Making Fruit Wines with Wine Kits
Fruit winemakers often work to ‘recipes’, with measurements of teaspoons, cups, and gallons, and while that can make decent wine, studious fruit winemakers use techniques like acid measurement and pH testing, and they monitor the wines closely to ensure they finish completely. Making consistently great fruit wines can be a little trickier than most ‘recipes’ let on, because of the variable nature of fruit.
But there’s another way, and it's a lot easier: wine kits provide an ideal base for fruit winemaking. They’re not only well-balanced with generally low acidity and moderate levels of tannin—they’ve got guaranteed levels of nutrient to ensure complete fermentation.
The method I use for most of my fruit winemaking involves prepping the fruit for extraction, and then blending it with an appropriate kit, which quickly and reliably yields fruity, drinkable wines that range from happy pink patio sippers to rich, deep Bordeaux-style wines with haunting fruit character.
Not all table fruit makes great wine. My friend, master fruit winemaker Jack Keller points this out succinctly: “supermarket fruit is picked days before it actually ripens so it can be processed and shipped before it rots, and has less than half the sugar and none of the flavour of a good piece of tree/vine/cane-ripened fruit.” Think of supermarket strawberries in winter: they taste like styrofoam, mostly.
The best fruit is fresh from the field, especially if you grew it yourself, or from a local farm. Not only does buying local keep you and your family’s economic area growing, it helps promote small farming and food security—how can you lose?
If you have to buy from a grocer, use frozen fruit. It’s usually picked much closer to ripeness and flash-frozen, so it can have a much more natural flavour: blueberries, raspberries, peaches, and all sorts of fruits are available year-round, including things that may not grow in your neighbourhood, like pineapples and mangoes.
As for recipes, there is no single correct amount of fruit to use: for heavier-bodied sweeter wines more fruit will give stronger character. For lighter, delicate wines a little less fruit will keep the finished wine from being oppressive. You'll want to shoot between four and six pounds per gallon of wine--bland fruit like pears or watermelons would be at the top of this scale, while something really intense, like elderberries will be much lower.
Generally speaking, it’s better to use a value-priced or mid-priced wine kit with fruit recipes. The super-premium or hyper-premium kits are not only higher priced, but also are geared to express specific region or vineyard-specific character. It would simultaneously be a shame to cover up that character with fruit, and a shame to overwhelm the delicious fruit notes with a powerful varietal character.
For lighter, more delicate fruits like red currants, raspberries and cherries, the best choice is aromatic and fruity whites: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Moscato and other aromatic types provide a cleanly fruity underpinning with pleasant fruit notes right from the start. If you’re looking to make a more serious fruit wine you could consider the bolder, less aromatic whites like Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, but stay away from whites that are heavily oaked—oak and many fruits don’t play well together.
For a heavier fruit wine from black currants, blackberries, chokecherries, elderberries and suchlike, a medium-bodied red is a good bet. Light reds can seem thin under the weight of a tannic fruit, while heavy-bodied wines, especially the blockbuster Amarone-style kits like Rossa Ardente can overpower almost anything.
Don't bother washing fruit prior to winemaking: to quote Lum Eisenman, who wrote the funniest thing ever penned on sanitation:
On average, one ton of California wine grapes contains seven pounds of dirt, one mouse nest, 147 bees, 98 wasps, 1,014 earwigs, 1,833 ants, 10,899 leafhoppers and three pounds of bird droppings. In addition, the waxy coating on grape skins contains many microorganisms. Grapes are crushed without washing, so crushed grapes contain several non-grape substances and many microorganisms... The nitrogen (bird droppings) and protein materials (bugs) are consumed during fermentation by the yeast. When fermentation is complete, the dirt, bee wings, earwig tails, etc. settle to the bottom of the fermenters, and much of the yeast and ugly stuff is left behind when wine is racked.
And that's every wine you've ever drank! Winemaking is not a case of beating competing micro-organisms into submission; it’s about achieving domination through superior yeast power: with a good culture of appropriate yeast you can overwhelm any competitive organisms, and the rest of the gunk will take care of itself.
The first step is to cull your fruit. Sort and discard any under ripe, rotten or bad fruit. Larger fruit with big pits (apricots, peaches, plums) can be pitted and sliced. Fruit with tough skin can be peeled, but berries can stay whole.
The next step is to freeze your fruit for at least a couple of days before you make it into wine. This will rupture the cell walls of the fruit, releasing moisture and along with it, flavour, aroma and colour.
Processing Your Fruit
There are a lot of schemes for extracting the useful winemaking juice from fruit. When I'm blending fruit with kits what I find works best for me is sugar maceration. Sugar maceration uses the concept of osmotic pressure to make the fruit squeeze its own juice out. With the fruit dumped into a lot of dry sugar, the environment becomes hypertonic meaning that the cell membranes release liquid towards the sugar, sucking them dry of all their tasty fluids. To do this, place your fruit into a primary fermenter with enough sugar to cover it, but never more than three pounds. Stir to mix well, and leave it alone for a couple of days in a cool spot.
Once the mix has turned into a loose liquid mush (You’ll be surprised at how much liquid is produced) the wine kit is made up according to the instructions poured into the primary on top of the fruit and sugar mass. After a primary fermentation rack the wine away from the fruit pulp an proceed exactly according to the kit instructions.
Depending on how much juice your fruit generated during the sugar maceration, you'll have more than the 6 gallons of wine the kit makes--that's okay though, you can manage it by having an extra couple of 1 gallon glass jugs and bungs around, and use it for topping, or blending with other fruit wines.
A successful kit-fruit hybrid will go through the following processes:
- Fruit preparation and processing
- Sugar extraction
- Addition of the rehydrated kit
- Pitching yeast
- Racking to carboys
- Racking again to clear gross lees and pulp
- Fining and flavour/sweetness adjustments