As Rich Weaver points out in a previous article, wine kits are a great way to start exploring winemaking — especially if you are already a homebrewer and have much of the equipment you need in your brewery. However, many homebrewers may chafe at having to follow the instructions and wish to experiment with their wine kit. This is great, but there are a couple things you should know before doing so.
A wine kit is designed to be reasonably foolproof and to deliver a quality wine under the reasonable amount of variation that would be expected when winemakers of various experience levels make them. In addition, wine kits are designed to ferment and mature quickly, be bottled young and be ready to drink in a short amount of time. That amount of time varies, depending on the kit, but 4–6 weeks is a common timeframe. Given that knowledge, here are few things you can try to tweak your kit wine.
Let it Bulk Age
If you follow the instructions to your kit wine, you’ll let it ferment, add a relatively large amount of fining agents to clarify the wine, stir to reduce the level of dissolved CO2 and move it into bottles quickly. Another option is to let the wine continue to bulk age after an initial racking to a secondary fermenter. If you let the wine age for at least a few months and clear on it’s own (perhaps with an added racking or two, depending on the level of sediment the wine throws), you can cut back on the amount of finings you add, and you won’t need to stir it to reduce the CO2 levels. The only drawback to this approach is the extra time it takes.
Oak (and Tannin)
Wine kits are designed to mature quickly, and also to make a wine with broad appeal. Some wine drinkers, however, may enjoy wines with a little more oak character or a little more tannin. If you bulk age the wine as above, this gives you the option of replacing the oak powder — which is designed to quickly impart it’s oak flavor to the wine — with oak chips, oak cubes, oak spirals or other forms of oak. These oak products give up their oak essence more slowly, but you can choose between types of oak and levels of toast. In addition, this gives you the opportunity to fine tune the oak to your desired level instead of the default kit level. You can also add winemaking tannin directly to the wine (before bottling), if desired, if you like a more “structured” wine.
Sometimes white wines taste better with a little more “zing” from acidity. If you like your whites this way, you can always add some tartaric acid (or winemaker’s blend) to your kit before bottling. Taste the wine before doing this, however, and better yet run a small-scale trial of different levels of acidity to see what you prefer.
As I’ve mentioned, wine kits are designed to be foolproof, and ferment and mature quickly. As such, they tend towards the low end of the alcohol scale for any given type of wine. You, however, may want your wine to be a bit stronger. When you mix up the kit, check the density of the must with a hydrometer and estimate the level of alcohol in the finished wine. (Some hydrometers even have a scale labelled potential alcohol.) If this is below the level you prefer, you can add sugar to boost your potential alcohol level. (Adding sugar to wine is called Chaptalization, after a French chemist named Chaptal.)
Avoid These Things
Kits are not the same as grape juice. They have been engineered to produce a balanced must that will ferment without problem and quickly mature into a drinkable wine. Lots of things have been done to the original grape juice to bring the kit to that point. Unless you know what these things are, it’s best not to assume that something recommended for a grape wine will necessarily work for a kit wine. A few things bear specific mention.
The yeast strain chosen for a kit is chosen for it’s ability to work reliably with the grape concentrate that makes up the bulk of the kit. A yeast that generally works with, say, Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes might not do as well in a kit wine made from grape concentrate. Feel free to experiment with yeast strains, but be aware some will not perform as they do in grape wines.
Don’t try to put a kit wine through malolactic fermentation. Kit wines are “tartrate stabilized” so they don’t throw wine crystals in the bottle. The upshot of this — and I know I’m not explaining it completely — is that wine kits have a lot of malic acid in them and performing a malolactic fermentation can yield a flabby, high pH wine.
If you want to make wine kits and experiment with making alterations, the best approach would be to learn as much as you can about how wine kits are made. Then, you can take knowledgable steps to tweak them, or realize when letting the kit do what it was designed to do might be the best option.