White Wine From Tomatoes!

Different for a reason: Why I’ll make it white

When most people think about tomato wine, they – ok, most people don’t think about tomato wine, but if they did they would – think about red wine. It’s the same way with cherry wine, and just as I wrote about white cherry wine a few days ago, I’m going to make the case for white tomato wine today.

Since I’ve neither made nor tasted tomato wine before, I’m a little concerned about the taste. If there are objectionable flavors, then I think they’re most likely to come from the skin and pulp. A white wine is just fermented juice, so that would avoid the flavor compounds, good or bad, in the skins. As for the pulp, I’d want to stay away from sauce tomatoes, like Romas. In the end, I chose to make a clean dry white from Gold Nugget tomatoes. Gold Nugget is a cherry tomato with yellow/orange skin and yellow flesh that’s a reliable producer in this climate.

How to make it: Good fruit, balanced acid, and the right amount of alcohol

I have ten vines in the ground, and I don’t know how big a harvest to expect. I’ll pick each tomato when it’s ripe and put the day’s harvest right into the freezer. It won’t come in all at once, though, so I’ll store the fruit until the harvest is complete. That’s not the only thing about tomatoes that’s different from grapes. Tomatoes are about 95% water, by weight, compared to 80% for grapes.

The dominant acid in tomatoes is citric, rather than tartaric. I haven’t been able to find information on the acidity of tomato juice, but if the TA is low, then I’ll have to add acid to the must. In that case, I can choose one, or a combination, of the three major organic acids found in most fruit: citric, malic, and tartaric. Winemakers always use tartaric acid for any additions to conventional grape wine, but there are two schools of thought for acid additions to non-grape wine. The first approach is to use the dominant acid in the fruit. In the case of tomato wine, that would be citric. Another idea is to use a complementary acid. That is, instead of the dominant acid, add one of the other two. So I could use either malic or tartaric with this method. Should I need to acidify, I’ll probably use tartaric. I think it’ll make the a wine a little more familiar by giving it a bit of conventional white wine character. Also, I understand that citric acid can make the wine more vulnerable to vinegar spoilage and that malic can be harsher than the other two.

There will be a lot less sugar in the tomato juice, than in grape juice. I understand 5-8 degrees brix is common, so I’ll be adding sugar. It’s pretty straightforward to find out how much sugar to add for a given amount of alcohol. The question is, how much alcohol should I target? I often aim for 12% alcohol, by volume, in my wines and meads. That would be about 22 brix and a specific gravity of 1.090. Some research, by the late Dr Kime of Cornell, suggests that fruit wine (I’ve never liked that term – grapes aren’t fruit?) is better below 10.5% alcohol. There isn’t a whole lot of research into non-grape wine, so when a little bit come along, I pay attention. I’m leaning towards 10% alcohol for my tomato wine (18-19 brix, SG = 1.075). I’ve still got some blanks to fill in, but I’m getting a pretty good “big picture” idea of how I’ll make my white tomato wine.

Thinking about the next step

If this is a success, then I can continue investigating tomato wine. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I can see a red tomato wine next year. Red wine is all about the skins, and smaller fruit has more skin, pound for pound, than larger fruit. That’s why wine grapes are a lot smaller than the table grapes in the grocery store. So I would need cherry or grape tomatoes, for red wine, with deep dark color. I wonder if there are any dark colored small tomatoes that do well in this climate? I don’t know, but if my white tomato wine is a winner, then I’ve got plenty more to think about!

Update 12/22/2007: I finally did it!

The acidity of tomato juice is low, and I added tartaric acid just as I planned. I changed my mind about targeting a low alcohol level, and decided that my first tomato wine should be a more “normal” 12% alcohol. You can read all the details here.

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