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Wine Making

If you're a winemaking neophyte, start by making a small batch of wine. Fifty pounds of good grapes will yield about 5 gallons of great wine. Winemaking supply shops may be able to procure food-grade plastic vats large enough to Accommodate the grapes, or use several large vitreous crocks.

Dump the ripe grape clusters into the vat or crocks, and crush them. No technology has yet surpassed the human foot for the proper gentle, but thorough, crushing of wine grapes, but the more squeamish may prefer using their hands or a potato masher. When the grapes are crushed, the crocks should be no more than two-thirds full.

To stun wild and unwanted yeast and prevent premature fermentation, you can add the appropriate number of Campden tablets (pre-measured amounts of potassium metabisulfite) to the crushed grapes—usually one tablet per gallon of wine. Cover the crock with a towel and let it sit for a day.

The following day, add a packet of wine yeast (not bread yeast) to the must, as the crushed gapes are called. Montrachet is the most commonly used type of yeast for red wine; prix de mousse also is used. After stirring in the yeast, use your hands to comb through the must and remove the cluster stems. Squeeze off any berries that may still be clinging to the stems. Leave no more than a few stems in the must, as too many can add too much raw tannin and leave the wine tasting "stemmy." Cover the crock with a towel (to prevent bacteria-carrying fruit flies from invading) and set the crock aside. In a day or two it will start fizzing. By three days, it will look like it's boiling.

After about a week, the fizzing will have almost subsided. Separate the new wine from the skins, pulp and seeds. If you have a wine press, use it. Otherwise dump the contents of the crocks or vat into food-grade plastic mesh bags or cheesecloth and squeeze out as much wine as you can into a clean basin. Then pour the wine through a strainer and funnel that's set into the mouth of a 5-gallon glass carboy (the kind used for dispensing drinking water; they're also available at winemaking shops) or into the bunghole of a clean, empty wine barrel.

Fill the carboy just to the neck, but not so full that bubbles from residual fizzing will reach the mouth. If you're using a barrel, fill it to within an inch of the bunghole. Until now, the wine has been in contact with air, and that's been beneficial. From this point on, air is the enemy and must be kept away from the wine. Simple devices called airlocks, sold at winemaking shops, allow gas bubbles out, but prevent air from coming back in. If you're using a carboy, use a rubber stopper with a hole in the center for the airlock. If you're using a barrel, use a silicone or rubber bung with a hole in the center for an airlock that fits the barrel's opening.

RACKING & FINING

After about two or three weeks in the carboy or barrel, all fizzing should have stopped. Once the fizzing is completely finished, you'll need to do a first racking. Racking is the winemaking term for drawing the wine off the lees, which is the spent yeast, grape bits and general sludge that falls to the bottom of the carboy or barrel. Use food-grade, clear-plastic siphon hose, available at winemaking shops, to siphon the clear wine into clean carboys, then rinse the lees from the old carboys or barrel using a garden hose with a strong jet of water. Reintroduce the wine back into the rinsed-out carboys or barrel by pouring it through a funnel. Now cork the carboys with solid rubber stoppers—no holes or airlocks—or stopper the barrel with a solid silicone bung. Store the wine in a cool, dark place, such as a basement corner away from a furnace.

Two to three months after the primary racking, do a second racking. This time the lees will be far fewer and the wine you draw off will be clear. Three to four months later, do a third and final racking. This time the wine should be very clear. If it's hazy, you'll have to do an egg-white fining. Carefully separate one white from its yolk, being extra careful not to let a speck of yolk get in the white. One white is enough for 10 gallons of wine. Thoroughly stir half a well-beaten white into each 5-gallon carboy full of wine or six well-beaten whites into the barrel of wine. Wait a week and then rack the wine again. The whites should remove the haze. They also will remove some tannin, a phenolic compound that helps give structure to the wine, so don't fine unless absolutely necessary. If, after egg-white fining, the wine remains hazy, it always will be hazy. If it tastes good, keep it. If it doesn't, compost it and try again next year.

DRINK NO WINE BEFORE ITS TIME

You can age wine in carboys in a cool, completely dark place, or in a barrel in a cool place. Make sure the carboys or barrel are topped off. If you don't have your own wine left to top off with, use a similar wine.

Check the level of the wine monthly, adding enough similar wine to top off the carboys or barrel so no air can enter. Most home winemakers bottle after one year, but I think aging wine two years is better. If you're using a new oak barrel, however, bottle the wine after one year or less, or it may get too "oaky" tasting. (To season a new barrel, rinse and fill it with a solution of potassium metabisulfite and water, until you're ready to fill it with wine.)

When you're satisfied with your vintage, siphon wine from the container into old wine bottles you have saved or new bottles purchased from a winemaking shop. They should be scrupulously clean. You also will need corks and a corking device, available at a winemaking shop. You can buy foil capsules for the top of the bottle and make or buy your own labels, attaching them with a glue stick.

And when the time is right, you can uncork a bottle of your finest vintage and enjoy the fruits of your labor.