Your peach trees are sagging from the weight of their fruit, but your pantry still has several jars of canned peaches from last year’s harvest. What can you do when your fruit trees — or bushes or vines — yield more than you plan to eat fresh, preserve, or sell at market? That’s easy: Just make fruit wine.
Wines made from fruit other than grapes are frequently called country wines. To understand how to make country wine, it pays to first understand why most commercial wines are made from grapes.
Grape wines are made by crushing grapes and adding yeast to the juice (or, in the case of red wines, the juice and grape skins). The yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation.
Grapes are well suited to this because quality wine grapes contain everything needed to make wine. Good grapes contain enough sugar that creates a preservative level of alcohol when the wine ferments. They also have sufficient acid to balance the sweetness of the wine. Additionally, ideal wine grapes supply just enough tannin to add a bit of astringency — a slight puckering feel in the mouth — which adds to the enjoyment of the beverage. This characteristic is called structure, and many wines (especially reds) are aged in oak barrels to add more tannin structure.
The “problem” with making wine from fruit other than grapes is that most fruits do not have the correct ratio of sugar, acid and tannin to make great wine. The straightforward solution to this is to simply add whatever is lacking of those three to the unfermented juice prior to fermentation.
Nothing in the winemaking process can turn bad fruit into good wine, or even average fruit into good wine. Great wine comes from great fruit, so don’t use country wines as a way to dispose of inedible fruit and expect good results.
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Equipment and supplies
You don’t need a bunch of specialized equipment to make wine, just some basic equipment — none of which is expensive.
The amount of wine you will make depends, of course, on the amount of fruit you have at your disposal. Common batch sizes for home winemakers range from 1 to 6 gallons, and the equipment needed to produce wine at this scale is readily available. The typical home winemaking setup would include the following at minimum:
Fermentation bucket — This can be as simple as a food-grade bucket (usually 5 to 7 gallons) with an airtight lid. The lid is drilled and fitted with a rubber grommet so a fermentation lock (sometimes called an airlock) can be inserted. Many fermentation buckets have plastic spigots built in. You will need 3 to 4 feet of clear, plastic tubing to attach to the spigot, if you choose that option.
Secondary fermenter(s) — You will need one or more containers to hold the volume of wine you plan to make. If you are making 1 gallon of wine, a 1-gallon glass jug is ideal. For larger volumes of wine, 2, 3, 5 and 6 gallons, carboys are common. Each secondary fermenter should be equipped with a drilled rubber stopper and a fermentation lock.
Large nylon steeping bag — The fruit in your wine will be placed in a large bag to facilitate removing the fruit solids after the initial stage of fermentation.
Auto siphon — An auto siphon is a simple mechanical device that allows you to start a siphon to transfer liquid from one vessel to another. A simpler option is a racking cane (or racking wand), although you will have to start your own siphon if you choose this option.
Hydrometer — Measuring the amount of sugar in your unfermented wine, called must, is important because it provides an estimate of the alcohol content; the more sugar, the more alcohol … to a point. A hydrometer is a sealed glass cylinder that floats in a test cylinder. The more sugar in a solution, the higher the hydrometer rides in the liquid. A scale sealed inside the hydrometer indicates how much sugar is present and estimates the alcoholic strength of your finished wine.
Wine bottles, cork and corker — You can package your wine in wine bottles you have saved, or buy new ones. You will need new corks for each batch of wine, and a corker will help you insert the corks.
Fruit — The amount of fruit per gallon in a country wine varies with the intensity of the fruit and the strength of flavor desired in the finished wine. If you want to stretch the amount of fresh fruit you have, you can supplement it with canned fruit purée. Many home winemaking shops sell large cans of puréed fruit for winemaking.
Sugar — Sugar is included in most country wine recipes to supplement the sugars found in the fruit. For most country wines, adding enough sugar so that the wine ferments from 9 to 10 percent alcohol by volume is a good choice. At lower alcohol levels, the wine will age too quickly; at higher levels, the wine can end up tasting unpleasantly alcoholic — sometimes called “hot” by winemakers. Sucrose (table sugar) is cheap and plentiful, doesn’t add any flavor to the wine, and is by far the most common sugar used by home winemakers. However, you can also use honey or other sugars in country wines.
Acid — Whereas most fruits contain less sugar than grapes, many fruits are more acidic. In country wines, the addition of sugar water frequently compensates for the higher acidity. Winemaking shops sell acid test kits that allow you to determine the amount of acid in a must. However, many home winemakers just “wing it” by following recipes initially, and then later using their taste buds to check the flavor of the must, making adjustments as needed. If you want to go to the trouble of measuring acidity, most country wines, especially those with a hint or more of sweetness, do best with an acidity level on par with white wines: 7 to 9 grams per liter (g/L) of acid (compared with 6 to 8 g/L for most reds). For a dry country wine, 6 to 7 g/L of acid is better.
Winemaking shops typically sell tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid, as well an acid blend. The acid blend is a mix of tartaric, malic and citric acid in the proportions they are found in grapes. This is the go-to acid for most home winemakers.
The acids are sold as white crystals and keep indefinitely. In the past, some home winemakers used lemon or orange juice to supply their acid.
Tannin — Grape tannin is sold as fine tan powder and can be used to add structure to a country wine. In the past, some home winemakers used iced tea as a substitute for grape tannin.
Grape juice —Grapes have everything needed to make wine, so many country winemakers add grape juice to their country wine musts to supply some of the sugar, acid and tannins needed. Grape juice also rounds out the flavor profile, making the country wine more reminiscent of a grape wine. The frozen grape juice concentrates, such as Welch’s, work well for this. Generally, one can of concentrate per gallon (3.8 L) is used. White grape juice, made from Niagara grapes, works well for most country wines. For darker and more intensely flavored fruits, red grape juice (from Concord grapes) can be used. Too much of either of these juices can lend a “foxy” character to the wine.
Yeast — The yeasts that work best with country wines are generally white-wine yeasts. Champagne yeast is a good all-around choice, especially for light-colored country wines. For darker fruits, Montrachet yeast (a red-wine yeast) may work well. Two other favorites for country wines are Lalvin EC-1118 and Lalvin ICV D-47. Each package of yeast contains enough to make up to 5 gallons (19 L) of wine. Check the date on the package, though, as dried yeast expires after a few years. Some older country wine recipes call for bread yeast, but you are far better off using wine yeast to ferment your country wines.
Campden tablets — Campden tablets contain either sodium or potassium metabisulfite, a chemical that, when used properly, suppresses the growth of unwanted, wine-spoiling bacteria or fungi in your wine. It also serves as an antioxidant, preserving the fresh fruit flavors and keeping the wine from oxidizing and turning brown prematurely.
Pectinase — Some fruits are high in pectin, and pectin can lead to hazy wine. The enzyme pectinase (sometimes called pectic enzyme) can be added to high-pectin fruit musts to degrade the pectin into simple sugars. It is usually added at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon per gallon.
Yeast nutrients — Yeast nutrients help ensure the health of the yeast. Two kinds of yeast nutrients are popular, diammonium phosphate (DAP) and so-called complete yeast nutrients. DAP is simply a source of nitrogen for the yeast, while complete nutrients (including Go-Ferm and Fermaid K) also supply key vitamins and minerals to the yeast.
Potassium sorbate — If you’d like a sweet wine, the best way to accomplish this is to let the wine initially ferment to dryness, and then back sweeten it. Potassium sorbate — added at 1/2 teaspoon per gallon after the wine has been fermented and dropped mostly clear — can be added along with sugar to keep the yeast from fermenting it.
First, clean all of your winemaking equipment and sanitize your fermentation bucket. Home winemaking shops sell multiple types of sanitizer, including iodine and acid sanitizers, such as Star San. You also can make a sanitizing solution of your own by adding 14 Campden tablets to 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water. Do not use bleach to sanitize your winemaking gear, as even trace amounts of bleach cause an off aroma in wine. If you’re making sanitizing solution from Campden tablets, be aware that the solution smells strongly of rotten eggs. Iodine or acid sanitizers are more pleasant on the nose. Follow the instructions on the sanitizer for a working solution, and pay attention to how much contact time the sanitizer requires to be effective.
Next, process your fruit. Soft fruits can be placed in the nylon steeping bag and mashed inside the bucket with a potato masher. Harder fruits can be cut into small pieces or coarsely chopped in a blender or food processor, and then placed in the bag. Fruits with large seeds should be pitted first.
Add specified amount of sugar to boiling water and dissolve. Let the solution cool for 5 minutes or so. Add cool water to your fermenter to roughly the volume of wine you want to make. Then add the sugar solution. This will add some volume, but you will lose it when you remove the steeping bag later. Add acid, tannin, yeast nutrients and anything else called for in the recipe except for the yeast. Crush one Campden tablet per gallon, and stir that into the must. Cover the bucket loosely with the lid and let it sit for 24 hours. A day later, sprinkle one sachet of wine yeast on the surface of the must for every 5 gallons (19 L) of wine, and put the lid on the fermentation bucket. Add a small amount of water to the fermentation lock and place it in the hole in the bucket lid. Place the bucket somewhere it can sit undisturbed at room temperature or slightly warmer (up to about 80 degrees F/27 degrees C).
Between 12 and 24 hours later, you’ll see the airlock bubbling, and it will continue to do so for three to five days, then it will slow down. After about a week, all activity in the airlock will stop. At this point, the main alcoholic fermentation will be finished. Within the next few days, transfer the fermented wine from your fermentation bucket to your secondary fermenter(s). To do this, clean and sanitize your secondary fermenter and the tube that attaches to your spigot or your auto siphon.
Open the bucket and gently lift the bag out of the wine. Try not to touch the wine with your hands. A sanitized spoon comes in handy for fishing the bag out. Hold the bag over the wine and let it drip until the flow of liquid is reduced to drops. If you’d like, press the bag against the side of the fermenter or gently twist the bag to force out more liquid. Don’t get too aggressive, though. Your wine will be better if you extract only the liquid that is easy to expel. Crush one or more Campden tablets between two spoons, and stir in one tablet per gallon into the wine.
Transfer the wine to your secondary vessel(s), leaving behind as much of the debris at the bottom of the fermenter as possible. Your aim should be to fill your secondary fermenters as full as possible, so that when the airlock is attached, the rubber stopper is almost touching the wine.
Let the wine sit and age undisturbed in a cool, dark place for a few weeks. During this time, more material will sediment out of the wine. You have the option of racking the wine to a new secondary fermenter every few weeks if a new layer of sediment appears, or, if it looks relatively clear, you can proceed to bottling. If your wine doesn’t want to clear on its own, there are fining agents, such as Bentonite and Sparkalloid that can help. Add half a Campden tablet per gallon each time you rack the wine.
When you are ready to bottle your wine, crush one Campden tablet per gallon and gently stir it into the wine. Use the auto siphon to transfer the wine to bottles. In between filling bottles, pinch the tubing to stop the flow of liquid. Cork or cap the bottles and let them sit for at least a few weeks before sampling. Most country wines should be ready four to six months after the day they were made and should remain in good condition for about a year.
The biggest keys to success when making country wine are to use fully ripe, quality fruit and to keep your winemaking equipment clean and sanitized. If you do this, you will be rewarded with tasty, refreshing wine.
Read more: How to Grow Table and Wine Grapes.
Chris Colby, a homebrewer since 1991, is the former editor of WineMaker magazine. He holds a doctorate in biology from Boston University.