Home Winemaking

Techniques and Recipes

THE TYPE OF WINE: Dry, medium or sweet? Aperitif, table, social or dessert wine?

Home ] The technique of making wine ] Selecting fruit and ingredients ] Yeast for home made wines, the process of fermentation ] Concentrated grape juice and sugar ] [ Making wines of different strengths ] The hydrometer, alcohol and fermentation ] Racking and sweetening ] Fining and filtering, finishing your home made wine ] Blending wines; storing, maturing and serving wine ] Problems, faults and remedies in home made wine ] Winemaking with concentrated grape juice ] Making sherry at home ] Making sparkling wine at home ] Making Sparkling wine and Champagne ] Glossary of winemaking terms ]

What Sort Of Wine Do You Like To Make At Home?

The weight of sugar dissolved in a must determines the final amount of alcohol produced - but only up to the limit of the yeast's tolerance of alcohol. 

Over about 14%-17% alcohol by volume, the yeast stops working and any remaining sugar stays unconverted, thereby producing a sweet wine. Now, each pound (450 grams) of sugar in one gallon (4.5 litres) of must will produce about 5% alcohol by volume. You can make use of this fact to construct a rough-and-ready guide to the type of wine which will be produced, according to the overall amount of sugar in each gallon (4.5 litres) of must: 

About 2.25 lb (1 kg) - Dry 

About 2.5 lb (1.15 kg) - Medium 

Over 2.5 lb (1.15 kg) - Sweet 

The figures above refer to the UK gallon. Allowing for the smaller US gallon, the corresponding figures for American readers are: 

About 1.75 pounds = dry; 

About 2.25 pounds = medium; 

Over 2.25 pounds = sweet. 

However, the extent to which yeast ferments out the sugar in a wine depends on many very variable factors such as temperature, nutrient and the length of the pulp fermentation. Clearly it is better to use enough sugar to produce a wine of the desired strength and then to sweeten the finished wine to taste after it has been racked and stabilized. In fact the appropriate level of alcohol in a finished wine depends on what you are aiming to do with it.  Here are some definitions of various types of wine: 

Aperitif:  A wine drunk before a meal to stimulate the appetite. 

Table wine:  A wine drunk during a meal. Medium-strength bouquet and flavor, usually dryish with rather less body than a social or a dessert wine. 10%-12% alcohol by volume. 

Social wine:  The name is self-explanatory, really. Intended for drinking at any time other than before, during or after a meal. Has a heavier body and stronger bouquet and flavor than a table wine; usually also sweeter and stronger than a table wine.

Dessert wine: Drunk with and after the sweet or dessert course of a meal. Has a stronger flavor and heavier body than either a table or a social wine. Also needs a high level of alcohol to "carry" its sweetness. Quite unsuitable for use during the main courses of a meal.


The traditional dessert wine is strong, sweet and full-bodied. Something like a commercially produced dessert wine can be made at home by aiming for a high alcohol level and good body. The alcohol level is achieved by adding the sugar in stages: half the total amount at the beginning and the remainder in four ounce (110g) lots each time the previous sugar has been fermented out. This can be judged by watching the progress of bubbles through the air-lock or by tasting the wine, although the use of a hydrometer is more reliable and makes things easier. 

Once the correct strength has been achieved, the wine can be stabilized, racked and finally sweetened to taste. The amount of sugar required to do this is explained later. The good body of a dessert wine is achieved by the use of more fruit than in a table wine. Equally, these wines need more acid to balance high levels of sugar and prevent a cloying sickly sweet taste when the wine is drunk. If in doubt, use 1/2 oz (15 g) of tartaric acid per gallon (4.5 litres) - any excess will precipitate out - and up to the equivalent of 6 - 7 lb (2.7-3.2 kg) of fruit as opposed to the more normal 3 - 4 lb (1.35-1.8 kg) of a table wine. 

There seems little point in making a strong, dry wine at home. One has to drink less - if one wishes to stay sober! - than one would of a table wine, and so the opportunity to enjoy the flavor of the wine to the full is reduced. But one of the enjoyable aspects of this hobby is the fact that you are not tied down to a set of rules. There is no particular reason why you should feel compelled to emulate commercial wines. The method of production is the same as that of strong sweet wines, except that the final addition of sugar is allowed to ferment to dryness and the wine is not sweetened to taste. We should not leave the subject of strong wines without mentioning port and sherry.

Although the home winemaker can produce a reasonable "sherry", given a certain amount of care, sadly he cannot really emulate port. This is because of the strange way it is made. Commercially, port is produced by allowing a sweet red wine must to ferment only about a quarter of the way to completion, at which point a considerable amount of brandy is added to stop the fermentation and increase the alcoholic strength to the desired level. The nearest we can realistically come to this process is to sweeten a strong red wine and then to fortify it with a small amount of brandy. Any of the recipes for red dessert wine would be suitable, and the calculations needed for fortifying the wine are explained later.

Next: controlling the fermentation, using the hydrometer and making wine of particular strength


Original posting date
01 January 2018