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How to Make Wine from Grape Juice

Just because prohibition is over doesn't mean you can't still make wine from grape juice. It's easier than you think, and the result is surprisingly delicious!

The tradition of making homemade wine from grape juice dates back at least to prohibition-era United States, when winemakers would sell blocks of concentrated grape juice with instructions to dissolve them in a gallon of water and a warning: "do not place the liquid into the cupboard for 21 days as it will turn into wine." This warning was actually, of course, poorly-disguised instructions for households to make their own wine during an era when all manner of alcohol was outlawed. This allowed several vineyards to survive the duration of prohibition until they could sell real wine again, and the packages were vague enough that investigators couldn't prove that the grape blocks were intended for anything other than non-alcoholic grape juice.

Thankfully, prohibition has long since ended, but that doesn't mean all of us make wine or work in a cellar!  With modern products, we can take a page out of their book and make wine from grape juice at home, producing a much more palatable wine than back in the day.

Why should I bother?

You might be asking yourself, "why in the world would I put in the effort to make wine from grape juice when I can just buy wine?" And really, that's a fair point. You'll be surprised how good homemade wine can taste if you are careful with your measurements and procedures, and use quality ingredients, but it'll still be hard to replicate the flavors of your favorite wine. The main reason for this being that Concord grape juice, the most common varietal, is obviously going to produce Concord wine. While Concord wine is a thing (most kosher wine, for example, is made of Concord grapes), it is not going to have the same flavor profile as wine made from more traditional winemaking varietals like Merlot or Shiraz.

But making your own wine isn't as much about the product as it is about the experience. It's a chemistry experiment, it lets you tap into your culinary curiosity, and it gives you insight into the winemaking process. Plus, you get to drink at the end of the project! As the old, paraphrased adage goes, "If you give a man some wine, he drinks for a night. If you teach a man to make wine, he will be drunk for the remainder of his life!" Talk about the guidance toward the ultimate gift for wine lovers. Making homemade wine also always makes me want to throw a prohibition party with jazz, "bootleg" liquor, and homemade wine.


Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash

There is a basic set of guidelines to follow when you make wine from grape juice. Depending on how much effort you're willing to put in, however, there are a lot of paths you can take. These paths range from minimal effort to high-tech approaches. I'll give you the basic outline here, and you can choose how high-tech you want to go.

The Juice

First thing's first: you'll obviously need grape juice. You'll get some sort of result with just about any bottle of juice you can find at your local grocery, but the best tasting wine will result from juice without any preservatives or other added ingredients. The fermentation process that turns juice into wine depends on yeast, which eats the sugar in the juice and converts it into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Preservatives can kill the yeast or at least inhibit it from doing its thing, which can seriously put a strain on your wine, so avoid it if possible. 

Speaking of sugar, by the way, you definitely do not want a low-sugar juice, because that's the part that the yeast eats and converts into alcohol. In fact, if your grape juice has less than around 20g of sugar per serving, you might want to add a bit yourself. Some extra sugar added to your juice early on can be the difference between tasty wine and weak, sour juice.

Using grape juice concentrate works pretty much the same way, and is a good choice if you want to make a big ole gallon of wine instead of just what's in a normal juice container. Mix four 12oz cans of grape juice concentrate with 60oz of water and a cup of sugar, and follow the rest of the winemaking instructions normally.

As an aside, white grape juice works as well as Concord grape juice if you want to try to make white wine. And if you want to get creative, this process works with almost any juice you can think of. Try making cranberry wine out of cranberry juice or hard cider out of apple juice.

Other Ingredients and Equipment

Besides the juice (and potential additional sugar), you'll need some yeast. As I mentioned, yeast is the key ingredient in the fermentation process, which is what will turn your juice into alcoholic wine. Packets of yeast are cheap and easy to come by, so this shouldn't be an issue. Just make sure the packets you buy specifically say wine yeast or alcohol yeast. Bread yeast or other generic yeasts will not give you the result you want, unless you're planning on baking your juice.

One somewhat optional ingredient is a Campden tablet, which can sterilize your juice before you begin the rest of the winemaking process. This step is mostly required if you want to store your wine for any significant period.

That about does it for ingredients you need to make wine from grape juice: the grape juice itself contains just about everything you need, and the yeast helps speed up the process. 

Special equipment is where you can go super low-tech or high-tech. The easy route is to simply use the bottle your grape juice came in as your winemaking vessel, but you can use larger glass jugs if you want a more stable environment. I wouldn't recommend using wine bottles for this part of the process, but feel free to distribute your wine into wine bottles for storage after the fermentation process.

The last piece of equipment is some sort of fermentation lock or semi-airtight seal. Basically, a lid, but you can't just pop the grape juice lid back on. Something completely airtight would put the bottle under too much pressure, inviting potentially catastrophic results. Specially made fermentation locks are easy and cheap to purchase, but you can also accomplish this task with a simple balloon. It won't give you as much control over the fermentation process, but it'll get the job done. Just poke a single pinhole in the balloon and affix it over the bottle opening.

The Process

Photo by Bianca Isofache on Unsplash

By this point, you should have all your ducks in a row and all your ingredients and equipment at the ready, all that's left is to actually put everything together!

First, pour your juice into your glass jug. If you're doing this in the bottle the grape juice came in, just empty out about a cup of juice to give you room to work with. The juice should be room temperature, by the way.

If you want to sterilize the juice, add your Campden tablet at this point and wait 24 hours before proceeding.

Second, activate the yeast. Empty the packet of wine yeast into a bowl, add a tablespoon of sugar, and a half cup of lukewarm water. It'll begin to bubble after a few minutes, after which point you can add it to the juice.

Third, seal the bottle. You can use a fermentation lock or a thick balloon with one or two pinholes poked into it.

Fourth, place the bottle into a moderately warm location (such as by a window) and wait three to five weeks.

After a week or so, the juice will have turned into something resembling wine, but with an extremely low alcohol content and not very well-developed flavors. After three weeks, your juice will begin to look more like wine and the alcohol content will be closer to 8-10% abv. After four to five weeks, you'll have a product that is indisputably wine, with well-developed flavors and a 13-15% abv. 

At this point, the fermentation process will be complete, as no more carbon dioxide is being released. If you used a balloon, you'll notice it is no longer inflated. All that's left to do is drink it! There will be some sediment at the bottom of your bottle, just like you'll see with plenty of vineyard-produced wines. You may strain it out if you wish.

Congratulations! Now you know how to make wine from grape juice.

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