You’ve probably noticed that most wine is made from grapes. If you go to the liquor store, you may be able to find a few wines made from other fruits (so-called country wines), but these are a small minority. The vast majority of wines are made from grapes. And not just any grapes — most wines are made from grapes of the species Vitis vinifera.
With summer here and many fruit harvests to come, some homebrewers may be wondering if they can make homemade wine from the bounty of their local orchards or gardens. You can, but before trying to make wine from fruit, it pays to understand why most wine is made from grapes. In a nutshell, grapes contain the right balance of sugars, acids and tannins to make a fermented beverage that will keep and also taste good.
On their own, most other fruits do not. However, you can add sugar, acid or tannins to balance the juice from any fruit and ferment it into a delicious fruit wine. Over the summer, I’ll explain how to make fruit wine from a few of the more popular fruits. But first, let’s take a look at grapes and what makes them the fruit of choice for most winemakers.
Wine grapes contain enough sugar — primarily glucose and fructose — to produce a fermented beverage of at least 9%, and usually higher, especially for reds. (12–13% ABV is typical for red wines, with many “blockbuster” California or Australian wine up around 15%.) At this alcohol content, wine can be kept for years without spoiling, in contrast to the grapes that made it. Most fruits, with the exceptions of figs, dates and a few others, do not contain this high level of sugar. So, in most cases, you must add sugar to your juice when making fruit wine. Sucrose (table sugar) is the most popular sugar used for this and you can use the potential alcohol scale on your hydrometer to ensure you are in the 9–11% ABV range, which works best from most country wines.
The sweetness of wine is balanced by its acidity. Wine grapes contain sufficient acidity to make a wine that isn’t “flabby” — lacking enough crispness from acidity to be pleasant. On the other hand, they do not contain so much acid as to make the wine tart. In other fruits, acidity runs the gamut. When making wine from low-acid fruits, acid must be added. Home winemaking shops sell both tartaric acid (which is the most abundant acid in grapes) and acid blends (that mimic the proportions of tartaric, ctiric and malic acid in wine). 7–9 g/L is a good target for the total acid level in country wines. In the case of very tart fruits, acids can be neutralized with a base such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or else the wine can intentionally allowed to be tart. (An old school approach to adding acid to country wines is to squeeze lemons into the fruit juice.)
In the right amount, tannins give a slightly puckering mouthfeel (sometimes confused with bitterness) that gives wine “structure.” Grape skins usually contain sufficient tannins to give a wine structure and many wines (reds especially) are aged in oak to supplement the level of tannins. (Oak also imparts a vanilla-like flavor and other flavors and aromas.) Other fruits may or may not be tannic enough to produce a grape-like wine. Fortunately, home winemaking stores also sell tannin powder. (In the old days, country wine makers used to add small amounts of iced tea to their wines for the same effect.)
Finally, the flavor intensity in grapes gives wines enough flavor to be interesting, but not overwhelming. For more intensely flavored fruits, the juice needs to be diluted with water (and hence sugar and perhaps acid) prior to fermentation to produce a pleasant wine. In many cases, old school country wine makers would kill two birds with one stone by diluting their fruit juice with grape juice (often from Welch’s frozen grape concentrate — either white or red — and rely on the grape juice to supply the needed sugars and acidity, along with some grape flavor.)
Over the summer, we’ll take a look at some popular fruits — raspberries, cherries and peaches — and what it takes to make wine from them.