Challenges of Backyard Wine

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The first challenge in producing wine from your backyard is growing fruit. These photos show my Norton (aka Cynthiana) grapes as they looked just before I harvested Saturday. I didn’t apply a single spray all season. No insecticide, herbicide or fungicide used here. Photos from sprayed vineyards in drier climates show ripe fruit hanging next to leaves that are all green and glossy. Often, commercial vineyards also spray an herbicide to eliminate grass and weeds under the vines. I just depend on the disease resistance of this variety to produce.

I used a net to keep birds from taking them. The clusters that were close enough to the net that birds could reach were completely bare. Without the net, I’d have had nothing because birds begin to harvest as soon as the grapes begin to turn color. I took in just over thirty pounds of grapes from the three vines I have.

Once the fruit is collected and washed, the next challenge is transforming it into wine. Producing an alcoholic liquid from grapes is not difficult. Producing a nice wine, however, is not easy. Norton, like other grapes with native American ancestry, has a high acid content. This can result in a wine that is out of balance. Also grapes that ripen in hot humid climates have begun to spoil. If the microbes that cause spoilage are not dealt with, they will reproduce along with the fermentation yeast and produce off flavors. Also important for a good wine is sugar content. The sugar content of the juice determines the alcohol content of the finished wine.

I’ll try to explain the winemaker’s jargon after first using it. To deal with the issues of sugar content, acidity, and spoilage, I used chaptalization, amelioration, and pasteurization. Chaptalization is adding sugar. My juice was at 15 brix by my hydrometer reading. This would result in a “wine” of 8% alcohol at most. Typical red table wines are around 13% so I added sugar to get a 24 brix reading. Amelioration was just adding water to dilute the acidity. It is almost never done with European grapes which have a favorable acid/sugar balance. But on the disease resistant American grapes it is often done to avoid wines with way to much tartness.

I chose to pasteurize my juice rather than treat with sulfites to eliminate the spoilage organisms. Its a non chemical option and will impact flavor. I’ll find out in a few months if I like the result. Heating to 175 degrees F (pasteurizing) also extracted a lot of color from the skins. It may also have extracted tannins from the stems. I’ll find out. The yeast I used is Lalvin D 47. It is not usually used for red wines, but is able to consume malic acid, reducing acidity. Since I got plenty of color from pasteurization and Norton grapes are high in malic acid, I’m trying it. Again, time will tell.

Getting good fruit with the right sugar and acidity for wine is a challenge. Having produced my own beer and wine, I feel beer is considerably easier. The variables are easier to control with beer.

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