Home Winemaking: Reviving an Italian Tradition

Ask anyone for his or her impression of homemade wines and the answer most often includes some polite body language followed by one or two descriptives such as “too strong” or “harsh.” Such wines are the result of outdated winemaking methods and poor grape selection.

The younger generation of Italian Canadians sees little reason to keep the home winemaking tradition alive. They don’t believe that great wines can be made at home, and they have easy access to a plethora of good quality commercial wines from around the world. So why invest in so much work to make overly alcoholic, insipid wines? It’s not worth the headache. How unfortunate!

In years gone by, wine was not considered a luxury or a drink for socializing. Wine was part of the Italian culture and diet, like bread, pasta, and homegrown tomatoes. Lunch simply would not be a meal without wine, and the requisite mid-afternoon siesta made it easy to indulge. Field labourers were served a wine and water concoction as a thirst-quencher during the late afternoon break. Wine was simply part of daily life.

Like most staples of the Italian diet from pasta to prosciutto to wine, our parents and grandparents prepared everything at home using only very basic methods passed on from previous generations. They were often ill-equipped in tools and knowledge, and among the die-hard traditionalists, not much has changed. Winemaking has evolved tremendously in the last few decades, but Italian home winemakers have not kept pace. Furthermore, the Canadian generations of Italians have not been keen to carry on the tradition.

Home winemaking need not be the messy chore it once was when wine could be made only from grapes. There are now many alternatives, including making wine from concentrates, sterilized juices, and fresh juices – for as little as one-and-a-half to three dollars a bottle. All you need is a basic fifty dollar starter kit that will last years and some additives and sanitizing chemicals. A starter kit includes a fermentation pail, a plastic spoon, a glass carboy, a fermentation lock and silicone bung to protect the wine from the elements (wine exposed to air will oxidize and spoil), a hydrometer to measure sugar concentration, a thermometer to monitor fermentation temperature, and a racking cane and tubing to separate fermentation residues from the wine when transferring the wine from one container to another.

The first rule of winemaking is to always work in a clean environment with sanitized equipment. If the kit does not include sanitizing chemicals, buy some along with some sulfite. These ensure that spoilage organisms do not adversely affect your wine during production.

Concentrates are very easy to use, greatly reduce the probability of problems, and can produce wine in as little as four weeks. All you need to do is add water to reconstitute the juice, and then mix in the required additives according to the instructions. Concentrates are balanced in terms of sugar content and acidity, and therefore do not require any adjustments. They are ideal for producing a consistent style of wine from year to year.

Concentrates are usually packaged with all required additives such as yeast, clarifying agent, sulfite, and perhaps oak chips to add a distinctive oak flavour. This will vary according to the type and style of wine to be produced. For example, oak is seldom used in white wine production, and elderberries can be used to add some spiciness to red wine. You can now find concentrates to make icewine – the sweet white wine made famous by Niagara wineries – Port-style wine, and even sparkling wine resembling Champagne.

Unlike concentrates, sterilized juice retains its water content. Sterilization prevents the juice from spoiling during storage and it does not require refrigeration. Juice may also contain additives to balance acidity, for example. Wine from sterilized juice is made in the same fashion as from concentrates, except that no water is added. Sterilized juice generally produces better wine.

Fresh grape juice is an ideal alternative for those not wanting to venture into winemaking from grapes, but who may not like the idea of concentrates or sterilized juices. Fresh grape juice must be refrigerated to prevent premature fermentation and spoilage. In addition, fresh grape juice is subject to vintage variations and will therefore not produce consistent quality from year to year. Fresh grape juice from California, Niagara, Italy, and even Chile is available during winemaking season.

Once you have acquired sufficient knowledge, experience, and confidence on the ins and outs of home winemaking, you can easily venture into winemaking from grapes, where you can exercise total control on the type and style of wine you want. The only additional equipment required is a good crusher, a press, and a large fermentation container.

As for the grapes, the varieties known to make good wine are, for reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Zinfandel; for whites, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Viognier.

Whatever you choose, don’t be discouraged by the lower quality of our forefathers’ homemade wines. You can make great wines at home. Learn as much as you can by experimenting. You will be greatly rewarded with excellent wine you made. Your friends and family will also be pleasantly surprised with your newfound savoir-faire.

Daniel Pambianchi learned the basics of winemaking as a youngster alongside his father. He is the author of Techniques in Home Winemaking: A Practical Guide to Making Château-Style Wines (2002) and a contributor to WineMaker Magazine.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 4.

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