Avoid these common wine making mistakes and improve your wine

red, white and rose wines

How to avoid the common pit falls most new winemakers fall into.

1. Inadequate Equipment: Winemaking equipment such as pails, carboys, airlocks and spoons often seem similar to items that may be around the home. However, in many cases proper winemaking equipment and utensils are made of special materials and this can influence your finished product. Re-using plastic pails from other sources, like buckets that previously held food products is always a mistake. The food odors will have sunk into the plastic and will taint the wine. Also, plastic items not intended for food purposes, such as brand-new garbage pails must never be used for winemaking. The pigments, UV protectants and plasticizers (chemicals used to keep the plastic from becoming brittle) will leach into the wine and could affect your health. Saving a few dollars by using suspect equipment is not worth it.

2. Cleaning and Sanitation: 90% of all winemaking failures can be traced to a lapse in cleaning or sanitation and yes, they are two different things. Cleaning chemicals remove visible dirt and residue from your equipment. Sanitizing is treating that equipment with sanitizing chemicals that will eliminate or prevent the growth of spoilage organisms. Everything that comes in contact with your wine must be clean and properly sanitized, from the thermometer to the carboy, from the siphon hose to the bung and airlock. One single lapse could cause a failure of your batch.

3. Failure to Follow Instructions: Wine kit instructions may seem to be long and complicated and the urge is to simplify them or to standardize steps between different kits. This is always a mistake, for several reasons. First, the kit instructions are based both on sound winemaking techniques and empirical trials. This means that not only did some egghead write the instructions based on book learning, he made his assistants actually follow the instructions to the letter and hundreds of times to make sure they worked. Also, if your kit fails to ferment correctly or clear sufficiently, there may be no easy way to correct it if you have not followed the directions. This is sometimes a problem because kit instructions are different from those for wines made from fresh grapes. Trying to use the techniques described in winemaking books will usually lead to problems.

4. Bad Water: Water is not quite as critical as many people think. In fact, if your water is fit to drink, it is usually just fine for winemaking. However, if your water has a lot of hardness or a high mineral content (especially iron) it could lead to permanent haze or off flavors. Also, if your house is equipped with a salt-exchange water softener, that water can't be used for winemaking. If you're in doubt, go ahead and use bottled water to make your wine. You will appreciate the difference.

5. Poor Yeast Handling: It doesn't take much mishandling to make wine yeast sulky and uncooperative. The packet of dried yeast that comes with your kit is of very high quality, but it is a living organism that needs to be revived in a specific way. People familiar with bread making or who have knowledge of beer making will want to re-hydrate the yeast prior to pitching it. This contradicts our instructions, which direct you to sprinkle the yeast directly on top of the juice. You can re-hydrate the yeast if you wish, but be aware that anything less than utterly strict adherence to proper re-hydration procedures will kill your yeast instead of helping it. There's a long scientific explanation for this, but it boils down to viability. Simply sprinkling the yeast on top of the must will give you a higher live cell count than re-hydrating in most cases and will be far less trouble.

6. Poor Temperature Control: Kit instructions tell you to ferment your wine within a specific temperature range. We recommend 65°F to 75°F. Yeast likes these temperatures and it doesn't like fluctuations. This is one of the situations where WineXpert’s instructions are different than commercial winemaking techniques. In commercial wineries, some white wines are fermented cooler than this, sometimes below 55°F. Commercial wineries have the luxury of taking a year (or two, or three) before they bottle their wines, so they don't have a problem. For the home wine maker though, if the fermentation area is too cool the wine will ferment very slowly. This will lead to an excess of CO2 gas (fizz) in the wine, and it may not be ready to stabilize and fine on the appropriate day. Even worse, the kind of fining agents included with WineXpert kits don't work well at temperatures outside of the 65°F to 75°F range. Below 64°F your wine kit may not clear at all!

7. Adding sulfite and sorbate at the wrong time: Sulfite and sorbate, the stabilizers in the kit work to inhibit yeast activity. If, by mistake, you add them too early your wine may not finish fermenting.

8. Leaving out the sulfite: Some people believe that they are allergic to sulfites and want to leave them out of their kits. While this is their option, it's a bad idea. True sulfite allergies are terrifically rare and if someone has a reaction to drinking wine, it's almost always due to some other cause. Besides, yeast make sulfites themselves during fermentation, so no wine can ever be sulfite-free, no matter what. Without the added sulfites, the kit will oxidize and spoil very rapidly. It will probably start to go off in less than 4 weeks, and be undrinkable in less than three months. Also, if the sulfite is left out but the sorbate is added, the wine could be attacked by malolactic bacteria, which will convert the sorbate into the compound hexadienol, which smells like rotting geraniums and dead fish. The bottom line is this: if you do not add the sulfite to the kit, neither your retailer nor the manufacturer can guarantee the wine, so think carefully before you do it.

9. Not Stirring: On day one, the kit needs to be stirred very vigorously. This is because the juice and concentrate are very viscous, and don't mix easily with water. Even if it seems that dumping the contents of the bag into the primary with the water has done the job, it hasn't. The wine lies on the bottom of the pail, with a layer of water on top, throwing off any gravity readings and making the yeast work extra hard. This is so important that special stirring accessories are available. When it comes time to stabilize and fine the wine, it has to be stirred vigorously enough to drive off all of the CO2 it accumulated during fermentation. This is because the dissolved gas will attach to the fining agents, preventing them from settling out. You need to stir hard enough to make the wine foam and keep stirring until it no longer foams. Only then will the gas be driven off so the fining agents can work their magic.

10. Not Waiting: Wine kits are ready to bottle in 28 or 45 days; they're not ready to drink. If you really can't wait, the minimum time before a kit tastes good is about one month. This is long enough for the wine to get over the shock of bottling and begin opening up to release its aromas and flavors. Three months is much better and the wine will show most of its character at this point. For most whites and virtually all reds, at least six months is needed to smooth out the wine and allow it to express mature character. Heavy reds will continue to improve for at least a year, rewarding your patience with delicious bouquet. Think of your wine like a gourmet meal. You wouldn't take your omelet out of a pan before it was cooked and you wouldn't want to eat a cake that was only half-baked, so let the magic ingredient of time do its work!

copyright 2004 J.R.Leverentz

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