Guide to Winemaking

Learning about wine

The more you know about wine, the more enjoyment you can get from wine making, or from buying wine.

My favourite reference book is a well-used copy of Tony Aspler’s “Wine Lover’s Companion”. It starts with the basics, and gives the reader useful tips on all aspects of buying and enjoying wine. Tony’s chapter on matching food and wine is very good.

Also recommended are the yellow “Wine for Dummies” books. They also cover the basics very well, and I find that I still learn something new every time I pick one of them up to read.

“What is your best wine?”

I get asked this question a lot, but it is really a question with no answer. Wine appreciation and enjoyment is very much based on personal taste, and the wines that you will like may be quite different from my favourites and from the preferred wines of the next customer. Some wine drinkers find a brand that they enjoy, and always buy or make the same one. For them, the best wine is always the same. For other wine drinkers, the best wine will vary from day to day based on mood, food, time of day, and other factors. They will buy or make a variety of wines, and open the bottle that seems best for the occasion. Neither approach is better than the other; it is purely a matter of choice.

Price is also not really a factor in answering the “best wine” question. The best wine is not necessarily the most expensive. More expensive wines usually have more intense flavours, and a wine drinker who enjoys a softer, easy drinking wine may simply not enjoy a more expensive wine.

Some of our customers tell us that they prefer the taste of the wine they make over purchased wine, and Brew Kettle wine is the only wine they drink. Other customers economize with their own wine for weekday dinners, and use the savings to enjoy a good bottle from the government store on the weekend. Whatever your requirements, we are confident that you will find a “best wine” at the Brew Kettle.

Making your own wine is easy at the Brew Kettle’s automated wine workshop. With our complete selection of popular wine styles, knowledgeable and experienced staff, and fully equipped facility, you are just weeks away from enjoying your first glass.

Your first step is to choose a wine to make, and we will be pleased to advise you. Starting your batch takes just 5 minutes, as you prepare the juice and start the fermentation. Over the next 4 to 8 weeks we carefully monitor your wine, and we stabilize and filter it just before you return for bottling.

On your second visit you will find that our bottle washing machine, automatic bottle fillers, and power corkers make your wine making experience quick and professional. It’s almost too easy, some customers tell us! With labels and shrink caps, your bottles will look as impressive as the contents will taste. Cheers!

Choosing the right wine

We love talking about wine, and helping customers decide which wine is right for them, is a favourite part of our job. Please don’t hesitate to ask for advice.

It is easier to make a recommendation if we know what type of wine you might look for at the LCBO or in a restaurant. Knowing the grape used, the country or region of origin, and the price range all help in selecting the right wine for you to make. Some customers even bring in an empty wine bottle to show us what they like to drink.

Roughly half the price of commercially purchased wine is tax, so as a rule of thumb you can make your own for about half the LCBO per-bottle price for a comparable quality of wine. For example, a batch of wine made for $156 (30 bottles) might yield wine similar to a $10 to $12 bottle from the LCBO.

If you are not sure what type of wine you like, we will steer you towards one of the more popular mid-range wines, like an un-oaked Chardonnay or a Merlot. They represent a safe place to start, and a good benchmark for future wine adventures.

How good a wine can I make for myself?

If your goal is to replicate Château Petrus ($1,000 a bottle when you can get it), forget it. If your goal is the quality of wine that would set you back $15 at the LCBO, you can do it.

Wine making kits contain concentrated grape juice, or pure grape juice, or a blend of the two. Generally, wine making kits based on concentrated juice make a lighter flavoured, softer wine that can be consumed soon after bottling. Kits with a high proportion of pure juice will take longer to make, will benefit from some bottle aging, and will make a wine that is richer and more flavourful.

The high-end of the kit market gets a little better each year. While the basic juices and concentrates comes from bulk wine producing regions like California’s Central Valley, the better juices now come from the same regions and vineyards as good commercial wines. We now offer a range of grape juice from California’s star regions, Napa and Sonoma, from Washington State’s Yakima Valley, and from numerous countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, France, South Africa, Argentina…

We are happy to consult with customers on tailoring their wines to their own taste. The most common modification is the addition of sugar at bottling time to make a wine off-dry and a little smoother. At the other extreme, many ask for extra oak in their full-bodied reds, adding bolder flavours and extra tannin, and extending the life of the wine. What can we do for you?

Reading wine labels

Wines are labelled in one of 3 ways. The most useful is with the grape or grapes used to make the wine. It makes it easy to compare wine from different countries if the winemaker tells you that it is “Chardonnay” or “Merlot”, and the majority of wines from New World countries will have the grape name(s) on the label.

Old World countries often label a wine with a place name. For example, a Bordeaux from that region in France, a Barolo from that town in Italy, or a Mosel from that valley in Germany. Wine kits may also carry some of those traditional names, and make wines similar in style. (For legal reasons, however, no wine kits carry French regional names and kits making similar wines have names created by the kit makers.)

A minority of wines is labelled with the producer’s name (Kressman, for example) or a name created by the marketing department (as in the Travigne blends from Inniskillin) to build unique brand loyalty.

Bottling your wine

We sell bottles, if you need them, or you can collect your own and bring them in. Most bottles that previously held wine are acceptable for use here, but some are easier to clean, fill, and cork than others. Bottles that have unusual shapes, like bottles with long necks or wide flange tops may not fit in our bottle washing machine. Some bottles, like champagne bottles, also have very thin necks that are difficult to cork. If in doubt, bring them in for us to see.

We request that you not use screwcap wine bottles or liquor bottles. Some screwcap bottles may work, but many have neck shapes that will not accept a cork and the thinner glass in the neck is prone to break when the cork goes in.

Wine bottles should be well rinsed as soon as they are empty. Just use water, and allow them to drain thoroughly. Old bottles with dried residue should be soaked (no soap please, but a little bleach is fine), then examined and rejected if they are still not clean. Before you bring them to the Brew Kettle please remove the plastic or foil capsules, because you need to be able to see the wine level when you fill the bottles. Old labels should also be removed if you plan to use our labels.

All bottles that you bring to the Brew Kettle should look clean, and our bottle washing machine then gives them an automatic hot wash and rinse in just a few minutes. When they come out of the machine, we suggest that you check them visually one more time before you fill them.

Corks & other stoppers

About 400 years ago when the glass bottle became the container of choice for wine, a piece of tree bark was found to be the best thing to keep the wine in the bottle. Four centuries down the road, most wine buyers still see cork as the preferred stopper.

Our basic cork is agglomerated, made from natural cork bits and suitable for short-term storage. The standard length is good for a year, and the longer version for up to 18 months. For wine that will be stored beyond 18 months we recommend the Altec cork, a higher quality cork manufactured in France.

(International winemakers have started moving away from the use of cork because good cork has become expensive and because cork actually spoils more wine than other stoppers. Expect to see more plastic “corks” or screwcaps on quality wines as consumers come to accept them.)

Labels & Shrink Caps

Labels and shrink caps dress up your bottle and give it a professional look, and they also remind you what that wine was that you made last year. For little or no additional cost, you can put a bottle on your table that looks as good as any bottle from the government store.

Some customers don’t bother with labels, but use shrink caps to distinguish one batch from another. On a wine rack, caps of different colours make it easy to select the wine you want. We carry about 25 choices, and our heat machine seals each bottle in a few seconds.

Pre-printed gummed labels go on easily and (unlike the labels on LCBO bottles) soak back off just as easily. They are available for all the standard wine types that we do. You can also personalize your wine with a custom printed label. These are great for special occasions like weddings and anniversaries, or for gift giving. You can print them on your own computer, or we can do them quickly for you on ours.

When you get your wine home

Keep your bottles upright for a week or two to let the corks seat properly, and then lay them on their sides in the box or on a shelf. Wine is best stored in a cool (but not cold) room out of direct light. A corner in the basement is ideal, but avoid a cold cellar if it goes lower than 10°C (50°F). Motor vibration is not good for your wine so don’t put it on the floor right beside the fridge or other appliance.

How soon can I drink it?

A batch of wine, bottled and sitting on the shelf, is tempting – especially if it is your first! How soon can you drink it? The brochures from the kit suppliers suggest that you can drink your wine right away, and you can, but many of the wines you make will benefit from some time in the bottles. The chart below offers advice on waiting and maximum times for different wine types.

Recommended Wine Ageing

  Minimum Time Maximum Time 
Wine Coolers Immediate 1 year
4 week Whites 1 month 1 year
4 week Reds 2 months 1 1/2 years
6 week Whites 2 months 2 years
6 week Reds 3 months 2 1/2 years
8 week Reds 3-6 months 3 1/2 years

 

Generally a more full-bodied wine benefits from more aging than a lighter wine, even within the same product family. The bigger reds become richer as the fruit mellows and the tannins soften, contributing to the body and character. White wines showing high acid levels will soften over time, revealing wonderful textures and flavours. Be patient, and enjoy your wines at their peak.

Wine Shelf Life

Cellaring. The word has a nice ring to it. You can picture the rows of dusty bottles quietly aging to perfection, the special bottle tucked away for the next generation to enjoy. Unfortunately, very little of the wine made today is meant for significant aging. One expert wrote that 95% of all the wine made in the world should be consumed within 2 years; that may be an exaggeration, but it makes the point.

Every wine eventually expires, and oxygen is the cause. Over time, your wine reacts to the presence of oxygen and changes for the worse. A red wine takes on a brownish colour, and a white wine darkens. As the flavour deteriorates, the wine develops a strong sherry-like taste. It won’t hurt you, it just won’t taste good.

Those wines that you read about that last for decades are usually reds, and they are made with a lot of tannin. Tannin is a bitter tasting compound found in grape skins and, to a lesser extent, in oak barrels or shavings. (Tea drinkers will know the mouth-drying astringency of tannin from strong black tea.) It acts as a natural preservative, allowing the wine to age in the bottle. A tannic, young red wine may be unpleasantly bitter and will require time for the tannins to soften. Today, most consumers want instant gratification and most wines are made to be consumed young, with softer tannins. The trade-off is that they won’t survive long aging.

Other factors affect the aging potential of wine, including the alcohol level, the wine’s acidity, the care taken by the winemaker to lessen contact with oxygen during processing, and the use of antioxidants like sulphite.

Serving your wine

The basic advice on serving temperatures is to chill whites but not reds. You will find that lighter whites can be chilled more (down to 10°C) and more flavourful wines are best enjoyed at 15°C. Chill them below that, and you lose the flavour. Lighter reds can also be chilled a little prior to serving (30 minutes in the fridge). Bigger reds are best served at room temperature, and that means about 20°C. Reds served in the heat of summer, especially those going outside for a BBQ, should get about 15 minutes in the fridge to keep them at that temperature. A red wine that gets too hot can taste “cooked” or overly alcoholic.

Whole books have been written on the subject of matching food and wine, but the simple of rule of thumb is to match the amount of flavour on the plate to the amount of flavour in the glass. That generally means whites with seafood and white meats, and reds with beef and heartier dishes. Use that as a guideline, but enjoy what you want with your dinner, and if that means Shiraz with your salmon – go for it! It’s what tastes right to you that is the right match.

The governments of Canada and Ontario allow individuals to make their own wine without paying the taxes levied on commercially produced wine, and allow you to make it at a licensed “ferment on premises” store. Government regulations require that you start your batch of wine, and bottle it. We are allowed to provide you the professional facilities and services you need, and to do the intermediate steps between those endpoints. You will find a poster in the store that summarizes other important points from the regulations that govern our operation, and we ask that you assist us by complying with them.