Making your own wine at home can be a fun and rewarding process. However, if you’ve never done it before it can be a bit daunting. How long does it take to make wine and what are the different steps that you need to do? What is primary fermentation or secondary fermentation? Do you have to age wine or can you drink it straight from fermentation?
On average, it takes about 4 to 8 weeks to produce a bottle of wine. However, a lot of the good flavors in wine come as a result of the aging process, as few as three months with a light white wine but as long as three years with a full bodied red.
We will explain a bit about all the different steps and how short or long it could take before you can drink your own homemade wine.
Steps of Fermentation
To turn grape juice into wine, yeast must eat the sugar in the grape juice to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. In wine making, the grape juice is called must. This process is called fermentation and there are typically multiple stages of fermentation, each serving different purposes. There will usually be a primary fermentation, a secondary fermentation, and an aging process.
During primary fermentation, the yeast are the most active. The must will reach a majority of it’s target alcohol content during this time, potentially up to 70% of it’s final ABV. This process usually only takes about one to two weeks depending on the ambient temperature. In cooler weather, the fermentation will take longer, while in warmer weather it can happen very quickly. It’s important to make sure the must is kept within an acceptable temperature range during this period, as too cold of temperature can cause the yeast to stall and too much heat can cause the yeast to be stressed, causing off flavors.
It’s important to take hydrometer readings during primary fermentation to understand how quickly fermentation is occurring. If you were to plot the alcohol content over time, you would see a sharp increase over the first couple of times with a very steep slope. The slope would then become less steep, gradually flattening out. This is the point we want to transfer the wine from a primary fermenter into a secondary fermenter, anywhere between 3 to 7 days after the beginning of fermentation.
The yeast cake at the bottom of the fermenter is a layer of dead yeast cells. Racking the wine off the yeast cake after primary fermentation helps prevent bad flavors from developing. Since fermentation occurs much more slowly in the secondary fermentation, there will be far fewer dead yeast cells to produce bad flavors. Secondary fermentation can last much longer than primary fermentation, sometimes several weeks. Continue taking hydrometer readings during this stage to monitor when the target final specific gravity is reached.
Some brewers will note that the process of racking wine off the yeast cake is not a true secondary fermentation as seen in brewing beer, or carbontaing as in making sparkling wine. In this process, the fermentation did not stop such that it needs restarting with additional yeast or sugar. Fermentation continues, just in a second fermenter.
Processing and Finishing
Even though you could drink your wine after secondary fermentation is over, most wines improve with some processing and aging.
Filtration and fining helps clarify the wine. There are several methods that can be used to help clarify the wine. Cold crashing involves reducing the temperature of the wine, causing the yeast to go dormant and drop to the bottom of the fermenter. The wine can then be racked, leaving the sediment behind. Fining agents can also be added, such as bentonite. Bentonite is a clay like substance that helps the yeast flocculate together, becoming heavy enough to drop out of suspension.
Each of these processes can take several days. For example, dropping the temperature enough to cause a cold crash of the wine can take several hours or days. Using fining agents can also take hours to days, depending on your conditions and recipe. If you are using multiple processes, you may need to treat and rack your wine several times, with each step adding additional days to your wine making process.
If your wine is supposed to have some residual sugar, you may want to stabilize it before bottling it. Any residual sugar in the wine could possibly continue to ferment if there is any active yeast left in the batch. Without stabilization, you may end up with yeast deposits at the bottom of the bottle or dryer wine than you intended. To stabilize, you can add Campden tablets or Sorbistat K, depending on your recipe.
When stabilizing, it’s advisable to bulk age your wine for three or four months before bottling. This lengthy process will help ensure all the yeast has dropped out of suspension such that you can rack the wine off into bottles without risking sediment in your bottles after aging.
After racking, you may want to add additional flavor elements, such as oak chips. While in larger commercial processes wine may be aged in oak barrels, at home you can have a similar effect by adding oak chips into the carboy. Allowing the wine to age in bulk on the oak chips for six to eight weeks can add additional flavors that cannot be rushed. You may try the wine from time to time to see if the level of flavor has reached your desired level, but you may need to wait up to twelve or sixteen weeks to get the true depth of flavor you want.
If you compare the process of winemaking to what you might buy at a retailer, you may notice that there are some wines that can be produced in a matter of weeks. For example, Beaujolais Nouveau is bottled only about six to eight weeks after the grapes are harvested, then sold commercially on Beaujolais Nouveau day on the third Thursday of November. However, some wines aren’t released until they are at least several months old, and many wines are not released until they’re at least a couple years old. Some wine collectors may even purchase young wines for a lower price point in order to age them for many years, increasing their value.
Expert wine makers will note that the biggest mistake that new winemakers make is bottling and drinking their wines too early. Full bodied red wines should be bulk aged for at least a year but ideally up to three years. Light bodied red wines, roses, and full bodied white wines should be bulk aged six months to a year. Light bodied and fruity white wines are the quickest to make and age, taking just three to six months. If you’re in a hurry to make your first wine, try a light white for your first batch.
While it might be tempting to rush the wine making process so that you can enjoy your own, homebrewed bottle of wine, time is one of the most important ingredients to your recipe. Before starting, plot out your wine schedule and carefully take notes of your observations, such as specific gravity readings and clarity of your wine. You may even make a calendar for your wine to help you remember when you should bottle or open your wine, and before you know it you’ll see that the wait was worth it!