Welcome to the World of Winemaking! I’m having fun alphabetizing the home winemaking process – you can find the links to the other letters at the end of this post.
Today’s letter is “S”, so we’ll talk about Sweet and Sanitary.
Sweet: This is kind of self-explanatory. I happen to love a sweet wine – not sickly sweet, but ‘just right’ sweet. Think Goldilocks – she tried every bowl, chair, and bed until she found the one that was ‘just right’. That’s how I like my sweet wines – just right.
To make a wine sweet, you need to ‘back-sweeten’ it. Remember, any sugar you add at the beginning of a fermentation should have nothing to do with how sweet your wine will turn out. This sugar is added simply for the wine yeast to turn into alcohol.
And yes, you can increase the percentage of alcohol by adding sugar at the beginning to allow the yeast to convert it into alcohol – that’s why the hydrometer is a very useful tool, since it has a “Potential Alcohol Scale” marked right on it so you can verify that the correct amount of sugar is being added to obtain the alcohol percentage you desire.
When you back-sweeten your wine, though, be sure to use a stabilizer such as Potassium Sorbate to inhibit any re-fermenting that the new sugars may unintentionally feed. By adding your beginning sugar in this way, and then sweetening later on, you gain complete control over both the wine’s sweetness and its final alcohol level.
I forgot to add the Potassium Sorbate to a batch of my apple wine before bottling. Then one day, I heard strange noises coming from the basement, where the wine was stored.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
I went down to see what the noise was, and the whole basement smelled like wine. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, until I went over to where my apple wine was stored, and noticed that quite a few of the bottles were missing corks, and others had the corks halfway out.
You guessed it – the wine had started a secondary bottle fermentation, the pressure from inside sent the corks flying, and allowed the wine to escape. Good thing it was a root cellar in our 1817 farmhouse (cement floor and a sump pump pit) or I would have had a much bigger mess to clean up. I was more disappointed at the loss of quite a few bottles of wine than I was the mess…heh!
I tasted the wine, and was quite impressed with the bubbly sensation – I had accidentally made a sparkling apple wine! So I quickly bought champagne bottles, corks and wires, and re-bottled the rest of that apple wine so as not to lose any more, and to make sure none of the bottles exploded.
I was lucky none of the bottles exploded in the first place – could be because the basement was chilly, so the cold helped slow down the fermentation. That turned out to be many of my friends’ favorite apple wine (and mine, too). Now I’ll have to see if I can recreate it one of these days.
Sweetening your wine with regular store-bought cane sugar is perfectly okay and is what most people use. I actually make invert sugar:
That way the sugar crystals are already dissolved and I can add the cooled syrup directly to the batch of wine and stir well – if you do any kind of cooking, follow the rule of thumb ‘to taste’. Of course that means you’ll have to taste the wine until you like the amount of sugar added, but that’s a small sacrifice, no?
You can also sweeten it with things like corn sugar (which isn’t as sweet as cane sugar, but seems to give the wine a more crisp, cleaner flavor. This would be a good choice for most white wines or more generally, wines with a lighter, more delicate flavor). You can also use honey, or a wine conditioner, wine concentrates or fresh juice – remember, everything to taste!
While you can use those as a sweetener, you might want to steer clear of artificial sweeteners. I know! Sweeteners such as Equal and Sweet ‘N Low do not bond well on their own with liquids. Soda manufacturers use binders to keep these artificial sweeteners suspended. If added to a wine that has been stored, these types of sweeteners will need to be stirred up off the bottom before serving. So you know, not such a great idea.
Moving on to Sanitation… there is just one overriding rule when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing:
You must do it.
You must clean and sanitize everything that touches your wine supply. This means all wine making equipment: anything that you will submerge in wine, pass wine through and use for storing wine. This includes hosing and tubing, wine bottles, carboys and jugs, fermenters, etc.
Cleaning and sanitizing are important because wild yeast and bacteria are all around us. They are in the air, on the kitchen counter, and on your winemaking equipment.
It is neither possible nor necessary to remove every last bacteria or wild yeast cell that might spoil wine. However, it is important to remove as many of them as possible to prevent some of the off-flavors that they produce when they get into wine and begin to grow.
Many sanitizing solutions do not always work well as cleansers, and many cleansers do not sanitize adequately. Be sure that you are using the right product for the job.
For cleaning, I use a product called B-brite – it’s an effective cleanser that removes organic compounds through the use of precarbonates. Use one tablespoon per gallon of warm water, and rinse thoroughly with clear cold water.
I fill up my fermentation bucket most of the way with warmish/hot water, stir in the B-Brite, then clean all the equipment I’ve used or will be using (tubing, bungs, hoses, siphon cane, etc.) This stuff works like a charm!
And to sanitize everything I’ve just cleaned, I’ll fill my fermentation bucket with warmish/hot water and add the appropriate drops of StarSan:
It’s an acid-based no-rinse sanitizer that is effective and easy to use, made from food-grade phosphoric acid, it’s safe for people and the environment. It’s odorless and flavorless, so you don’t have to worry about it making your wine taste funny. It’s really super easy to use, and you can rest easy knowing you’ve sanitized everything you’ll be using to make your wine with.
Just remember: Sanitizing is a cyclical process. Good practices save you time in the long run. Always rinse after using your wine making equipment. This cuts down on the elbow grease when it comes to cleaning.
The cycle is as follows: clean, sanitize, use, rinse, clean, sanitize, air dry and store.
Winemaking is so much fun – at least for me – and am tickled every time I give the wine I make as gifts to friends and family who love drinking it as much as I love making it. While we go through this alphabetical series on winemaking, if you have any burning questions, be sure to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll reply there – and maybe even highlight your specific question(s) in a future post!
Thanks for joining me in this fun adventure!
Here are the links going backwards for your convenience, in case you missed any:
A for Aromas, Acidity and Appearance
B for Barrels, Bottles and Blackberry Wine
C for Color, Clarity, Carboys and Cherry Wine
D for Decanting and Decanters
E for Equipment
F for Fermentation
G for Glass and Grape
H for Harvest
I for Infusion
J for Jeroboam and Jug
K for Kabinett
L for Leaf, Label and Lees
M for Merlot, Muscat and Must
N – the Nose has it!
O for Oak and Oxidation
P for Palate and Press
Q for Quality
R for Racking and Riddling