Mistakes in Home Winemaking

In brief – cleanliness, carefulness and patience are the home winemaker’s best qualities.

The real pleasure of making your own wine is the moment when you uncork your bottle and savor the results. Unfortunately, a lot of home winemakers have experienced massive disappointment. It’s too sweet or too dry or doesn’t have the flavor you wanted. In a worst case scenario it’s absolutely foul, completely undrinkable and doesn’t even qualify as vinegar.

Big Mistakes in Home Winemaking and How to Avoid Them

You can blame the produce, or the equipment or the recipe but the truth is that it’s probably you! Home winemaking isn’t very difficult, but it’s important to know your stuff and do everything to the letter. The good news is that most winemaking disasters are owing to simple mistakes that are entirely avoidable.

Dirt – the home-winemaker’s enemy #1

Winemaking is an organic process. The wrong organisms will hijack the process and ruin your efforts. You can introduce bacteria at various stages throughout the winemaking process. Contamination is by far the most common reason for winemaking catastrophes.

The solution is never to skimp on cleaning. Your equipment needs to be sanitized with a product designed for the task. Obviously that means your demijohns, plastic buckets and wine bottles, but it also applies to spoons, tubes and anything else that comes into contact with your wine. It only takes a tiny bit of bug to ruin a large quantity of wine. Don’t assume that something looks clean and so it must be okay.

There’s another kind of contamination to look out for too – on the produce itself. You need to wash your fruit thoroughly to get rid of bacteria, but it doesn’t stop there. When you have your wine juice and pulp, you will need to add Campden tablets. The effect is to kill any residual bacteria, as well as any wild yeast on the skin of your fruit, which will disrupt the fermentation process.

Equipment issues

You can probably improvise with some items of winemaking equipment, but there are some that you can’t do without. You can’t substitute a cork for a proper fermentation airlock unless you want an explosion. You can try to guess the sugar content instead of buying a hydrometer to measure it. It’s just not worth it.

If you’re tempted to improvise, remember that metal containers are bad for wine and that if you’re using plastic containers to ferment in, they need to be plain white, food-grade plastic.

Tinkering with the instructions

If the instructions tell you to do X or Y, believe. Just because you can’t see the reason for it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. If you’re an experienced home winemaker you may want to cut a corner or two or try something different, but novices shouldn’t chance it.

A good recipe is one that’s been tried and tested. Messing with the ingredients or proportions can have effects (for example on acidity levels) that will interfere with the fermentation process and the flavor of your wine.

Times and temperatures

These have usually been carefully worked out by trial, error and scientific study. The experts will tell you that around 20 - 23º C (70-75º F) is ideal for the yeast to do its work. You may get away with a few degrees either way, but is it worth the risk?Timing is also crucial. Adding ingredients at the wrong time, delaying or jumping the gun will all potentially have dire consequences. When it comes to sampling your results, be patient before uncorking it.