or it will kill your yeast), add about 1/8 teaspoon of yeast and a pinch of sugar, stir, and wait. After 5-10 minutes the yeast should start to foam as it begins to consume the sugar; then you know it's ready to add to the juice bottle. Pour it back in, add the fermentation lock, and wait, just like you did (or would have) with the Spike Your Juice kit.
One big difference between this process and "traditional" wine making is that the traditional process has a primary and secondary fermentation, while here we are only doing what would normally be the secondary fermentation. In a primary fermentation you would leave the yeast/juice mixture open to air; the yeast will multiple as many as 200 times if it has enough air to breathe. By putting the airlock on right away, you're not allowing the yeast to multiply as much. This will result in a fermentation that would take much longer to reach a higher alcohol level, but if you're using this method you're probably more interested in a sweeter, more fruity wine anyway.
Of course you don't have to use grape juice--you could use pomegranate or cranberry juice for more of a sangria flavor, or go wild and try something like mango.
I'm not totally against the Spike Your Juice kit--I think it fills a certain niche. It would make a fun gift for someone who has never tried any type of homebrewing, and it would be a fun thing to do for a party that's coming up soon (since this is not really a wine you'd want to store long-term). I'd say it would be a fun project for the kids (they're fascinated with the fermentation process and the bubbling) if it weren't for the whole pesky alcohol aspect.
However, I think that once you've had a taste (no pun intended) of home wine making, you'll want to move past budget kits and store-bought juice to better ingredients and tools.
So, whether you purchase a kit or the individual ingredients, I think you'll have fun making (and of course drinking) your own fruity wine. If you find a particular favorite variety of juice, please let us know in the comments!