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Tips to Make Better Red Wine

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

There are few things more rewarding than opening an incredible bottle of homemade red wine. A great red wine can improve with each sip, uncovering new layers of taste and aroma. It can age gracefully for years, and treat you with even more complexity as it reaches maturity. World class wine can be made in your house, but to do so reliably requires a deep understanding of the advanced techniques available to you.

People Drinking Red Wine

Wine is a tricky thing. There is no single "best wine" out there. Taste preferences are subjective and can change over time or based on what you are pairing the wine with. When I first started making wine I wanted an approachable, easy drinking red wine. Now I want that extra oomph and crave things like tannin, which might scare off a new wine drinker. It is important to figure out what you like and learn to make the perfect wine for you. You may find that by the time your wine is ready to drink, your taste buds have come to want that bigger, bolder, more complex wine. If that is where you want to be, here are some tricks to help you get there.

Use Grapes, Not Juice

If you squeeze a red wine grape, you will see clear juice, large crunchy, tannic seeds, and a very thick purple, black or blue skin. Most of the character and body of a red wine comes from the extended contact with the skins and seeds. The best red wines are fermented in contact of the skins and seeds for upwards of two weeks and what you do during this skin contact time can dramatically alter the end result.

Red Grapes in a Crusher Destemmer

Alternatively, wine concentrate kits and juice pails use flash extraction in an attempt to extract as much color from the skins in the shortest amount of time. While great color can be achieved, much of the complexity and "power" is left behind. Making wine from a juice bucket or kit can be great fun, educational, budget friendly and give you a drinkable red wine in a matter of months, but you may find there is always something missing. To fill that void, you will want to make red wine from grapes.

Where can I get Grapes?

Red wine grapes are available around September and October (in the northern hemisphere). Many local produce suppliers will import fresh wine grapes from California. If you are unsure where to by wine grapes locally, reach out to a local winemaking group or home brewing supply shop. If you find that you still cannot find wine grapes, you can have frozen grapes shipped to your door from Brehm Vineyards.

You will pay a premium for good wine grapes but you get what you pay for. For about $6 or $7 per bottle, you can make extremely good wine that would easily sell for three or four times that price. You can buy more inexpensive grapes (~$3-4 per bottle), and still make very good wine (much better than from juice) if you have a few tricks up your sleeve. If your taste buds are still evolving and you do not have experience with grapes yet, this is a great place to start.

If you have a little land and a favorable climate, you can grow your own grapes. I will warn you though... it is not easy. The best wine grapes are of the species Vitus Vinifera, native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe. Because new vines are made from cuttings, rather than seed, the vines do not develop resistance to the ever evolving array of pests. In most climates, vines will need sprayed about every two weeks to avoid total decimation by fungal disease or insects. Modern French-American hybrid grapes like Marquette and Norton can make your life as a grower a lot easier but as a winemaker more difficult as they are substantially higher in malic acid.

Handy Tip: If you plan on growing traditional wine grapes (Vinifera), be sure to buy grafted plants. Thanks to the worldwide spread of the root pest, Phylloxera in the late 19th century, European grapes generally must be grafted on American rootstocks. These rootstocks have a natural tolerance to the Phylloxera and can be matched to better work with your soil type.

Quality Matters. Ripeness Matters.

Good red wine grapes are cared for meticulously in the vineyard. Leaves are pulled to expose berries to more sun... Clusters are thinned to concentrate flavors... canes are positioned to help encourage optimal ripeness. Growing good red grapes is labor intensive and requires a great deal of skill and help from mother nature. This is why it can be a little expensive to get good grapes.

Good red wine grapes have small berries and are optimally ripe. This means that flavor maturity, sugar content, and acid levels are all about where you want them at the time of harvest and this is very difficult to achieve.

Red Grapes with Vineyard Side Netting

I often get messages from people who have picked grapes either way too soon or way too late and are having difficulties with their wine. If you are the one picking the grapes, test a large sample with refractometer and a pH meter on top of any sensory tests that you will do. Don't pick until the grapes are ready.

Handy Tip: The pH will climb during alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation, so if you want a wine with a pH of 3.6, you will want grapes that are around 3.35 to 3.40 (if potassium levels are high, you will still need to supplement with more tartaric acid).

Improve Your Skin to Juice Ratio with Saignée

Now that we've got the basics of selecting the right grapes out of the way, let's move on to some techniques. Saignée (French: "To Bleed") is a great technique to help improve your skin to juice ratio. Additionally, it allows you to make two wines from one set of grapes (a Rosé and a Red wine).

How is it done?

Simply pour off 10-20% of the juice from the crushed and destemmed grapes after about two or three hours of skin contact time. This is enough time to make a good rose and extract just a bit of color. The benefit is that you not have less juice on the same amount of skins. I do this to nearly all of my red wines. If the berries are a little bigger, I will often pull off as high as 25% of the juice.

Saignée wine

By doing a saignée, you are helping to concentrate the good stuff in that wine. Large wineries can use reverse osmosis to pull water from the wine. A barrel also helps to concentrate a wine by the slow evaporation process that occurs. On small home batches, we can't easily take advantage of either of these so a saignée is often a critical step to making that bigger, bolder wine that drinks at a higher price point.

Handy Tip: Don't own a crusher-destemmer yet? Here is a trick I used to do with a milk crate to crush and destem.

Cold Soak

Extending the skin contact time (maceration), can help assure that you extract every little bit of tasty goodness from those grape skins. You can extend before fermentation by doing a cold soak with the crushed and destemmed grapes. To do a cold soak, chill your crushed and destemmed must to about 40-50°F and keep it there for two to three days before starting the fermentation. This can be achieved by placing frozen one gallon water jugs in the must and replacing several times a day. If you have a spare fridge and are doing smaller batches, you can do a cold soak by placing buckets of must in the fridge. If you have access to dry ice, you can chill the must while creating a CO2 blanket in the process

Adjust the Must

Even the best grapes often need a little adjustment. Near the end of the cold soak, make sugar and acid measurements using a hydrometer and a pH meter. If your pH is above about 3.55, you will likely want to add a bit of tartaric acid. If it is below about 3.3, you may want to nudge it up with a little calcium carbonate or potassium bicarbonate. If it is low, I like to watch it for a few days before making an adjustment though. Often the pH can climb substantially if the wine has a high potassium content. When making acid adjustments it is wise to add about 1/3 to half of what you think you need and waiting about a day. Often the wine will not react predictably depending the concentration of any natural pH buffers.

You can measure your titratable acidity (TA) at this time also, but I will rarely make adjustments based on TA.

Measure the sugar content next. For a red wine, you will generally want to be in the range of 23 to 26% sugar (°brix). If the sugar content is a little low, you can adjust up with table sugar (see my handy sheet of conversions on Patreon). Adding beet sugar is common practice in regions of France. If the sugar is a little too high (leading to higher alcohol), consider blending with a lower sugar must, or lower alcohol wine later. You can add acidulated water (water adjusted with tartaric acid), to bring down the sugar percent but this is not something that I like to do. I would rather the wine be a little higher alcohol than a little watery. A wine higher in alcohol can always sit in the carboy for another year until you end up with a wine that is a little lower to blend it with.

Yeast Selection

Selecting the right yeast can make your life a bit easier and allow the right fermentation tempo to help with extraction. I like a reliable yeast that is relatively competitive and has low nitrogen needs to help express the varietal characteristics of the grapes best. Some yeast strains are relatively easily stressed. When an active fermentation becomes starved of nitrogen, most strains will produce sulfur compounds, like sulfur dioxide (further contributing the the stress), and hydrogen sulfide (stinky). Some strains have beneficial byproducts like glycerine which can help draw out the perception of fruit in the wine. Others can be more likely to produce things like acetic acid or acetaldehyde.

A good reliable strain can ferment slow and steady without the need for excessive nitrogen (which can cause an extremely fast fermentation). Some reliable options that I reach for are Lalvin D21, BDX, or Renaissance Muse.

It is relatively common to split a batch of wine into two or more fermentations, each using different yeast strains. You may want to reduce malic acid in a hybrid grape by fermenting a portion with Lalvin 71B. If you were to mix the different yeast strains into one fermenter, the most competitive would take over and finish the fermentation. By separating the batches, you can take advantage of the complimentary characteristics of each strain and blend together later.

Monitor Temperature

Fermentation temperature can play a major role in the style of wine that you want. To create a fruit forward wine, you can maintain a relatively cool fermentation of around 70°F. As the fermentation runs warmer, the rate of vaporization of the fruity aromatic compounds increases. This will smell great, but once those fruity smells have left the wine, they are gone for good. A cooler fermentation temperature helps to drag out the fermentation which somewhat offsets the lower extraction rate at cooler temperatures but not completely. Wines fermented at cooler temperatures can often lack the tannin structure and body of a more traditionally fermented red wine.

Handy Tip: Place an aquarium stick on thermometer on the sides of your fermenters to quickly spot temperature issues.

To make a more traditional, full bodied red wine (often requiring a little more aging time), allow the fermentation to warm to about 85-88°F briefly during the first few days of fermentation. This will greatly improve extraction from the skins and to some extent the seeds. I like to warm the fermentation closer to the beginning of fermentation, because the water soluble compounds generally more desirable than the more alcohol soluble components like seed tannin. As you are finishing the fermentation, don't let it cool off much below 73°F, to reduce the risk of stalling.

Handy Tip: Use a seed heater with thermostat to warm up a wine fermented in a bucket.

You can split wine into two fermentations and run part of it like a traditional full bodied wine, and ferment the other batch cool to retain fruity aromas. I like to have a few fruit blasters in my cellar, and also some body builders. A blend of about 75% of the full bodied traditional wines with about 25% of the cooler fermented fruit blaster wines can often create a wine with great, lingering taste and wonderful aromatics.

Handy Tip: To cool a fermentation down, use those frozen plastic jugs of water from the cold soak and change out periodically to maintain your desired temperature.

Punch Down Frequently

When making wine from grapes, one of the most important procedures is the punch down. You can think of skin extraction as a similar process as iced tea extraction. If you submerged the tea bag for only a brief bit of time, then lifted out, you would not get a whole lot of extraction. As a red wine ferments, the skins fill with CO2 and create a cap of skins that is often 4-6 inches deep floating above the surface of the wine. This cap can form pretty quickly, lifting most of the skins out of the wine and eventually drying them out and browning them if they were not periodically re-submerged. This is where the "punch down" comes in. To punch down, simply use your punch down tool and gently submerge the skin 2-3 times a day. As the fermentation begins to slow down, the skins will rise a little less. At this point, I often will reduce my punch downs to around 2 times a day but make a little extra effort to churn up the lees settling to the bottom of the fermenter.

Red Wine Punch Down Process

Consider additional tannin during primary fermentation

If your grapes are from a slightly cooler climate, or your grower did not pull leaves or manage the canopy to reduce shading on the berries, the wine can often take on a green pepper like character (pyrazine). I find that with these wines, a good bit of additional tannin can help to bind up some of that pyrazine. A secondary benefit of fermentation tannin is the ability to bind up anthocyanin before it destabilizes from the wine. Anthocyanin is responsible for the red/purple color of wine. You will often notice that a red wine can be inky dark during fermentation but will substantially lighten up as you go through the aging of the wine. This occurs because much of the anthocyanin never found a tannin partner to bind with and fell out of suspension.

Sources of tannin during fermentation can be a reactive tannin powder, or sometimes a lighter toast oak is used. To help encourage this binding of anthocyanin, a little oxygen is also helpful (only during fermentation). Acetaldehyde formed by the yeast during fermentation can also bind up anthocyanin. It can be counter intuitive, but the things you try so hard to prevent later in the aging of the wine can be beneficial during fermentation.

Create a Low Stress Environment for the Yeast

An active fermentation needs oxygen, nitrogen, and amino acids to be at peace. Punch down helps to introduce a bit of oxygen, which allows "aerobic respiration", an energy restorative process that yeast go through. Nitrogen, measured as yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN) is available straight from the vineyard, but often in too low of quantities to keep the yeast happy. If yeast does not have adequate nitrogen available, they will use internal amino acids as a source of energy and create sulfur compounds as a waste product. A good yeast nutrient like Fermaid K can supplement the must with both the needed nitrogen and amino acids to keep the yeast happy.

If I know the YAN, I can make more strategic yeast nutrient additions, but this is rarely the case. I generally feed the yeast once fermentation is established and about 1/3 of the sugars are depleted. From here, I will only add more nutrient if the must shows signs of stress. The easiest way to detect a stressed fermentation is a subtle whiff of hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell). The root cause of this is usually nutrient related, but can also be air starvation or thermal stress if the fermentation temperature is outside of the recommended window for that yeast st