The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
Chateau D'Yquem is probably the greatest white wine on the planet. Starting at around 100ukp for a 37.5cl half bottles, the legend of D'Yquem is long lived - it has graced the finest tables in the world. Various bottles of eighteenth century Yquem have been opened and found to be remarkably drinkable. It is probably one of the great wine creations in history. However, it is not cheap. Few of us can afford normal decent Sauternes in any quantity, never mind the top of the range D'yquem. So can we make it at home? The answer is yes!
If you want to really enjoy your D'Yquem, homemade homebrew or otherwise, go and enjoy Richard Olney's wonderful coffee table book - Yquem - this fantastic book plots the history and method used at the Chateau for hundreds of years to make this most famous of wines. Although we don't all have a nice vineyard next to a river to encourage the autumn grow of Botrytis mould (the Noble Rot) on the grapes of our decades old vines, we can glean some information in this book. D'yquem start their fermentation with a potential alcohol of about 21%. This ends up making a wine with about 15% actual alcohol and the remaining 6% as residual sugar.
For those of us with a hydrometer, this means we start at around 1130 to 1140 and end up with a wine with a finished gravity around the 1040 mark. Very sweet. At D'Yquem the effect of the intense sugar and the Botrytis rot hinders the yeast, and stops the fermentation early. In homebrew wine making modern yeasts and nutrients can result in a wine of nearly 20%, which is too strong for s syrupy D'Yquem. So we must be careful. You will find the fermentation progresses quite slowly, compared to a normal white table wine. This is because the high sugar levels make the yeast struggle. If you start with a gravity around 1140, do not be suprised if it has only fallen to 1100 after the first week. Fermentation will progress slowly and often take at least 3 weeks to reach 1040.
To make the wine, go and buy a wine kit. A 5 gallon wine kit. Preferably something with Semillon grape juice in it. But not a high quality 18 litre grape juice kit... one of the cheaper ones like Kenridge Classic Semillon Chardonnay. Tip the grape juice into the fermenter, and then forget about the instructions. Adjust the specific gravity to around 1140 - you might have to add sugar, or you might have to water it down slightly, but use apple or peach juice for the dilution. You're not going to end up with more than 3 gallons of wine instead of the kit's potential 5 gallons. This is concentrated stuff.
Add any oak from the kit and pitch in a good Sauternes yeast, but no extra nutrient, and leave it to ferment out. Keep it in the coolest place possible - around 15C if possible. Let the wine ferment as slowly as possible. If you are feeling particular keen, lob in some bananas or something to add even more body to the wine. You can't add too many ingredients to homemade homebrew Sauternes. Some elderflowers (do not overdo it!) or orange blossom is always a good addition. I will usually boil up a couple of pints of water with 6-8 bananas in it - I will then strain this and add it to the concentrate - often producing about the correct starting gravity of 1140.
Keep a close eye on the gravity. When it reaches 1040-1030 rack the wine, add a good 0.5g of sulfite per gallon, and some Sorbate stabiliser. This should knock the fermentation dead. LEave the wine somewhere cool to stabilise for a few months.
Clear the wine in the normal fashion and then leave to mature in bulk for at least 6 months. After this time, start tasting the wine. It will be pretty nice! Measure the gravity and add sugar until it is about 1040, or just over. Use your mouth to gauge the acid/sugar balance, and add sugar or acid until the wine tastes slightly tarter than you'd expect from a sauternes. Check the wine sulfite level - keep it topped up at around 50ppm - another 0.2g per gallon won't harm the wine. The heavy sweetness of the wine masks quite high sulfite levels (e.g. 50-75ppm). Homebrew dessert wine is drunk in small quantities and bottled in half bottles, so it keeps for long time. It is likely that you might keep some of it for half a dozen years, and you do not want to ruined by lack of sulfite.
LEave the wine for a few days after any additions and re-evalute it. Make sure the sulfite levels are kept up. Keep it racked off any sediment. For homemade homebrew Sauternes to shine it needs to be crystal clear.
Now leave it to mature. The maturing is critical to develop the bouquet of the wine - there is a lot of alcohol and acid in there to react into nice smelling esters.
I suggest bottling the first gallon after about 18months from when you started to make the wine. Let the bottles recover for a few months, and then open one slightly chilled (8C to 10C roughly) and enjoy! Again, make sure your guests fully appreciate the quality of your wine with some decent Sauternes glasses - present the clear homemade homebrew wine in a polished glass, perhaps with a little fruit or cheese and your guests will love it.
The most critical aspect of making nice homemade homebrew Sauternes is stopping the fermentation whilst there is quite a bit of sugar left. If you use super yeast and super nutrient the homemade homebrew wine will ferment nearly to dryness and be very strong. If the wine is very strong, you will not be able to get that syrupy consistency of a decent Sauternes. Remember that most "regular" wines ferment from about 1085 to 1010 in about a week, so checking daily, or even twice daily is critical.
This wine should stand a long period of maturing. Proper Sauternes keeps going for hundreds of years, whilst I can't promise that, homemade homebrew wine, with a decent amount of acidity and sulfite should be good after a decade, if you can keep it that long!
OK, it is not quite Chateau D'Yquem, but it isn't bad, and you do have three gallons of it! I strongly suggest bottling most of it in half bottles (if you can find some). Put about a third of it in full bottles for parties etc, but half bottles are more practical for everyday drinking, because you'll only be serving the wine in little glasses.
Like most homemade wine, it is best started in September, so that you have the cold of the winter to help stablise the finished wine.