Wine making has been around for thousands of years. It is not only an art but also a science. Wine making is a natural process that requires little human intervention, but each wine maker guides the process through different techniques. In general, there are five basic components of the wine making process: harvesting, crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, and aging and bottling. Wine makers typically follow these five steps but add variations and deviations along the way to make their wine unique.
Small Batch Wine Equipment
Winemaking generally requires a few basic pieces of equipment. A fermentation vessel holds the brew while it’s fermenting, and it’s capped with a water lock. The water lock allows the CO2 produced by the yeast to escape but prevents contamination from getting in and spoiling the wine. Think of it as a one-way valve that helps prevent pressure build up.
Next, a siphon is used to move the wine from one container to another and to bottle the wine. Wine isn’t just poured out because then all the sediment at the bottom of a brew would come too. A siphon allows you to move the brew out and leave the sediment behind.
Equipment for small batches used to be hard to come by. In years past I’ve seen friends hack together a small fermenter using a plastic soda bottle with a balloon attached to the top for a water lock. With the increasing interest in home fermenting, there are now super tiny batch mason jar fermenters available. They’re generally marketed at people who make their own sauerkraut or fermented pickles, but there’s no reason you can’t make wine in a mason jar.
There are a lot of choices for mason jar fermenters, and just about all of them work well. Often they’re a mason jar lid with a small rubber stopper and a traditional brewing water lock added. They’ll sometimes come with a wooden muddler and glass fermentation weights, which are great for fermenting vegetables but unnecessary for winemaking.
There’s now a new type of water lock that’s made out of silicone and doesn’t require water. These waterless water locks are much easier to clean, and much more convenient than those usually used for brewing. It doesn’t have the same “brewing” aesthetic, but if can get past the looks, they’re inexpensive and much more sanitary.
Wide mouth mason jars generally come in pint, quart and half gallon sizes. For full gallon batches, you can use traditional demijohns with a rubber stopper and airlock. The narrow neck can be tricky to clean, and I’ve mostly switched to using a specialized wide mouth one-gallon jar fermenter. It’s much more convenient for brews with a lot of particulate matter, like a floral wine. The largemouth fermenter also allows you to process the fruit and brew in the same container like I did for this rhubarb wine.
That covers fermentation vessels and water locks, now we still need a small batch siphon and bottling equipment.
For half-gallon and one-gallon batches, I use an auto siphon. Just a pump of two and the siphon action begins in seconds and your wine can be moved effortlessly into a clean container. For quart and pint batches, I break the rules. Since the jar is so small, it’s actually easier and cleaner to just pour very carefully into a clean jar, stopping before the last bits and leaving the sediment behind.
Big batch wines generally go into wine bottles with corks. With small-batch wines, there’s often not quite enough to bother with wine bottles and corks. I’ll use wine corks and a bottle corker for half-gallon and one-gallon batches, which make 2 and 4 bottles respectively. For quart and pint batches, it’s easy enough to just pour the wine into flip-top Grolsch bottles and skip the corks altogether. The Grolsch bottles can be reused and it’s less equipment to deal with.
Small Batch Wine Ingredients
Ingredients are simple right, just fruit and yeast? Well, not quite. It’s important to have the right balance of sugar, acid and tannin in any given wine. That’ll ensure good flavor, but also help the yeast work in optimum conditions.
Most fruit wines require roughly 2-3 pounds of fruit and 2 pounds of sugar. A good example is this peach wine, which calls for exactly that ratio. Floral wines don’t have fruit sugars, so they’ll require more added sugar to ferment properly. They’re generally around 2.5 to 3 pounds of sugar per gallon.
For smaller batches, all you need to do is reduce the sugar accordingly. For example, a quart is 1/4 of a gallon, so it would require 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound of sugar. There are roughly 2 cups of granulated sugar in each pound, so that would be 1 cup to 1.5 cups of sugar per quart batch of wine.
Beyond sugar and fruit, there’s acid, tannin and yeast nutrients. There are also a number of winemaking chemicals used to end the fermentation and create a still wine, assuming you don’t want any residual carbonation.
- Pectic Enzyme is used for breaking open fruit cells. It’s commonly used with fruits that don’t juice easily, and that you’d find sold in the store as a “nectar” rather than a juice. Mango wine is a good example of a wine that would use pectic enzyme.
- An acid blend to decrease the overall pH, which helps with flavor and keeps the yeast healthy.
- Yeast Nutrient to feed the yeast, and is helpful when working with fruits other than grapes which might not have all the right micronutrients. A few raisins added to the wine can also work as a yeast nutrient instead of the powdered additive.
- Tannin to give the sweet wine a bit of astringency and balance the flavor. Brewed black tea, currant leaves and grape leaves can also be used as a tannin source.
- Potassium Sorbate and Camden tablets (potassium metabisulfite) to completely end the fermentation and stabilize the wine before bottling.
The amount of any of these ingredients will vary based on the type of fruit used, as well as the batch size.
How to Make Small Batch Wine
Once you have the ingredients and equipment, the process is pretty similar to making wine of any batch size. Start by combining the fruit and sugar. If it’s whole fruit chunks, give the sugar a bit of time to extract juice from the fruit. If you’re starting with juice, mix the sugar with the juice until it’s dissolved and then add the acid source, tannin source and yeast nutrient.
Dissolve the yeast in a bit of water and allow it to bloom for at least 5 minutes. Adding dehydrated yeast directly into a sugary wine can shock the yeast before it’s had time to “wake up.”
There are a number of different wine yeasts, and each one will give the brew a different character. I tend to use Premier Blanc, formerly called “champagne yeast” because it rarely fails to ferment and it’s the most dependable. It tends to produce a rather high alcohol content, with a neutral character.
Other types of yeast will compliment different fruits, and it can get a bit complicated. If you’re just starting out, try Premier Blanc or use what’s suggested in the recipe.
Fermentation happens in several phases, the first is called “primary” and it’s where the fast and sometimes violent fermentation takes place. After the primary, the wine is usually siphoned off into a clean fermentation vessel. This leaves behind the sediment and will result in a clearer wine. This step is optional, but the finished wine will be higher quality. It usually takes 2-3 weeks for the primary fermentation to complete.
Secondary fermentation is usually slower and can take 2-3 weeks or 2-3 months. It’ll depend on the ingredients used and the ambient temperature. Once fermentation has stopped, and there are no visible bubbles for several minutes, the wine is ready for bottling. Leaving it in secondary longer is safer, and will prevent too much fermentation happening in the bottle. That can result in over carbonation unless you’re using a winemaking additive to stop fermentation.
Making Medicinal Wines
Medicinal wines used to be a staple of home herbal practices. While these days most people preserve herbs in herbal tinctures, making a herbal wine or ale was simpler before cheap high-quality spirits became available. The “alewife” was a herbalist, who brewed her medicines into a tasty alcoholic concoction that got even the stubborn to take their medicine.
The Herbal Academy, an online herbal school, has a course called The Craft of Herbal Fermentation that takes you through the ins and outs of making medicinal beer, wine and mead. Though I’d already been making wines for years, I took the course a few years ago to learn about incorporating more herbs into my brewing.
I’ve since made a medicinal birch wine, with the sap harvested from our own birch trees. My daughter also loved helping me harvest a gallon of coltsfoot flowers this spring for a medicinal coltsfoot floral wine. Every year we make a batch of elderberry mead, which is a medicinal honey wine that helps to stave off winter colds.
My next medicinal brew is made with the sap of wild lettuce, and it’s a well-known pain reliever. I’ve had great success using wild lettuce sap for low back pain and I’m excited to see how it works in a ferment.
Honey Wines (Mead)
Honey wines, also known as mead, have more complexity than simple sugar or juice based wines. They also tend to have a warmer, richer mouthfeel and more body. Honey isn’t quite as easily fermented as fructose from fruit juices or sucrose from cane sugar, so they’ll generally do better with a bit of yeast nutrient added. A few raisins also add the necessary nutrients and help keep meads from stalling out before they’ve finished fermenting. Here’s a primer specifically on making small batch mead.
Herbal and Medicinal Wine Recipes
- Dandelion Wine
- Coltsfoot Wine
- Birch Wine
- Linden Flower Mead
Any recipe can be converted to a small batch by dividing the ingredient quantities appropriately. Divide the ingredients in a 5-gallon batch by 5 for a 1 gallon, or by 20 for a 1-quart batch.
Need another reason to give it a try? Here’s a list of 10 reasons to make small batch mead, and all of them apply to any type of wine or homebrew.
Two Critical Components of Winemaking
There are only two rules to making REALLY good wine. Know all the steps to the process and keep your wine-making area and equipment meticulously clean. Germs and bacteria can spoil a batch of wine in no time flat and all of your hard work will have been for nothing. Follow these rules and you’ll be making fabulous wine in no time!
Using the Right Yeast
Fermentation is actually just a chemical reaction between the water, sugar, juice and fruit and the wine yeast that you add. This concoction is called the “must”. We’ll get into the technicalities of how to ferment your wine properly in a minute, but first I wanted to explain why you need to use wine yeast instead of baker’s yeast.
First, baker’s yeast has been developed over the centuries to add that deliciously yeasty flavor to breads and baked goods while wine yeast has been developed to have no flavor at all. It’s simply a functional component that aids in fermentation. You just want to taste the wine, not the yeast!
Second, baker’s yeast is top-fermenting yeast which means that if you use it to make wine, most of the fermentation will take place in the top few inches of the must. Wine yeast is bottom fermenting so the process will occur from the bottom up through the wine.
Finally, baker’s yeast can’t tolerate alcohol the way that wine yeast can. Sometimes the first few points of alcohol will kill the baker’s yeast and ruin your batch but wine yeast can survive in up to a 16 percent alcohol solution.
A note about sugar: it’s critical that you have enough sugar in your must to make it ferment. Sugar is what the yeast feeds off of and if there’s not enough sugar, the yeast can’t do its job and ferment the juice.
A note about acidity: Having the correct acidity in the must is important for two reasons. First, it can slow the fermentation rate if it’s too high. Most importantly though, it affects the flavor. For tarter, dryer wines, you want to pH to be around 3.3. For dessert wines, you want to keep the pH under 3.6. For anything in between, go around 3.4.
The three acids used if you need to increase the acidity (lower the pH) are citric, tartaric and malic acids or you can just buy them all together in what’s called an acid blend.
Equipment That You’ll Need
Regardless of what type of wine you’ll be making, the same equipment will be necessary. I know a woman who made wine in stone crocks in her cellar but the problem with that is that quality was tough to guarantee.
Sometimes she’d get great wine, sometimes it would taste awful and sometimes she had berry shine instead of berry wine. Of course, that was always a pleasantly delicious result, unless you had to get out of your chair after drinking a pint glass of it!
My point is that if you want to make consistently good wine, you’re going to need to proper equipment. This is what you’ll need to make one batch of wine.
- One 4-5 gallon food-grade plastic bucket with a lid. This will be your primary fermentation bucket or vat.
- Three gallon-sized glass jugs. These will be your secondary fermentation containers.
- Three airlocks, also known as fermentation locks. You can pick these up off of Amazon, eBay or from a brewer’s supply store. You can also make your own, but honestly the ones that you buy are so cheap (~$2) that there’s really no reason to make one that may not work.
- A funnel that fits into the mouth of the jug.
- Rubber corks (called bungs) that fit into the jugs.
- Large nylon mesh straining bag. Some people use cheesecloth. You’re going to put the fruit pulp in it.
- Approximately 6 feet of half-inch clear plastic tubing.
- 5 wine bottles for each gallon of wine that you make. For a standard batch, figure 5 gallons or 20 bottles.
- Pre-sanitized corks (number 9 sized)
- Litmus paper (pH strips) to test the acidity of the wine.
- Hydrometer to measure the specific gravity (or sugar level) of the must, to estimate the potential alcohol content of the wine at the time of yeast pitching and to monitor fermentation.)
- A hand corker. This is going to cost about $35 new. You could always pick up a used on or rent one from a wine supply store. If you’re going to be making wine frequently, I’d suggest buying one.
- Lots of whatever produce you’re using to make your wine.
- Granulated sugar, brown sugar or honey
- Filtered water
- Wine Yeast
You’ll find recipes for several different wines that call for spices or seasonings that enhance the flavor of your wine and there are also commercial enzymes, tannins and acids that help you control your production. Campden tablets help prevent oxidation so they’re popular, too. Really though, all you need is what we listed if you want to keep it simple. Your wine will be delicious, though the addition of some spices is especially nice with some fruits, such as apples or pears.