A glass of crisp white wine—or perhaps of a hearty red—is the perfect accompaniment to good food and fellowship . . . and that drink can be all the more special if it's a product of your own labor.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
When you grow a vineyard to create homemade wine it's hard to beat the joy of sharing a bottle of beverage made from your own vineyard harvest. Learn about grape varieties to plant, how to establish your vineyard, pruning grapevines and kniffin and high-renewal training diagrams.
A glass of crisp white wine—or perhaps of a hearty
red—is the perfect accompaniment to good food and
fellowship . . . and that drink can be all the more special
if it's a product of your own labor. Yet, though many
amateur vintners consistently make superior beverages, most
folks still avoid "putting up" their own wine.
However, despite the fact that the winemaking process is
indeed somewhat complex and results in occasional
disappointments, it's not all that difficult—if
you're ready to spend some winter days in
preparation—to grow a vineyard to create homemade wine and turn
its harvest into high-quality table wines. This article,
then, is a practical, result-oriented introduction to the
art of home viticulture and winemaking.
GRAPES: THE KEY INGREDIENT
All experienced vintners will agree on at least one point:
Only a quality grape will produce a superior wine. It's
simply not possible to make a prize-winning Bordeaux with
the fruit of a common backyard vine. And, unfortunately,
the classic European winemaking grape varieties (Vitis
vinifera) are delicate in nature and will grow only in a
few select areas of the country . . . primarily along the
Luckily, however, this problem's been solved . . . thanks
to the introduction of a family of grapes called French
hybrids into the United States. These unique vines are
crosses between American and European varieties, and have
inherited the good qualities of both strains: That is, they
typically blend the hardiness and disease resistance of
their local ancestors with the delicate traditional flavor
of their overseas parents. A number of these hybrids are
now widely available from local nurseries or through mail
order suppliers. Here are six favorites . . . the first
three suited for making red wine and the second trio
appropriate for a "white" beverage.
Baco Noir: a disease-resistant, early ripening variety for
short-season areas. The wine made from these grapes is
generally similar to red Bordeaux.
Foch: an extra-early ripening type fit for cold
northeastern climates. You'll find its wine is often akin
Chelois: a vigorous producer that's best suited to regions
with moderately long growing seasons.
Aurora: a hardy variety for locales with very short growing
seasons. It is used to produce a pale, delicate white wine,
and is a standard in New York's Finger Lakes region.
Seyval Blanc: a short-season variety. It typically results
in a clean, brisk, superior wine.
Villard Blanc: a type suited for regions s with long
growing seasons. You'll find it o both hardy and vigorous.
ESTABLISHING YOUR VINEYARD
Of course, before you actually buy any nursery stock,
you'll have to decide how many plants you'll need . . .
whether you want to produce red or white wine (or both) . .
. and the specific types) of grape you prefer. To narrow
down the search, you might well want to ask your extension
agent—or perhaps a local vineyard owner—about
the varieties of vines that are best suited to your
When preparing to put in your order, you should also keep
in mind that—though individual yields do vary
greatly—you can expect, within five years, an annual
average of about eight pounds of fruit per vine from most
hybrids . . . which is enough to make approximately
six-tenths of a gallon of wine. A vineyard consisting of
ten plants, then, will produce about six gallons of the
beverage every year.
Next, go on to establish the vineyard's layout . . .
choosing a sunny, well-drained site, preferably with a
gentle slope. To determine space requirements, plan to
place the vines six to ten feet apart in rows spaced at
eight- to ten-foot intervals. Then prepare the area by
working up the ground well and tilling under generous
amounts of organic matter and fertilizer . . . you may want
to have a soil test done to determine what is needed.
(Don't add lime, though, because grapevines prefer acidic
When the plants arrive in the spring, remove them from the
absorbent wrapping in which they were likely shipped and
place their roots in a bucket of water so that they won't
dry out. Your new vines will haw been grown from cuttings
taken from a parent plant. [EDITOR'S NOTE: It's possible to
produce your own stock from clippings . . . see "Grow Your
Own Grapes", MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 61, page 76. (To order back issues,
turn to page 48 of this issue.) And Mr. Digwell, on page 181, has more
vine advice.] Each immature grape bearer wilt consist of an
original length of stalk with the roots at the lower end
and some stubbier, branchlike growth at the upper tip.
Place the plants, roots down (each along with a few
handfuls of compost), into holes dug at properly spaced
intervals. Then simply cover them with soil to the point
where the top branches begin and prune off all but two or
three bud eyes per cane. Finally, to support the coming
season's growth, drive a four-foot stake into the ground
next to each plant.
THE ART OF VITICULTURE
You'll find that managing your vineyard during the first
season is a fairly trouble-free and enjoyable task. In
fact, your sole aim for this year will be to make sure that
the plants develop the strong, upright, well-shaped trunks
that will support the vines for the rest of their lives.
As the weather warms, each bud eye left on during the
planting process will burst open and produce a bright green
shoot. Select the most vigorous cane among these, and rub
off all the others. The remaining branch will mature to
form the vine's permanent trunk. Later in the season, as
the plant grows, carefully tie it (not too tightly!) to the
stake at six- to eight-inch intervals to keep it straight.
You should also eliminate all competition by removing any
new unwanted shoots as they appear. And, with the exception
of normal garden maintenance, that's all there is to caring
for your grapes during their first year.
When the following spring arrives, you can begin the
vineyard's second season by building a trellis. This
structure might simply consist of two or three horizontal
wires (use No. 10 galvanized) strung on posts placed 15 to
20 feet apart. Fasten the lowest to each upright line at a
point 2-1/2 to 3 feet above the ground, and the highest
about 5 feet. Then, to strengthen the fence, brace the end
supports with guy wires.
Now, cut back each vine so that the trunk extends slightly
above the bottom wire. And, once the new growth shows and
all danger of frost has passed, rub off all shoots except
for the top four. These small branches will later develop
into the large canes that will form the plant's foliage and
eventually bear the fruit.
As spring progresses, cultivate the soil occasionally to
keep weeds in check, or if enough organic material is
available mulch the entire plot. (The latter approach is
more desirable, since it both feeds the soil and virtually
eliminates further chores until harvest time.)
PRUNING AND TRAINING
The key to successfully managing your vineyard during
subsequent years is to simply understand—and
apply—the principles of pruning and training.
Pruning, as you likely know, is the act of cutting away
some of the vine during the dormant season in order to
regulate its growth, and—as a result—improve
the quality of the crop. Training, on the other hand, is
the process of arranging the bearing canes on the trunk
that gives the vine its permanent shape and form.
Many folks find grape-pruning practices confusing at first,
but the theory behind them is straightforward. Put simply,
each season's new growth springs from the bud eyes on the
one-year-old wood. Pruning is just removing all but a
select portion of this growth. Your aim is to leave only
enough to bear the crop and to grow renewal wood for the
If pruning is the tactic that keeps a vine's size in check,
then training is a long-term strategy involving the
placement of the canes and spurs . . . and the fashion in
which they're arranged on the trellis. Two commonly used
techniques are the four-arm Kniffin and the High-Renewal
systems (Figures 1 and 2). These methods differ with regard
to form, but are functionally about the same. The Kniffin
is the most popular training system in the East, and the
High-Renewal method, which is used widely in Europe for the
French hybrids, is less formally structured and somewhat
easier to implement. (See the diagrams in the image gallery for more information.)
A TRIP THROUGH THE SEASON
Let's say that it's the beginning of your young vineyard's
third season. You've finished pruning, and—after a
long stretch of warm April weather—the buds on the
bearing canes swell, parting the hard scales that protect
each fruit eye. Soon the puffy nodes burst, sprouting tiny
velvet shoots with brilliant carmine and green leaves.
These small branch tips grow with astonishing vigor,
unfolding leaves and clinging tendrils as they snake along
the trellis, and quickly reach lengths of four feet to six
feet. Several weeks later tiny flower clusters, called
"inflorescences", appear. Then—soon after
pollination—the blossom caps fall, the ovaries ripen,
and the vintage is born.
As the season progresses, the foliage thickens, and the
bunches of green fruit grow plump ... until their combined
weight strains the trellis support. Later, however, growth
slows noticeably . . . the wood on the canes begins to
harden . . . and the berries begin to show a faint blush of
Near the end of the summer, the grapes turn ripe and soft,
decorating the vineyard with splashes of red, blue, purple,
and translucent-white fruit.
At this point important natural processes
occur—inside the pulp—that will affect the
quality of your wine. As the grapes ripen, you see, they
increase in sugar content (which will give the beverage
both alcohol content and body) and simultaneously decrease
in acid content (which influences the tartness of the
Harvest time, then, is a period of great anguish for all
vineyard keepers. Pick too soon and you risk making sour,
puckery wine. Wait too long and you take a chance of losing
your now fragile crops to birds, insects, or frost. No firm
guidance can be given as to when to gather the yield,
either . . . as a master vintner that decision is up to
WINEMAKING: LEARN THE BASICS
Turning grapes into wine is a complex, natural biological
and chemical process. Simply stated, the sugar in the fruit
juice (the "must") is transformed—through a series of
stages—by the action of yeast into almost equal parts
of alcohol and carbon dioxide. Grapes with a 20% sugar
content, then, will result in a 20-proof (10% alcohol)
wine. In addition, the vinous beverage will contain small
amounts of complex acids, tannins, and other trace
ingredients that impart aroma and flavor.
Despite the complexity of the chain of events that produces
fine vintages, though, your role as winemaker is really
quite straightforward. The most important factor in
guaranteeing consistent success is to fully understand two
basic principles and to apply them faithfully: Keep your
equipment and work area clean and orderly at all times, and
provide the physical and environmental conditions required
to insure the success of the natural winemaking process.
These rules will be discussed in some detail, and their
importance cannot be overstated.
As a beginning enologist (or winemaker), you'll of course
have to round up the necessary equipment. Economy and
resourcefulness are the bywords here. There's really little
need to buy high-priced gadgets or beginners' kits.
Scrounge, build, or borrow instead. Here's a list of the
basic tools and ingredients.
Fermentor: Use a food-grade, high-quality plastic bucket or
a new trash container.
Hydrometer: This implement is used to measure potential
alcohol content and is an inexpensive, but crucial, tool.
You can find one at a home-winemaking supply house.
Aging containers: Use one- to five-gallon glass jugs.
Winemaking yeast: This is good success insurance, as it
guarantees a quick, clean fermentation with none of the
aftertaste often produced by baker's yeast.
Crusher: You can, perhaps, borrow one . . . or make your
own from scrap lumber by building an opened-topped box and
then drilling oneinch holes, on three-inch centers, in its
bottom. Crush the grapes by rubbing the bunches against the
board. In this manner, the pulp falls through the holes
into the fermentor, while most of the stems will stay on
top to be thrown out.
Press: This is a costly, but necessary, item. Try to borrow
one . . . but if none is available, make your own. The
device can be as simple as two boards hinged together at
one end and used, like a nutcracker, to squeeze the juice
out of pulp contained in a nylon bag.
CREATE A HEARTY HOMEMADE RED WINE
The process for making red wine begins on harvest day.
First, scrub your equipment with washing soda and water.
Then, pick the grape clusters and bring them, without
delay, to the wine cellar to be crushed.
Crushing is a brief and messy, but cheerful, affair. The
idea is to simply pop each grape open so the yeast can work
on the exposed pulp. And this is the one time in the entire
winemaking process when you can be a bit sloppy, since a
few unbroken grapes—or even stems and
leaves—dropped into the fermentor will make little
difference. However, once you've finished, do be sure to
scrub, rinse, and dry the equipment again. Remember,
uncleanliness nurtures bacteria that can ruin a batch of
Next, adjust the sugar content of the must to insure that
you'll produce a beverage with an alcohol content of 10% to
12%. This will give the beverage stability and the proper
tang. Sugar concentration is read with the hydrometer,
which works by measuring specific gravity. Merely float the
device in a sample of juice and read the thermometer-like
scale. If necessary, stir sugar into the must until the
instrument reads 12% alcohol by volume . . . or shows a
specific gravity of about 1.088.
Having established the proper conditions, add one packet of
dried concentrated winemaker's yeast for each five gallons
of must, and cover the container to keep out foreign matter
and fruit flies.
Fermentation should begin within 24 hours. First, a bubble
or two will appear . . . then more. In a short time, the
surface will be covered with a layer of foam. Soon the
entire mixture will be fermenting with vigor. The
concoction will release a pungent odor when the cover is
lifted. The skins and pulp will rise to the surface and
form a cake-like mess called the chapeau. Stir this back
into the juice several times daily.
The violent fermentation usually subsides within four to
six days. Once it does slow down, separate the juice from
the seeds, skins, and pulp by pressing the must. To do
this, simply bail the entire contents of the fermentor into
the press basket. At first, the new wine will flow into
your waiting glass jugs on its own. The last of the liquid,
however, must be squashed out of the soggy fruit. Apply
pressure gradually and continue in this manner until the
pulp is dry. The leftover mass, called "pomace", can be
returned to the vineyard soil as fertilizer.
Now, clean your equipment and make sure all containers of
wine are filled to the neck. From this point on, you must
not expose your beverage to outside air, which could cause
it to spoil. Cap each jug with an air lock (this can be as
simple as a plastic baggie and a rubber band). Then, after
all signs of fermentation have ended, stopper the
containers and store them in a cool, safe place.
WHIP UP A WONDERFUL HOMEMADE WHITE WINE
With the exception of one crucial step, the process for
making white wine is similar to that for preparing red. The
primary difference is that you must crush and press the
grapes immediately after they're picked. In other words,
conduct the operation in this order: harvest, crush, then
press, adjust for sugar content, and ferment. When the wine
becomes still, you can store it—in filled, tightly
stopped glass jugs—along with its red cousin.
THE SECONDARY WINE FERMENTATION
Whatever its color, you should let your young beverage rest
undisturbed until late December. After this period, it will
have cleared considerably . . . and, as a result of a
phenomenon called secondary (or malolactic) fermentation,
its acid content will have diminished. Now's the time to
purify your creation, removing the sediment (called the
"lees") by way of a procedure known as "racking".
This step is accomplished by carefully siphoning the liquid
off the lees into another clean container, using a short
length of clean plastic tubing or flexible hose. As the
siphon slowly empties the jugs, keep lowering the tubing
until it just begins to draw off the deposit at the bottom
and then halt the flow. (Make sure the new jugs are filled
to the neck and stoppered tightly.)
Of course, feasting and merriment are appropriate to
celebrate a purification rite such as racking, so be
prepared by setting aside a sampler of the new vintage.
Then invite family and friends to a hearty meal,
highlighted by a taste of the new homemade brew. Your wine
should have a mild, fruit bouquet at this stage, but may
taste slightly "green". Don't worry, though, because the
beverage has yet to go through its time-consuming finishing
stage ... and sonic good things just can't be hurried.
FINISHING THE HOMEMADE WINE
The last step in the winemaking process requires only
patient waiting. Let the bottles lie undisturbed until
about February, then rack them again. Later, before hot
weather comes, siphon the wine off any accumulated sediment
a third time and then bottle it permanently . . . either in
screw-capped gallon jugs or in corked bottles.
Finally, at the end of the first summer after bottling,
your wine will be ready to drink. Don't plan on aging it
more than two years, because homemade beverage is best
consumed young. And if you've followed these guidelines,
you should find your labors rewarded by a superior dry
table wine that'll hold its own against commercial products
sold at many times the price . . . and, best of all, you'll
have earned the right to label your vintage "Estate
EDITOR'S NOTE: For all of its length, this
article provides only a brief introduction to the art of
home viticulture and winemaking. You might want to read
over some of the dozens of good books about both subjects
that are on the market. (A Wine-Grower's Guide by Philip M.
Wagner—Alfred Knopf, $10.95—is art
easy-to-follow, practical reference book.)
HOME VINEYARD PRUNING TECHNIQUES
Although a dormant grapevine might look like a confusing
tangle of woody canes, pruning it won't be a difficult task
if you know what to look for. The wood to be removed (last
year's growth) will be smooth and light brown, with many
new buds. By contrast, the older wood (the trunk and other
semi-permanent parts) will be thick and dark, and its bark
will hang in shaggy strips.
The accompanying illustrations, even though greatly
simplified, show which canes should be cut away during
pruning. Figure A (see the image gallery for diagrams) depicts a newly pruned vine with a single
cane and spur. The long branch (the bearing cane) will
produce the coming year's crop. And in the following
spring, it and all of its secondary growth will be removed.
The short branch (called the renewal spur) will provide the
growth that will produce that season's new cane-and-spur
Figure B (see the image gallery for diagrams) shows the some plant at the end of the season with
dormant canes extending from each original bud eye. To
prune your vine, eliminate the bearing cane that bore last
year's crop, and use the two canes that grew from the buds
on last year's renewal spur to farm this year's
To accomplish this, simply refer to the dotted lines shown
in Figure B, forming the bearing cane by cutting one branch
back to between six and ten bud eyes . . . then farm the
spur by cutting the other branch back to two buds as in
Figure C (see the image gallery for diagrams) .
Most vigorous plants will support four cane-and-spur
combinations. Use these same guidelines when you prune the
entire vine. just be sure to carefully select the location
of your cuts to maintain the plant's shape and intended