One of the best parts of making wine in a professional setting is being able to see what wine is capable of – both its negatives and its positives – on a large scale. In some sense a branded wine is one that has achieved more positives than negatives and has therefore carved a niche within the industry for its particular style of winemaking.
In recent years, however, scores of exceptional wines have come from very small producers who literally made their first wines in a garage. Pomerol garage wines, as well as some from California and Washington state have found acclaim in their respective markets, proving that the big producers don’t always turn out the best wines.
But how can great wine be made on a small scale? Doesn’t great wine require a significant financial investment?
Answer: Great wine requires know-how, attention to detail, and great grapes.
I received a question regarding this subject after a recent Wines & Spirits conference in Napa. The specifics involved making an Amarone or white Recioto Italian style wine at home. These are intense wines that derive a lot of their character from an extended drying phase after the harvest. During the drying phase, the water inside the grapes evaporates and the flavors concentrate.
The wines are made from Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara (for red Amarone and red Recioto della Valpolicella) and Gargenega (for white Soave). Recioto comes from the Italian word for “ear,” orecchio. Long ago, vintners in the Veneto, in Northeast Italy, where Amarone and Recioto wines are made, learned that using the shriveled grapes on the top of the grape clusters near the “ears” (or shoulders) resulted in wines with more intensity of flavor than the same kind of wine made from grapes of the same cluster that did not shrivel.
The Veneto has a cooler climate than other regions in the south of Italy. The wines are made this way because the climate is cooler, and therefore the grapes retain more natural acidity at harvest. In order to balance the acidity, the grapes undergo an extended drying period after they have been picked. The drying of the grapes rounds out the acidity by concentrating the fruit and sugar within the grape. This can be done with just about any grape you like, anywhere in the world, with varying degrees of positive and negative results. My suggestion, choose grapes that are slightly under ripe (22˙-24˙ Brix).
Assuming you find the grapes you need to make an authentic Amarone or white Recioto and the grapes arrive in your driveway in good shape (ie: ripe, healthy, without rot), you want to gently lay the grape clusters on a porous screen or mat in a single layer and let them rest, unharmed, with a fan blowing across the grapes for as long as six weeks to three months.
In that time the water inside the grape evaporates naturally, the sugars concentrate, and the fan keeps bugs away from the fruit. A light mist of sulfur water over the grapes can protect against rot and unwanted fermentation. Keeping the grapes safe during this part of the process is of the utmost importance.
After the grapes have shriveled and the stalks have browned, the red grapes should be removed gently from the stems into a large container and macerated lightly. A more gentle touch with the grapes makes secondary malolactic fermentation (for any red) occur more quickly.
If you are making a white wine from green grapes, you will want to macerate and press the grape clusters (stems and all) to liberate the juice from the grapes. Pressing the whole clusters and leaving some of the juice and pomace in contact for up to twenty four hours builds body in the finished wine. What this extended contact does is extract latent potassium from within the grape. Potassium adds a richness to the fermented product.
For any ripe grape with over 25˙ Brix or more, a strong yeast should be used. The yeast should have high tolerances to alcohol – by concentrating the sugars during the drying phase you have also increased the sugar and potential final alcohol of the wine. It is imperative that the white juice be fermented in a cool setting. By this I mean a cool room and a cool container. Keeping the fermenting juice at about 50˙-60˙F will result is a fruit-forward wine.
I have seen some innovative techniques used by “garage winemakers” to this end. One winemaker I know ferments and ages his white wines in old steel shipping containers with cooling systems that he bought from an Oakland shipyard. Another winemaker I know uses plastic tanks and a small water pump which circulates cool or warm water through hoses wrapped around the outside of insulated plastic tanks. This is getting very technical though. There are myriad solutions to the problem of refrigeration.
For any red wine, the grapes and seeds and juice should ferment together. A temperature of about 80˙F will retain the fruity character, where a higher temperature will likely lose some of the fruitiness but burn off more alcohol. Even a ten degree difference in temperature during the fermentation can change a wine’s character dramatically.
Red wines are typically fermented in open-top containers because the grapes and juice require contact for the extraction of color, aroma, tannin and other varietal characteristics, and because as the wine ferments the rolling, carbonated juice causes the grapes to float to the surface. Each day, the grapes should be pushed back into the fermenting juice so the juice can soak up more color and tannin.
Most red wines should be fermented until the fermentation stops naturally. A simple graduated cylinder and hydrometer can help you maintain a fermentation record for each batch of wine.
With white wines, you may choose to arrest the fermentation before all of the sugars have been converted to alcohol. You can do this by adding a small amount of sulfur to kill the yeast. This will retain some residual sugar and sweetness in the final wine.
Once the wine has finished primary fermentation – the sugars have been converted to alcohol – it should be stored in secure, air-tight containers of either oak, plastic, or stainless steel. What we want is to protect the wine from oxygen as much as possible as it begins to age.
In oak barrels, a wine will oxidize as it ages because air moves freely, albeit slowly, through the grain of the wood. This is normal and expected and the best situation most red wines (Amarone to Zinfandel) because oxidation softens the tannins in the wine. White wines age best in inorganic containers like plastic or stainless steel, because there is less or no oxidation of its flavors. The temperature in the garage should be set at room temperature, approximately 70˙F.
Slowly, the wines will begin to go through malolactic fermentation (ML). During this process, the malic acid is converted to lactic acid and the wines begin to soften. This happens naturally for many winemakers in the springtime, when temperatures in the cellars begin to rise.
This process can take several months or just a few weeks. Once this secondary fermentation has finished, the yeasts will settle to the bottom of the container.
The wine should be removed from the settlings, or lees, and sulfured. Red wines and white wines should undergo some aging at this point. A good standard is six months.
Additional fining can make the wine more stable and enjoyable. Bentonite (clay), Isinglass (pulverized fish float bladder), and Egg whites are all viable options with different attributes. After each fining agent is added to the wine, the clean wine should be removed from the lees. White wines should be bottled as early as possible. Red wines can withstand more aging (typically in oak) because their innate structure – color compounds, phenolics, tannin – make drinking them young less enjoyable.
Bottling your wine should be relatively easy and completely sanitary, even in a garage setting. First, each bottle should be injected with an inert gas such as Nitrogen. The wines should be racked clean from any lees into each bottle. One great way to bottle wine at home is to use a long thin siphon hose with a filling wand that fits through the neck of the bottle and has a spring-loaded trigger on the tip. As the wand touches the bottom of the bottle, it opens the hose and fills the bottle. Sealing the bottle with a cork is probably best – there are scores of alternative closures.
Each wine should be aged, on its side, in the dark for a minimum of six months before they are opened. An estimated timeline, from harvest to bottling, a minimum of six months. Granted, this is a simplified version of the winemaking process, but for a first-time winemaker, this should suffice.
The question you must ask yourself is, can I do this in my garage / back room / cellar? The answer should be yes. That being said, good wines do not come from cutting corners or doing things on the cheap. Great wines, especially great garage wines, are the result of many hours of work and painstaking attention to detail. If you have questions about setting up your own garage as a winery or a winemaking project, I can be reached at mr.bnspencer AT gmail DOT com. I would be happy to help.