I’ll never buy bottled wine again.
Making your own wine from bottled juice is easy, cheap, safe, and enjoyable. It might not be clear like store-bought wine or shelf-stable without some preservatives, but give it 3-4 weeks and a bit of practice and you’ll be amazed.
It tastes good. And I’ve had several people–people who like their vino–tell me so.
What you need:
Bottled juice – I buy Walmart’s brand of grape, white grape, and white grape/peach juices that come in 64 ounce, or half-gallon, jugs. Feel free to experiment, but try not to use juices with preservatives like potassium metabisulfite or potassium sorbate. If that is all you can find, pour the preserved juice from one container to another several times over the course of 12 hours. The oxidation will remove most of the preservatives. The downside is this can introduce contaminants to the juice. Yes, a big advantage of fermenting juice in the bottles they come in is that you don’t have to worry about introducing bacteria to a primary fermenter.
Yeast – You can rely on wild yeast, and I do when making some meads, but it’s much quicker and a sure thing when you add wine yeast that is inexpensive and bred for the job. I recommend Bourgovin RC-212 from Lalvin.
Sugar – To get an ABV (alcohol by volume) percentage approaching normal wine levels (10.5-13.5%), you need to add sugar. Plain old inexpensive granulated sugar works great. You might have to do some mathing and guesstimating, but you want approximately 70-80 grams of sugar per serving in your juice to start (you can use more or less in other ferments as you learn what you like). I’ll mention a kitchen scale later on that I’d suggest as a great tool you’ll use a lot.
Airlock – Yeast produces CO2, and that gas needs somewhere to go. Since we don’t want pressure to build up in our jug and explode, and because we want to keep oxygen out, we use airlocks. You could use a balloon, or a latex or nitrile glove with a small puncture in the tip of the middle finger, or even cheesecloth or a tea towel; but seriously, get an airlock. They’re stupid cheap (2 for $5 on Amazon), and they make fermentation even more fool-proof.
Funnel – If you pour juice with preservatives from jar to jar, I recommend a canning funnel. Otherwise, you just need a normal funnel for adding sugar and yeast. The bigger the hopper, the better.
That’s it. That’s all you need, but there are some tools and additions I suggest:
Purified water – To put into the airlock and to top off any jugs or secondary fermenters.
Organic raisins – To provide nutrients to young, growing yeasts that work hard for you, and to give the wine body (a nice mouthfeel/texture). Golden raisins might help white/light fruit wines retain some of their color, but I just use regular dark raisins for all mine and the color is fine.
Hydrometer – If you want to know your ABV, you need a hydrometer ($18 on Amazon).
Kitchen scale – To measure your sugar to the gram, get a kitchen scale. I use my scale for measuring sugar, water and salt weight for brine for fermenting vegetables, vegetable weight for easily repeatable recipes, and for measuring ingredients to bake sourdough bread. This is some of the best $11 I’ve ever spent.
Yeast nutrient – If you don’t use raisins.
Potassium metabisulfite and/or potassium sorbate – “But, wait!” you say, “You told us not to buy juice with these ingredients.” That’s right; I did. Good on you for paying attention! These minerals inhibit yeasts and bacteria–totally eliminating them at the proper concentrations. We don’t want them in our juice at first so our yeast can do its thing. But once we have our desired ABV, we want to stop fermentation. The way to do this is with potassium metabisulfite. We might have fermented our juice too dry, so we add sugar again (backsweeten); to prevent a renewed fermentation, use potassium sorbate. If you slow fermentation with refrigeration and don’t bottle your wine but drink it fairly quickly, you won’t need these.
Wash the airlock, a funnel, hydrometer if you’re using it, and a large jar. Sanitize everything with heat (if safe), bleach (I don’t recommend for plastic), sorbate or metabisulfite (K-Meta, Campden), an oxidizing sanitizer (StarSan), or vinegar (not quite sanitizing, but I think it does just fine).
Determine how much sugar to use. Doubling the grams per serving is a good starting point. You can adjust the amount for later ferments depending on desired ABV and whether you want a dry, semi-sweet, or sweet wine.
For example, the white grape juice you have has 36 grams of sugar per serving, and there are 8 servings. 36 * 8 = 288 grams. In order to fit the sugar into the jug, you’ll need to pour off about 1/5 of the juice; pour about 1/4 of the juice into the large jar you sanitized (you’ll add back some later to top off the jug). To account for the 1/5 of the half-gallon of juice you’ll leave out to make room for the sugar, raisins, and yeast, multiply 288 by 0.8. 288 * 0.8 = 230.4. We’ll round down to 230. Measure out 230 grams of sugar (if you don’t have a gram-sensitive scale, that’s a hair over 19 Tbsp.) and add to the juice jug. Close the lid tightly and give it a good shake–really shake your groove thang. Take and record a starting gravity (SG) reading.
Warm a quarter cup of water to 85-100 degrees F. Add about 1/5 or 1/6 of a packet of yeast (eyeball it, pinch some out). Let it sit for 10-15 minutes; this reactivates the yeast. Stir and pour the activated yeast into your juice/sugar. Add 6-8 raisins. Cap and shake again. Remove the jug cap, pour reserved juice into the jug until your have 2-3 inches of headspace.
Place the airlock bung in the top. Pour water to the indicated level into your airlock. Place the airlock in the bung. Place your soon-to-be wine in a dark place with ambient temperatures in the 65-78 degrees F range.
Next step: WAIT!
That’s it! You can stir your juice once or twice a day gently to coat floating raisins (I do). This prevents any molds from forming on the raisins. Be sure not to squeeze the jug, as squeezing forces gas out and air pressure forces water from your airlock into your juice when you let go. To avoid this, lift the jug by the lip below the cap thread and hold the bottom with your other hand while gently swirling the juice.
You should start taking gravity readings after one week and every 2-3 days after. This tells you if your yeast are still working significantly in addition to the ABV. You should taste it after two. Once the wine is dry enough for you, the yeast runs out of sugar, or the ABV is too great for the yeast to work, primary fermentation is done. To calculate a fairly accurate ABV, use this formula: [Starting gravity (SG) – final gravity (FG)] * 131.25. Again, that’s: (SG – FG) * 131.25.
You can stop at this point, or rack to a secondary fermenter to clear sediment and backsweeten. I’ve found that I can add enough sugar to have an adequate ABV and sugar content after 3-4 weeks. With only a half-gallon (about two bottles) made at a time, my friends, family, and I drink it all before I need to worry about too much sugar being fermented away or getting too high an ABV. And the taste helps us not to mind at all that it isn’t clear (the sediment has dropped and the wine could be described as translucent). I’ll tell you: the mouthfeel is just like a $30 bottle.
Learning to do this and tasting the results has blown my mind. I don’t think I’ll fool with growing grapes now. I still want to make country wine with actual fruits like strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, mulberry, wild plum, smooth sumac, ground cherry, prickly pear, mango, banana, and elderberry, but bottled grape juice wine is the simpler, easy way I’ll go for at least a very long time.
1/5/2019 EDITED TO ADD: If you go through with all this and don’t like the results, try turning your wine into vinegar.