Amateur Wine Making

Translated from Latin, the word amateur means lover and originally referred to somebody who did something out of the love of doing rather than just for the money. They were regarded as the highest experts because they honed their craft motivated by joy instead of monetary reward. Though the professionals of wine still imbue their work with passion and skill, amateur wine making, with the help of modern technology and knowledge passed down over generations, can often approach similar results.

Fermentation biochemistry was ill understood until the beginning of the 20th century. Even so, the process has been used for over 5,000 years. Left unmolested a wine grape would ripen until the skin ruptured and the juice fermented naturally. Today, the process is guided by art and science.

Harvested grapes are put into a press where they are turned into must — a mixture of skin, pulp and juice. Natural (residing on the skin, near the stem) and added yeast interacts with the sugars in the juice and produces ethanol (alcohol), carbon dioxide and heat. The process continues until the sugars are all reacted or the yeast is killed by the build-up of the reaction products.

Thanks to Pasteur and others, the process is now tightly controlled to produce just the desired result. For those not fortunate enough to have a vineyard handy, juice concentrates can be purchased for a modest cost.

Add sugar, acids, yeast and nutrients (to assist the yeast) to a container (a carboy or jug) and allow to sit idle for 3-10 days at 75F (24C). Specific recipes available with the concentrate give amounts and details. Strain off the liquid from the pulp and allow to ferment at 65F (18C) for several weeks until bubbling stops. Siphon off sediments (lees) and store the bottles on their sides at 55F (13C) for six months (white) to a year (red) before tasting.

Of course, it sounds simpler than it is but neither is it beyond the abilities of a dedicated amateur wine making enthusiast. The process is monitored and sometimes adjusted on a daily basis. Thanks to inexpensive refractometers to measure sugar concentrations, hydrometers, thermometers, temperature controlled cabinets and a host of other items the job is now much easier.

However, it is less expensive than the average photography fanatic's budget, and with equally pleasurable results. Well, one hopes, anyway.

It will come as no surprise that much can go wrong while nature is taking its natural course. Fermentation can fail to start, it can start and then mysteriously cease prematurely, and the output can be excessively sweet, hazy, or full of sediments. The wine can have too much pectin, too much bacteria, and taste flat, sulphurous, or even moldy. Crystals can form from storing in too much cold or secondary fermentation can result from storing too hot. Sometimes these are deliberate.

Nevertheless, thanks to the Internet, there are now hundreds of websites devoted to helping the eager amateur vintner produce wines that rival the masters. All you have to do is practice for about a hundred years.

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