During our 80’s self-sufficiency stint – when we were raising a child, growing too many cabbages, and bottling everything that looked even slightly edible – a friend from another part of the country called to visit. It was evening, and when I said that I wished I could offer him a drink but that our budget didn’t stretch to alcohol, he looked at me in a mystified sort of way and disappeared outside to his house truck. When he returned, it was with a glass bottle filled with a clear amber liquid.
“Want to try some of my parsnip wine?” he asked.
That was my introduction to home wine-making, and one of the best nights we’d spent in ages. If you’re thinking of giving wine-making a go yourself, I strongly recommend you don’t do too much reading on the subject. There’s a lot of information out there and beginners can get so bogged down they may quit before they start. It’s not difficult to produce a drinkable bottle of vino and there’s plenty of time to refine the process (and the product) once you’ve got the basics under your belt. So relax, follow the instructions below, and good luck!
Gather your equipment
The following useful bits and pieces are hard to do without. Some can be found in a harware shop, others can be bought from a home-brewer’s shop or a specialist pharmacy.
- a large preserving pan or pot
- a plastic bucket
- a couple of glass or plastic bottles of around 5 litre capacity
- a funnel
- an airlock
- a 1 metre length of narrow (6mm) clear plastic tube
- a packet of wine yeast (I recommend beginners start with one called EC1118 saccharomyces bayanus – it tolerates a wide range of temperatures and will even kill off some wild yeasts that may try to sneak into your brew)
- a packet of wine nutrient (food for the yeast)
- campden tablets (campden is a chemical that kills yeast and therefore stops your brew fermenting further).
- cooking thermometer
- metabisulphite (a chemical used to make a sterilising solution)
Before you begin
It’s pays to have some of idea of the basic principles of wine-making. In a nutshell, sugar and water, with the help of yeast and warmth, over time, turns to alcohol (in our case, wine). Adding fruit, veges or edible flowers to the sugar and water, provides the wine with flavour. Sounds simple? Relax, it is.
First things first
Instructions for wine-making depend on what fruit, veg, or flowers your recipe calls for. To find a recipe, look on the Internet or in your local library. Search for one that will use up whatever surplus fruit, veg, or edible flowers you have in the garden or growing wild, or what’s going cheap at the supermarket (grapes are different from most other fruits so leave grape wine-making for another time). Bananas are a good fruit to use. They’re available year-round, and the older, softer ones (which are perfectly OK for wine-making) can often be found cheap and in large quantities. See the banana wine recipe at the foot of this blog.
Let the Brewing Begin
Step 1: Scrub, scrub, scrub!
Yeast is everywhere: on food, your hands, even in the air. The only yeast you want in your wine is the yeast in the packet that you’ve purchased. To kill-off unwanted yeast, use boiling water or follow the instructions on your jar of metabisulphite to make sure that every bit of equipment you plan to use is good and sterile.
Step 2: Finding the flavour – a “must”!
Some produce (fruit, veg, or edible flowers) releases flavour best if it’s boiled. Some just needs a good soaking for a few hours or days. Consult your recipe for details on how to best extract the flavour from your chosen produce and remember, any water you use must be sterile (that means it must have been or is going to be boiled). Some wine recipes call for flavour-boosters to be added to your produce. These can be lemon or orange juice, or a handful of dried fruit such as sultanas or raisins. It’s not that your wine won’t “work” without them, it’s just that they add a little bit of zing or depth to the finished flavour. Once your water has been flavoured with produce (and any flavour-boosters you care to use) it’s called a “must”.
Step 3: Sugar time
When the flavour has been extracted from your produce, strain the must into a sterilised plastic bucket. Now it’s sugar time. It’s the sugar that the yeast will eventually turn into alcohol – so measure carefully as you tip it into the must. Some produce (such as bananas) is sweeter than others (such as parsnips) which is why the quantity of required sugar will vary from recipe to recipe.
Step 4: Those little extras
There are one or two mysterious extras to add to the must at this time, and cold tea is often (but not always) one of them. Cold tea contains “tannin”, an ingredient that gives your wine “body” and which also helps it to end up looking clear rather than murky. Nutrient is often called for about now. It’s food for the yeast and it contains, among other things, tartaric and citric acids. Believe it or not, a teaspoon of Marmite of Vegemite (two breakfast spreads peculiar to New Zealander and Australia) can do the same job!
Step 5: Introducing … yeast!
Without this magic ingredient, you’re not going anywhere (unless you’re working with grapes which conveniently carry their own yeast on the outside of their skins!). Yeast is a living thing, and if you sprinkle it onto must that is too hot, you’ll kill it. Err on the side of caution and wait until the must has cooled completely before you add the yeast.
Step 6: Fast and fizzing!
With the addition of yeast, your brew will work very quickly for a start, which is why it’s not a good idea to put it into that 5 litre bottle quite yet. Instead, cover the liquid with plastic cling-wrap to keep out wild yeast and leave it at room temperature to do its thing for a few days. This period is called the “fast-ferment”. It creates a lot of bubble and froth and has your home smelling pleasantly like a brewery.
Step 7: Bang it in the bottle
When the yeast has calmed down, tip the brew through a sterilised funnel into your 5 litre bottle (we’ll call this the “fermentation bottle”). Add enough sterilised water to bring the liquid level up to about three centimetres from the top (leaving too much space at the top of the container can lead to the wine having a nasty taste). Pour cooled, boiled water into the airlock (there’s usually a mark on it to show you how full to fill it) and fit the cork of the airlock (sterilized by having been dipped in boiling water) firmly into the neck of the bottle.
Step 8: Bubble, bubble!
Sit your bottle somewhere warm and watch those bubbles rip through the airlock! Your yeast is working, busily turning sugar into alcohol, and giving off carbon dioxide (CO2) (the gas you see bubbling up and out through your airlock). The water in the airlock lets the CO2 pass through, while stopping any wild yeast getting into your brew.
Top tip: keep your brew cosy. Check your yeast packet for details on what temperature range your brew likes to live in. In summer, a sunny window ledge will probably do the trick. In winter, you may have to move your bottle to the hot-water cupboard or a spot beside the fire. In very cold conditions, try wrapping the bottle in a woolly jumper or duvet, and sitting it on a heated seed-raising pad. If you’re really ingenious, install a 40w light bulb in an old tea-chest or something similar, pop the brew inside, and cover the box with a blanket (your neighbours will probably assume you’re growing dope so it makes an interesting conversation piece if you sit it in your living room window).
Step 9: Rack or ruin!
Over the next few weeks, the rate of bubbling will slow down as the yeast uses up more and more sugar (and, in doing so, creates more alcohol). You’ll also notice that sediment begins settling on the bottom of your fermentation bottle. When a good layer has collected, get out your plastic tubing and (you guessed it) sterilise it! At the same time, sterilise your second 5 litre bottle. Place the empty bottle at a level lower than the full bottle. Remove the airlock and sit in on a sterile surface. Place one end of the plastic tube in the bottle of brew, and wrap a wad of plastic kitchen cling-film around the outer edge of the other end. Place your lips over the cling film (make sure they don’t touch the tube or it won’t be sterile) and suck to start the flow of liquid.* Before the brew reaches your mouth (sorry about that!) pinch the tube closed above the cling-wrap, whip off the wad of cling-wrap, and pop the end of the tube into the empty bottle. Let the brew trickle slowly into the new bottle, moving the tube down the side of the full bottle as it drains. Take care not to collect up any of the sediment. Congratulations, you’ve just “racked” your brew. Believe it or not, some people actually use a special little pump for this sort of thing!
Step 10: You’re away on your own!
Top up the racked bottle of brew with a little cooled boiled water, bung in the airlock, and leave the whole thing for another few weeks before repeating step 9 as often as you need to in order to remove the sediment. The brew will get clearer and clearer as time goes by.
Step 11: Testing times
Can’t wait to use that hydrometer? Now’s your chance. When you stop noticing any bubbles in your airlock, take a sample of your brew and pour it into the little plastic cylinder that comes with your hydrometer. Follow the simple instructions that come with the hydrometer and you’ll soon be able to see what stage your wine is at: sweet, medium, dry or nowhere near ready. Go by taste and simply keep brewing until the wine is to your liking (ie sweet or dry enough). If you’ve over-brewed and the wine is too dry, just add a teaspoon or two of sugar dissolved in boiling water. If it’s too sweet, put the airlock back in and let it brew for a bit longer (you may like to test it with the hydrometer every couple of weeks). Try to be patient. It can take many weeks for the final fermentation to bring the brew to exactly the point where you like it. Haven’t got a hydrometer? No worries! Test the wine by tasting a sample taken from the bottle. You’ll know if it’s sweet or dry enough.
Important: after removing a sample for testing, top up the bottle with cooled, boiled water.
Step 12: Bye bye yeast!
When your wine is just as you want it, drop a campden tablet into the fermentation bottle, and leave it for a couple of days to do its work. It will kill off the yeast and stop it using up any more sugar. Even more importantly, it will stop the yeast producing any more CO2 – essential if you don’t want your bottles to explode!
Step 13: Bottling time (at last!)
You’re finally ready to bottle your wine. Sterilise some wine bottles and tops, rack the finished wine into the bottles using your sterilized plastic tube method, and screw on the tops. Add some arty home-made labels to the bottles, and store the wine in a cool, dark place for as long as you can before throwing a party (I recommend you aim for at least six months but a year or two is probably better). And that’s it. Congratulations! You’ve done it!
Not a lot can go wrong with home-made wine that can’t be tolerated or rectified. And if the brew is not up to your expectations, you’d be surprised what a good chilling (or, if it’s a red, a gentle warming) can do to improve it. Or try leaving it for another year before you consume it. If you are having problems, here are some ways to deal with them.
Problem: the wine’s too sweet and the brew’s stopped bubbling.
Solution: the brew may be too cold for the yeast to work. Shift the bottle to a warmer spot. If the wine has become very cold, your yeast may have died. If this is the case, shift the bottle to a warmer spot and add some more wine yeast, following the instructions on the packet. If the yeast still won’t work (and it can be difficult to tell if you’re not watching the airlock non-stop), add a teaspoon of nutrient. Failing that, add some spice to the wine and mull it for a delicious winter drink round the fire.
Problem: the wine’s too dry.
Solution: add some dissolved sugar before sterilising the wine with your campden tablet. Or, if you have some overly sweet wine, mix the two brews until the sugar content is to your liking.
Problem: the wine tastes like vinegar.
Solution: somehow (probably because you didn’t sterilise a piece of equipment) a wild yeast has sneaked into your brew and killed off your wine-yeast. Try using the wine as vinegar. If it’s not too bad, keep it to add to cooking.
Problem: the wine burns my throat and has a “chemical” taste.
Solution: sounds as though your wine has “oxidised” ie too much oxygen has found its way into your bottle. Keep the liquid level close to the top of the fermentation bottle to avoid this. I hate to say it, but if your wine really has oxidised, there’s only one thing to do: biff it!
Banana Wine Recipe
2 kg peeled bananas (soft, spotted or black bananas are fine to use)
.25 kg banana skins
4.5 litres water
100 gms sultanas
juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1.4 kg white sugar
EC1118 saccharomyces bayanus yeast (in the quantity given on the packet)
1 tsp of nutrient
Tie the bananas and skins into a muslin bag, place them in a pot with the water, bring to the boil, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the bag of fruit and skins, allow it to cool, and then squeeze the liquid from it into the water. Bring the water to the boil again and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the sugar to the water, and stir to dissolve.
Take the water off the heat. When it is completely cool, add the yeast and nutrient, and cover tightly with two layers of plastic cling wrap. Follow steps 6-12 to complete the wine-making process.