European settlers to America brought along with them fermentation traditions from multiple cultures—from beer, to mead, to wine, to distilled liquors, to non-alcoholic fermented food and drink.
This was not only so that they could continue these traditions in the New World, but also because fermentation was one of the few safe, reliable methods for preserving food and drink available before the advent of refrigeration and canning.
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Although not widely known, America does have its own winemaking tradition. Wine by definition stems from the root word “vin,” or vine, referring to the grape vine. While this may be the case, wine can be made from nearly any edible botanical, from fruits, to vegetables, to flowers and beyond. The grape has long been the preferred fermentable for making wine, though. Many of the early settlers came from countries with longstanding traditions of grape wine varietals that had been perfected over generations.
Upon first coming to America, Europeans had high hopes for its winemaking potential. The Vikings, the first known European visitors to North America, settled briefly in Greenland, referring to this new land as Vinland. While popular opinion has it that this was because of the abundance of wild grapes, Old Norse was an inflected language, and slight differences in pronunciation could mean different things. Vinland could just as easily have meant “meadow land” or “pasture land.” Still, this is a fun belief to hold onto.
Thomas Jefferson, an avid agrarian, felt America had great potential to excel as an agricultural nation. Among the many crops he attempted to grow at his home in Monticello were grapes. As the ambassador to France, he had fallen in love with good wine, and felt that America could also produce great wines. Unfortunately, he was met with several hurdles that he never really overcame. First off, the climate of Virginia was not the best for growing grapes. Experiencing much colder winters than Virginians are accustomed to today, his vines often died by mid-winter. Disease and pests were also a problem, with the aphid phylloxera gravitating to vines brought over from Europe.
Grapes native to America are naturally resistant to this pest, though, and have grown accustomed to the climate. Concord, Muscadine (also Scuppernong) and Catawba are all North American grapes that can be used to make wine. The wine snobs of the day didn’t care for wines made from these grapes, though. A common flavor descriptor upon tasting wine from North American varietals is “foxy,” meaning a musky, animal-like aroma. This can provide a positive note, but it can easily become overpowering. To keep the fox at bay, wines from these grapes are best made as sweet wines, meaning enough fermentable sugars must be present that fermentation stops before all sugars have been turned to alcohol.
I’m going to show you how to make your own wine using Concords, although Muscadine/Scuppernong and Catawba are all equally applicable. This process (it’s far too old to call it mine) eschews much of the ingredients and techniques you’ll read about in modern winemaking manuals. You can make fine wine using no chemical additives, equipment sanitizers or commercial yeast strains. This is how it was done for millennia, and is still done in pockets of Europe (and increasingly in America) by vintners who bravely stick to the old ways.
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To give wine character and body, you need to provide tannin and acid. You can purchase these in powdered forms in homebrew stores, but grape skins, pips, stems and leaves all have naturally occurring acids and tannins. For this reason, rather than crushing the grapes first, I like to start my wine fermenting by placing whole grapes in a fermentation vessel with some (but not all) of the pips and stems and a few green grapes for extra acidity.
As an added bonus, grapes that haven’t been sprayed are full of wild yeast. Some will add sulfites to destroy them, or heat the must and add packaged yeast. I like to take advantage of the complex flavors they can impart, which is how older generations made wine. Sometimes I will add a sweet wine yeast like Lalvin D-47 or Lalvin 71B-1122 if I want to ensure a vigorous fermentation and the unique flavor these yeasts can impart, but generally the wild yeasts do the job just fine. To make a 1-gallon batch of foxy American wine, you’ll need the following:
➤ 6 to 10 pounds of grapes, with stems, pips and overly green or ripe grapes removed and set aside
➤ Sugar; the amount will vary based on the amount of sugars in the grapes, but you may need as much as 3 pounds
➤ Non-chlorinated water
➤ 1 package (5 grams) of sweet wine yeast if you don’t trust the wild yeast to do the job
➤ A hydrometer (optional)
➤ A 3- to 5-gallon ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket
➤ A dinner plate or circular piece of untreated wood that fits just inside the mouth of the crock or bucket
➤ A stir stick/mashing paddle
➤ Cheesecloth or a clean shirt or pillowcase
➤ A 1-gallon, narrow-necked glass jug
➤ A funnel, a strainer and a siphoning tube for racking (transferring) between vessels
➤ An airlock
➤ Assortment of bottles, corks and corking equipment
Making A Batch
1. Freezing grapes in freezer bags increases the amount of liquid you’ll get from your grapes, and it allows you additional time to prepare for wine-making day.
2. Clean your fermentation vessel and stir stick. I use hot, soapy water and follow up with One Step no-rinse cleaner. It’s natural, non-toxic and environmentally sound. I prefer not to sanitize with harsh chemicals, but feel free to do so if that is your preference.
3. Place all grapes (fresh, frozen or thawed) and a small handful of pips and stems in the fermenter. Stir and mash for a couple of minutes with your stir stick.
4. Cover the vessel with cloth and set it in a warm (60 to 80 degrees F), dark corner.
5. Continue to stir and mash several times a day. After 24 hours, if you’re adding yeast, add 1 packet (5 grams) of sweet wine yeast.
6. By the third or fourth day, you should begin to see the signs of fermentation. Upon stirring, the must will fizz and foam. When fermentation is fully underway, the solids will float to the top. Stir occasionally to fully incorporate the yeasts and tannins into the liquid beneath the top layer.
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7. Take a plate or circular piece of wood and press it down firmly, pressing the grapes against the bottom of the vessel. Remove the press and squeeze the grapes with your hands.
8. After another couple of days, it’s time to rack (transfer) the new wine off of the solids. Prepare and clean a 1-gallon jug, a large funnel, a strainer, a hydrometer and an airlock.
9. To extract extra liquid from the grapes, place them into a strainer set in a funnel that’s been inserted into the jug and press gently.
10. Remove as many grapes as you can and then either pour the wine carefully into the funnel or place the fermentation vessel above the jug and siphon with your mouth or a racking cane and siphon.
11. If you want to be exact and shoot for 11 to 12 percent alcohol, you can use a hydrometer. Pour some of the wine into something tall and narrow (such as the hydrometer’s container) and float the hydrometer in it. The reading you’re targeting is about 1.090. If the reading is particularly low (around 1.000), pour the wine into a pot, add a pound of sugar, stir well and check the reading. Then add a couple of ounces at a time until you’ve reached your targeted reading. Always fill any remaining space with clean water up to the neck of the fermenter.
12. After a month, rack the wine into another jug, leaving behind the lees (sediment) on the bottom. Do this again every couple of months, usually no more than three times. After six months in the jug, all fermentation should have stopped. Pour a teaspoon of sugar into the wine. If there is a reaction, wait another month. When there is no reaction, it’s time to bottle.
13. Bottling is a simple process. You can siphon the wine into a clean bucket with a spigot or use a hose and/or racking cane, using your thumb or crimping the hose to stop the flow. An hour or more before bottling, clean at least five 750 ml bottles and #9 (24mm) corks. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, cut off the heat, and place the corks in the water. This will sterilize them and soften them for bottling.
14. Fill each bottle to the base of the neck, or 2 inches below the opening, and cork. Leave the bottles upright for a day and then lay them on their side in cool area, preferably a cellar. They should be ready to drink in six months and will continue to improve over time.
Enjoy your newly made wine! Hopefully you will develop a passion for fermentation in the process and will feel just a bit more self-reliant. Remember, not every batch will turn out exactly how you expect. Take notes, share it with friends for their thoughts and adjust as needed for future batches. Before you know it, you’ll have a cellar full of fine wines and various burbling ferments resting in dark corners.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.