I was introduced to wine making several years ago when a neighbor of mine started a wine making group. We’ve made wine from muscadines and scuppernongs (even sweet potatoes one year!) grown on common property in our neighborhood. We’ve balanced our home-grown harvests with store-bought kits of more traditional vintages. I’ve also participated in classes at the Wine Workshop & Brew Center in Decatur, and helped make a number of kit wines at home. Then, a few years ago, Marcia at the Wine Workshop was offered the opportunity to harvest grapes for winemaking. She was too busy to take on the task herself, but she referred the grower, Ben, to me.
Now, for the third year in a row, Ben, who lives in the Old Fourth Ward, has invited me to make wine from the Champanel grapes that he grows in his front yard. The process goes through three stages: harvesting, fermenting and bottling. Harvesting is probably the most time consuming – we spent two Sundays, two weeks apart plucking and crushing the grapes. Fermenting also takes a long time, but it’s where we are now: seven gallons of must/raw wine, sitting around for a couple of months. Then, sometime in November, I’ll bottle it all and split the vintage with Ben.
This year was a banner year for the harvest. Ben takes good care of his vines and keeps a close eye on their progress each year. We had a wet summer this year, and early this summer, I received concerned texts from him that there was a fungus attacking the vines. He thwarted the attack with the help of a mild fungicide, and the vines rebounded with gusto.
On a hot, mid-August Sunday, I went to Ben’s house and spent the afternoon picking tightly packed bunches of dark, juicy grapes, loaded them into my Prius and took them home to sort and crush the good ones by hand. By 3AM, I had a bucket of about four gallons of must, or crushed grapes, skins and all.
The next day, I brought a sample of the juice to Wine Workshop & Brew Center to test it for readiness and sweetness (higher sugar content means more fermentation and higher alcohol content and typically, darker juice means a higher sugar content). We found that, despite the ripeness of the grapes, an additional two pounds of sugar would help bring the alcohol content up to that of a standard bottle of wine. I added (“pitched,” in winemaking terminology) the yeast and fermentation began.
Ideally, the must would only stay in the bucket for a week or two, but I hadn’t harvested all the grapes. Two weeks after the first harvest, Ben and I spent another afternoon on ladders clipping more bunches of grapes out of the canopy of his crepe myrtle that his vines had grown over. We sorted through the bunches, pulling out the unripe or rotting grapes, and crushed this second batch for another four gallons of must.
The second batch fermented for a week and half in the bucket. Testing the specific gravity for a second time, I found that most of the sugar had been consumed by the yeast. Now it was time to let the wine sit in a carboy (a large jug similar to a water cooler) to let the sediments settle. This is called secondary fermentation, as the yeast is still alive and working. During secondary fermentation, the raw wine needs to be repeatedly racked, or siphoned into a clean carboy to separate the wine from the sediment.
By early November, I will have racked the wine three or four times, until it seems clear enough to bottle. I have a few cases of old red wine bottles saved up. They’ll be de-labeled, cleaned and sanitized, and I’ll spend an evening siphoning the wine into the bottles and corking them. I’ll design and print new labels, seal the bottles and let them age for about a year. With such a good harvest this year, Ben and I can expect about 15 bottles each.
By the way, I drank a bottle of last year’s harvest while I crushed grapes that first Sunday. Even though I opened it a few months early, the flavor helped motivate me to stay up and complete my task that night. Along with some Godiva chocolates, the wine is delicious!
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