Tips to Make Better Red Wine

Updated: Sep 14

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. Pick the right grapes at the right time

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.


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.



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 strain.


When to Press?

I generally press when the fermentation is complete to maximize skin contact time. If you like a lighter bodied wine, you can press earlier. If you like to live on the edge, you can extend the skin contact time past the end of fermentation and blanket the must with CO2.


Free Run vs Hard Press

When you pour the grapes into the wine press, most of the juice will run right through. This is called free run. Most literature will describe the free run as the more desirable wine, but I would say this is more of a preference thing and more universally true with white wine. I find pure free run to be a little low in tannin often times. Pure hard press wine is usually overly tannic depending on how long the wine was on the skins. The balance is somewhere in the middle. If you have enough wine to separate, it is wise to split up the free run/light press, and the hard press wine. You can age them separate and later blend back some hard press to give the structure that you are looking for.


Manage Malolactic Fermentation

Most red wines will undergo malolactic fermentation and much of the character of the wine comes from this process. The main thing happening here is the conversion of harsh/sour malic acid to the smoother lactic acid with the help of malolactic bacteria. Ideally, all of the malic acid will be converted to lactic acid, rendering the wine more stable and hugely improving the mouth feel. The variable that is most easily controlled by the winemaker is the diacetyl formation during this process. Diacetyl is responsible for the buttery smell of a chardonnay, but can also drift towards sour milk smell if you over do it.


To reduce diacetyl, you can co-innoculate your malolactic bacteria into the active primary fermentation as it is nearing completion. By doing this, the yeast will consume much of the diacetyl produced early on. The risk in doing this is that the malolactic bacteria may produce a little volatile acidity (vinegar) in the presence of sugar.


Temperature of malolactic fermentation can have a relatively large effect on diacetyl production. A warm, speedy malolactic fermentation will produce substantially less diacetyl than a cool, slow malolactic fermentation.


Finally, malolactic bacteria strain can have an effect on the diacetyl formation. I like to use a reliable strain like CH16. If you wanted a little more diacetyl, you could choose a more sluggish strain like Viniflora Oenos, but you may have a little more trouble getting a good, complete fermentation.


Learn more about malolactic fermentation here.


Protect with SO2

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is naturally formed in small amounts by yeast and many other bacterial fermentations. As a winemaker, it is the primary means of stabilizing a wine against further microbial activity (spoilage) and is usually added in the form of potassium metabisulfite.


When the grapes come in off the vineyard, they can be teeming with bacteria, beneficial yeast, and spoilage yeast. It is anybody's guess which one of these little microbes will win the war to establish an active fermentation. To increase our chances of making a good wine, a small addition of SO2 (~50ppm) at the time of crush can help to create a clean slate to start your chosen yeast (which likely is a wild strain that was isolated for its excellent properties).


After fermentation is complete, sulfite levels should be kept relatively low until malolactic fermentation is complete. Once malolactic fermentation is complete, SO2 levels should be maintained at a high enough level to assure that the wine is protected. At a low pH, this will require very little SO2. As the pH goes higher, the required SO2 needed for protection will climb. If I could have only two gadgets in the wine cellar they would be a pH meter and an SO2 Analyzer.


Learn more about managing sulfites here.


Oak!

Oak is like the salad dressing on a good salad and can really round out the wine. There are a handful of options to add oak, like barrels, cubes, spheres, chips, spirals, or this new product. Oak options offering a little more thickness can offer a bit more complexity, thanks to the gradient from toasted wood on the outside to untoasted wood on the inside. Most of what I use are oak cubes or spirals.


It is important to learn the tastes of the different types of oak and different toast levels. French oak and american oak are a different species. French oak has subtle, spicy notes and more notable tannin. American oak generally has more vanilla and coconut, and can be perceived as more "sweet". In barrel form, the differences are even more evident because French oak staves must be split to achieve a seal, while american oak can be sawed. Lighter toast levels (light to medium) contribute more tannin to the wine. Heavier toast levels (Med+ to Heavy) can begin to get a little smoky or barbeque like.


Unlike whiskey, all traditional wine barrels are various levels of "toast" vs the more burnt "char". The additional carbon of a charred barrel can strip color and flavor from a red wine.


Cold Stabilize

If you have ever seen sandy looking crystals in the bottom of a wine bottle, you have seen the result of a wine that was not cold stable. When chilled, many wines will drop potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar) crystals. Ideally, this should happen before the wine goes into a bottle to avoid the unsightly (embarrassing?) crystals.


If you have a cold place, like a garage that gets colder than 50°F to store the wine over the winter, it will naturally cold stabilize. From here, you can simply rack the wine to separate it from the crystals. To quickly cold stabilize a wine, an extra refrigerator is helpful. At around 27°F a wine will become cold stable in four or five days (and not freeze thanks to the alcohol). As the temperature increases, the time to become cold stable increases.


If you ever adjust the pH upwards with potassium bicarbonate, the wine will need to be cold stabilized, as the potassium will act as a catalyst to form the potassium bitartrate crystals.


Blend

This is one of the most important tricks as a winemaker and should be done as you near bottling time. In the United States, a wine can labeled a varietal wine (ie "Cabernet Sauvignon") if it contains at least 75% of that varietal. That first 75% is likely a blend from different blocks of the vineyard or different vineyards all together. The last 25% may include (and probably does) different varietals all together. Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with Merlot or Cabernet Franc to round it out. It may be blended with Petite Verdot to build additional structure and color. In one of the most prestigious wine regions of the world, Bordeaux, nearly all wines are blends and will rarely even list the varietals.


A couple blending tips: Do it as the wine is getting close to ready to bottle. Run test blends in wine glasses before committing to that blend. Benchmark against a bottle of wine that is similar to what you are making, and you know that it is very tasty. Sometimes your taste buds can get fatigued during blending trials, and steer you wrong, which is where that control or benchmark wine comes in handy. If you are blending wines with substantially different acid levels, you may want to cold stabilize after blending to account for any new instabilities.


Bottle

When bottling, it is worthwhile to do one more SO2 measurement to make sure you have enough to be protected without blindly adding so much that it could be detectable with your sniffer. If you plan to bottle age for more than a year, make sure to use a high quality cork like an acquamark or high grade natural cork. A quick dip in a starsan solution will help the cork slide in and seat nicely without leaving as much of a dimple on top. Allow the bottles to sit upright for about a week so the cork can expand into place nicely. After this, store on the side.


Not sure when to bottle? Read this.


Patience

A wine kit can and should be drank within about a year. As you move into fresh grapes, you will find that the young wines are loaded with tannin and earthy smells that will hide the fruit a bit. But after a year or two there is no comparison to a wine made from kit or juice. So be patient. At this point in my winemaking life, I am hard pressed to find a better bottle at the store, even at a high price point. As a home winemaker you can make that perfect wine for you Wineries may need to make compromises to please wine judges or make sure that they don't over power the new-to-wine folks. A wine that is unique and interesting may score extremely highly with some people and poorly with others. A middle of the road, good wine will score somewhat highly with most if not all people which is much of what you will find anymore at the wine store.



It May Not Be Cheap

Early into winemaking, the allure is that you can make a drinkable bottle for a couple bucks. As you start to chase that ultra premium red wine, the grapes can get a little pricy. My best red wines often cost about $6-8 per bottle when I run the numbers. Per bottle, this is not really bad, but considering you are buying all of your grapes at the same time it can easily become a four figure check that you are writing during wine harvest. Is it worth it though? Absolutely yes. When your skills surpass the quality of fruit that you are buying, it is time to spend a little more. When it is all said and done, you can have a wine for $8/bottle that blows the doors off of anything under $15/bottle at the store and often will compete right with the $30-50 bottles.


Have Fun and Make Friends

Winemaking is best done with friends and family. If you don't know others that are into winemaking, this is a great time to use those peer pressuring skills you learned in school and get people into it! Or join an online community or local wine club.


For more information about winemaking, swing by my YouTube Channel or follow Smart Winemaking on Facebook. Please leave any comments or questions below!


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If you have more tips and tricks, post in the comments below!

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