The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
My recommendation is that you always buy a wine kit in the 40 to 60 pound range, which does not require the addition of sugar. This will make a basic wine which you can happily serve to friends and family without worry.
All kits contain detailed instructions, and, in my view, these instructions are compromised slightly to guarantee to wine makers of all abilities.
The first general point is fermentation temperature. Most wine kits recommend at least 20C for the entire fermentation. I think this is too high. By all means start the fermentation off at a decent temperature, but the main part of the fermentation should be carried out at a slightly lower temperature. Closer to 16C. See my fermentation temperature guide for more information on improving your wine making by close attention to temperature.
Next is the yeast. Most kits simply supply a packet of unlablled and unbranded yeast. This could be a good yeast, or it could be poor. It might have been sitting around for yeast for all you know. I recommend replacing the wine kit yeast with a good brand of yeast, such as Gervin, and choose a yeast suitable for the wine kit you are making. A good burgundy yeast for a pinot noir for example. If it is winter, then use a yeast suited to lower temperatures.
The volume of added water is another issue. Most wine kits instruct you to make up the kit to a certain volume. However, some wine kits can be quite full flavoured, so it is sometimes wise to add another litre or two of water to the kit to make a lighter wine. Remember to check the gravity and add a little sugar if required to get at least 12%.
If you fancy making a fuller bodied wine, use slightly less water. Experiment. I have used 5 gallon wine kits, but with only enough water to make it up to about 3 or 3.5 gallons. I’ve then added extra nutrient and then used a sauternes yeast to make wonderful dessert wines. The addition of some extra aroma ingredients such as a dessert spoon of dried elderflowers or rose petals helps.
Many kits contain, and recommend the addition of stabiliser. This is usually in the form of sorbate of some kind, and is added to the wine at the same time as the sulphite. Sometimes they are in the same packet – look up the e-numbers on the packets. I recommend that you never add sorbate stabiliser to wine. It can add nasty flavours, which get worse over time.
If you are keeping the wine for more than six months, it can pay to add a little extra sulphite as well – most wine kits recommend this.
Many people drink their wine kits too young. I find it best to store the wine from the wine kit in bulk for at least 6 months before drinking. Obviously this means you need to keep the production line going – making wine at a slightly faster rate than you drink it. Of course, the more wine you have, the faster you drink it. Bummer.