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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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