Category Archives: Troubleshooting

Blueberry Wine: High maintenance but worth it

Blueberry Wine: High maintenance but worth it

Ah blueberry wine! One minute its fermenting up a storm, then next it’s a lifeless half-finished must that wont get going again. What’s really frustrating isn’t just that the old tricks don’t work – move it to a warmer room, make a fresh starter, apologizing (even if you don’t know what for) and so on – but that there was nothing wrong. It’s not an uncommon story on winemaking forums, and it happened to me recently. So what is it about blueberry wine that causes so many stuck fermentations?

It’s not Kryptonite

Or sorbate. Or any other substance in blueberries that are toxic to yeast. If there were something in blueberries that inhibited yeast, then it would become harder to ferment as you increased the concentration of fruit. 6 lb/gallon would be more difficult to ferment than 3 lb/gallon, for example, and 100% blueberries would be the toughest of all. But my own experience, and that of the only commercial blueberry winemaker I’ve talked to, is that 100% blueberry wines are the easiest to ferment.

Another thing: if it were some toxin or inhibitor in the blueberries, then it would be hardest on the yeast early on – when it’s struggling to come out of dormancy and grow. But when my blueberry wines have stuck, it’s been after a vigorous start. The large established colony of yeast then sputters at around SG 1.020 – 1.040. The question is, what changes between the promising start and the all too common fizzling out?

I’m trying to create an easy blueberry wine recipe, like my Apple Wine From Store-Bought Juice, and ran into this problem. My hope is to solve this problem and create a reliable and easy way to make blueberry wine.

Win her heart with constant attention. And pH management.

The first time I had a blueberry wine stick on me, I got it going again by adding nutrient. So I began to think that blueberries were low in nutrients. You know, if adding X fixed the problem, then there must not have been enough X to begin with, right? Not so fast. I wasn’t measuring pH back then, but I’ve since noticed that pH drops to dangerous levels as blueberry wine ferments. I now believe that my nutrient addition raised the wine’s pH  and that – not the availability of nutrient per se – got the yeast going again. That means you can’t just adjust the pH and other parameters at the beginning and think you’re done. You need to ensure that the pH stays optimal all the way through your fermentation.

Trouble-free blueberry wine: two ideas

I haven’t got this licked yet, but I have two things I want to try. Since there’s something about blueberry wine that’s causing stuck fermentation, blending with something else ought to help. And if I’m right about it being a problem of too-low pH, then blending with something else that tends toward high pH would help even more. Cherry wine is the obvious choice here because it settles at a high pH even when the titratable acidity is high. Like blueberry juice, cherry juice is readily available in grocery stores – it would fit right in with the easy recipe from juice that I’m trying to create.

The other idea is to keep this a 100% blueberry wine, but to attack the pH problem directly. What I want here is something I can add to buffer the fermenting wine at a higher pH. Sodium citrate or potassium citrate might do the trick. They are salts of citric acid, which is the dominant acid in blueberries, and are used as flavorings and buffering agents in the food industry.

Maybe one of these will do the trick. Maybe something else, but I feel like I’m getting close.

About the photo

It wasn’t just the color cast that made me think of blueberry wine. There’s something about the photo, from the exposure to the model’s pose and expression, that’s enticing but just out of reach. Blueberry wine can be like that. Herman Layos did a great job with this photo, and I really appreciate him making it available under a Creative Commons license – thanks Herman!


^BackNitrogen Fertilizers ~ Penn State Extension: this is an in depth look at using nitrogen in agriculture. What got my winemaking antenna quivering was this quote:

Anhydrous ammonia, urea, diammonium phosphate, and nitrogen solutions, when first applied, greatly but temporarily increase soil pH

I think the same thing can happen when we add DAP, or other nutrients, to our wine musts.

Better Wine Through Hard Choices

Jack Keller’s 2/13/2010 entry called, “When to pull the plug” caught my eye. No, I haven’t developed a moribund fascination with euthanasia but I recently evaluated and discarded five batches of wine and mead. That was over eight gallons that I had high hopes for at one time, and it wasn’t easy to pour it down the drain. Why did I do it? It’s possible to give up too quickly or hang on too long, so it’s an important decision. Let’s look at what Mr Keller has to say about it:

I only pull the plug when a batch has undeniably gone south for eternity. That means a spoilage bacteria has crossed the Rubicon before I knew it existed

I can’t link to this particular post, so you’ll have to click through and search by date and/or title. Like most of his writing, it’s well worth reading the whole thing. Jack is an exceptional winemaker, and this rule might work really well for him. I came to a different conclusion, however, and I think most home winemakers should approach it as a cost-benefit trade off.

Benefit of saving wine

Some problems can be fixed for less time, trouble, and money than starting a new batch. That’s the strongest, most straightforward argument for trying to save a troubled batch. Moving a carboy from the cold basement to a warmer spot upstairs might be all it takes to get a stuck fermentation going again. Some infections can be nipped in the bud by gently floating off a telltale film from the surface, then immediately racking with a higher-than-normal dose of sulfite. If a batch can be saved by simple steps like these, why wouldn’t you? But there’s a gray area in between these easy fixes and the total losses that Jack talks about. The right choice there isn’t obvious, and depends on the specific problem and you own knowledge and resources.

Cost of trying too hard

Some wine and mead will not turn out well enough to justify the work of trying to save them. Every carboy, jug or bottle takes up space. I don’t know about you, but I’m not suffering from too much room for my hobby. Is your back getting stronger and better with age? How about cleaning – is that starting to grow on you? Me neither. We’ll drink better wine with less effort if we can identify and discard the batches that aren’t going to be worth it.

How to balance benefit and cost when evaluating your own wine? Here’s how I did it:

Hard choices and good decisions

I had been keeping an eye on those five batches because I had reasons to think each one might succumb to infection, oxidation, or some other fault. But when I decided to pour them down the drain, it wasn’t for any of the reasons I had been worrying about – I succeeded in saving all five batches. The problem was the taste. None of them tasted bad, or off, or unbalanced. They just didn’t excite me. I forced myself to think about how they stacked up against good budget wine that I’m familiar with. Given the choice, would I rather have a glass of the apple mead or Welch’s wine? The blueberry wine or Fetzer Cabernet? I make my own wine because I enjoy doing it and because I want something different (in a good way) from, or better than, what’s available commercially. I reluctantly decided that these five just didn’t make the cut.

What makes this decision so hard is that you have to make it with incomplete information. Keep good notes so that you know as much about the wine as possible, evaluate the wine as thoroughly as you can (including taste, smell, and visual inspection), then make the call. Take more notes on what you decided and why – like every other aspect of making your own wine, you’ll get better at it.

Mulled Wine

Adding sweeteners and spices to wine then serving it hot – sounds a bit like herbal tea with alcohol, doesn’t it? – was something I never understood. I’m giving it another look this Christmas season because I happen to like herbal tea, it’s something new (to me anyway), and I’ve got some bland wine that I don’t know what to do with. I was excited when I made wine from supermarket grapes, but in the end I didn’t want to drink it. Sweetening didn’t help, but maybe mulling will.

Mulling Spices

In researching mulled wine (in cookbooks, Wikipedia, search engines, my Mom), the same ingredients keep coming up:

Ingredient Amount per Bottle of Wine
cinnamon 1-2 sticks
cloves 6
citris (juice and/or zest) from half an orange or one lemon
sugar or honey about half a cup

Also common are vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamon. You sometimes see pepper, peppercorns, nuts, and raisins too.

Making Mulled Wine

Dissolved sugar or honey in water (about half a cup to a cup – enough to dissolve and cover everything, but no more), bring to a boil, take off heat, add spices, and cover. If using citrus juice, use a little more sugar/honey and a little less water. Let sit on low heat for about 20 minutes. Strain and add wine. Heat the combined mixture (but don’t boil) and serve hot.

This ought to work just as well with mead or cider – maybe even beer.

You can omit the water and stir everything into the wine, then heat the wine – I’ve seen recipes take either approach. I prefer to do the dissolving and extraction separately to guard against boiling the wine.

Straining out the spices might be easier if you use a tea bag or tea ball.

Citrus juice might help by adding flavor if your wine is bland. If you’re going to be zesting, for mulled wine or anything else, a dedicated zesting tool is a godsend.

Final Thoughts

I’m excited about making mulled wine this year. I haven’t decided on a commercial mix or making it from scratch – maybe I’ll try both. I’d love to hear about your experiences with mulled wine – triumphs, disasters, better methods. If you’re having trouble finding supplies, check out my new mulled wine store.

Update 12/13/2010 – A great eggnog recipe!

Eggnog is another tasty treat for the holidays, and this eggnog recipe won’t disappoint!

Difficult Acidity Problems

Because titratable acidity (TA) and pH both measure acidity, they tend to move together. Higher TA usually means lower pH and vice versa. Sometimes that relationship breaks down, and that can drive winemakers and meadmakers crazy.

How are pH and titratable acidity different?

TA and pH are two different ways of measuring how acidic your wine is. Because they each measure acidity in a different way, they tell you about different effects that acid will have on your wine. Without getting into the chemistry, TA tells you how acidity will affect the taste. Does a wine taste tart? That’s high TA your tasting. Too flabby? That would be low TA.

What about pH? It most directly measures how the acidity will affect your wine’s microbial stability. As pH rises above 3.5, microcritters have an easier time taking up residence in your wine. Below 3.5, and the wine becomes much more stable. Cultured wine yeasts have an advantage over many other molds, bacteria, and fungi in that they can thrive as long as the pH remains above 3.0, so keeping fermenting wine at a pH between 3.0 and 3.5 goes a long way towards preventing spoilage.

If pH is too high, you can push it down by adding acid. To low, and you can neutralize acid. TA corrections are similarly straightforward, but what do you do when TA and pH need adjustment in opposite directions? A high pH and high TA can mean a tart wine that is vulnerable to spoilage. Try to fix one problem and you’ll make the other one worse. Low pH and low TA is easier to deal with, but both cases need special handling.

Using sugar to balance a high TA wine

I had a high TA – high pH problem with my cherry wine, and I just recently noticed it in my Merlot. The way I handled it was to leave the acidity alone and address the harsh taste by balancing the wine with sugar. It’s not a perfect solution, but it let me address the tart taste without making the pH even worse. I’ve done some more research since then and have another idea that might work: treat with phosphoric acid to push down the pH.

Using phosphoric acid to lower pH

Adding most any acid will usually push the pH down, but phosphoric acid gives you much more bang for the buck than the acids we normally use (citric, malic, and tartaric). This gives us the ability to lower a wine’s pH with only a negligible impact on it’s TA. Now we can tackle a high TA – high pH wine by first neutralizing enough acid to get the TA where we want it, then adding phosphoric acid to push the pH down. You will have to conduct trials on precisely measured amounts of wine to know how much a given amount of phosphoric acid will move the pH.

You’ll also have to be careful! While this stuff is non toxic, it can be very dangerous to handle. If you’re not qualified to handle corrosive chemicals, then you shouldn’t use this option.

Low TA – low pH in mead

If you run into high TA – high pH, it’s probably in a wine. You’ll see the flip side of that coin in mead. You can tackle that by adding cream of tartar before pitching the yeast and delaying any acid additions until after it has fermented out.

So if the mead is too flabby for your taste, you can improve it by adding acid. To avoid pushing down the pH so much that your yeast can’t ferment, adjust the TA after the mead has fermented to dryness. A low pH won’t matter nearly as much, then, and can keep your mead stable for extended aging.

You can also a teaspoon of potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar) to each gallon of must. This will improve the buffering capacity of the fermenting mead and keep the pH from dropping so much. It’s still a good idea to delay any acid additions until after the yeast have done their work.

Hot Pressing In A Cool Climate

Great news for fungi, bad news for grapes

The cool climate, here in the Puget Sound Region, keeps growers on the edge. We want to grow noble varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which will ripen here but just barely. We also want reliable grapes that ripen even in bad years like this one. Grapes like Madeleine Angevine and Seigerrebe shrugged off the cold wet season and delivered good, if somewhat smaller, crops. A lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is still braving the wet weather, and the fungal diseases that thrive in it, to ripen. Some wont be harvested at all, and many will be harvested with the beginnings of botrytis.

Heat the grapes to repair some of the damage

How do you salvage barley ripe grapes beset by bunch rot? Thermovinification, or “hot pressing,” is the process of heating red wine grapes to kill spoilage organisms, improve color, and reduce unripe flavors. Heating to 150F (65C) for 20 minutes, 180F (90C) for 2 minutes, will do the trick. At this point you can cool the must and ferment normally or press the grapes and ferment like a white wine. It’s best not to leave under ripe grape skins in contact with the fermenting wine for very long.

Adjust the acidity

If you had to harvest before your grapes are ripe, you will have to deal with their acid profile. It isn’t just a matter of reducing high acid levels with something like potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3), the mix of acids may be unfavorable. As grapes ripen, the amount of malic acid falls, while tartaric acid rises. So in under ripe grapes, there will be a disproportionately more malic. That’s when a yeast like Lavlin’s 71B, which consumes malic acid, can come in handy. If, after fermentation, there is still too much acid, then it’s time for the KHCO3.

These steps can make the difference between a lost cause and a drinkable wine, but they won’t conjure up a fine wine from mediocre grapes. Do your best, look forward to next year, and sip some heat treated wine 🙂

Further reading

In his 10/3/2003 Letter to NY winemakers, Thomas Henick-Kling writes about making wine after a difficult harvest. My thanks to Gerard Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Vineyards for recommending that paper.

Jancis Robinson has a great entry on thermovinification in her The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Why I Make Dry Wine

I make wine out of many different fruits and vegetables – from raspberries to rhubarb and all sorts of things in between. That makes for a lot of trial and error as I learn how to consistently make a good wine using very different bases. Many traditional country wine recipes call for a small amount of fruit, a lot of water, enough sugar for 12% alcohol, and acid to balance. You can make (and I have made) good wine this way, and it’s a real money saver. Still, adding a lot of water bothers me and some of the wines I’ve made this way seemed to suffer for it.

That made me wonder what would happen if I used more fruit. What about all fruit and no water? I’m trying this with cherry wine right now, and the first problem I had was in managing the acids. The titratable acidity (TA) of my cherry wine will be high, and that’s something I’ll need to address the next time I make it. I’m working on some ideas, but in the meantime I’ve decided to sweeten the cherry wine. I’ll be trying to balance the acid with sugar and make a drinkable wine out of it.

Learning to make good sweet wine by making good dry wine

I wrote about how to rescue bad wine with sugar on Monday, and the reason this works is also the reason I usually make my wines dry. That might seem strange; if sugar can save bad wines, why can’t it improve any wine? Used correctly, it probably can. Sweet things taste good to all of us, that’s just human physiology. But sugar can mask faults in a wine, and that’s why I stay away from it while I’m learning and experimenting. I need to be able to see the problems in order to fix them. When I understand what I’m doing with a particular wine well enough to make a good one consistently, then I’ll think about making a sweet or off-dry wine.

Rescuing A Bad Wine On Short Notice

When bad wine happens to good dinners

You’ve doted over the yeast, you’ve clarified and stabilized your wine, you’ve set it aside to age, and now you pop the cork. It looks great – nice and clear with great legs (we’re still talking about the wine) as you swirl it around in your glass. Maybe you can’t identify all the notes, floral? citrus?, but it smells wonderful. Next you take a sip, it’s only been a moment but it seems you’ve been anticipating it for hours, and … yuck! It can’t be. All that time and effort to make (or all that money to buy) a wine that can’t stand up to 2-buck Chuck?

So you take another sip. Well given some more aging, that bitterness might soften. And that tartness will mellow out. And while we’re at it, maybe that … that bizarre flavor will go away too. Wines that age well are often unpalatable when young, so it just might. I’ve seen huge changes, usually for the better, in the course of a year. But what do you do right now? You’ve just sat down to dinner and you’ve got this open bottle of wild plum (at least you’re hoping that fruit you picked were wild plums) wine in front of you.

Is there any way to save a bad wine?

Before you pour the bottle down the drain, and grab another you might try aerating and/or sweetening. You’ve heard that some wines need to breath? I remember chatting with a gentleman at a wine tasting who tames ruffian wines by putting them through the blender. I didn’t do that when my 2006 Apple wine proved too harsh, but a little sugar did wonders for it. I started out by dissolving 0.5 tsp sugar in a wine glass. Marsha and I noticed an immediate improvement, but we still weren’t happy with it. It turns out that 1 tsp per glass was about right. It saved the wine and it saved the dinner.

I’m not going to tell you it works every time, but it’s worth a try.

Oregano Wine Recipe: restarting a stuck fermentation

I tested a sample of my oregano wine yesterday. The specific gravity is 1.053 and the pH is 2.62. These results are virtually unchanged from 7/13/07 when I first noticed the pH crash that stopped the yeast in their tracks. I’ll try to get them going again by neutralizing some of the acid, raising the pH, with potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3). I had planned on adding two teaspoons because I wanted to add about 10 grams, and I believed that one teaspoon was 4.8 grams. The vendor, Crosby & Baker, says that 1 teaspoon is about 6 grams and warns against using more than 10-13 grams per gallon. That would put two teaspoons, at about 12 grams, very close to the upper limit, and since measuring spoons are not precise I decided to only add one teaspoon this time. I’ll see if fermentation restarts and I’ll retest the pH.

I’ve also decided to add one teaspoon of cream of tartar. The reaction of KHCO3 with tartaric acid will create cream of tartar. By adding some more, I’m seeding the wine and that will encourage the newly created stuff to precipitate out more easily. I’m also hoping it will improve the buffering capacity of the wine.