Winemakers, free your minds from the smothering bonds of the kit box!
Wine kits may seem like a confined sort of brewing because all the instructions are laid out for you. When it comes down to it though, the kits are just a box full of good ingredients, and its up to you to determine how to make the wine. Here are five ways that you can let your creative juices flow. Above all, have fun!
1. Throw out the sawdust.
If you've ever looked skeptically at a bag of dusty wood shavings that came with your kit, you have good reason. There are some very good oak alternatives out there, and substituting in a high quality source of oak flavor can greatly improve your wine kit. There are so many options available! The country of origin, toast level, and type (cubes, staves, etc.) of oak you use has a big impact on the final flavor of the wine. Taste a little sample out of primary and decide what you think would be best for the finished wine. After experimenting with different types of oak, you might even become interested in a barrel, which not only improves the oak flavor but also contributes a unique aging process. Good Pinot Noir especially can benefit from the slow oxidation of barrel aging.
2. Ignore the timetable.
Well, not completely. But you should consider the times given as flexible, especially as you get towards the end of the process. For a wine like Sauvignon Blanc, no extended aging would likely be necessary, and drinking a month or two after the 6-week kit is finished might be totally fine. But big wines like Cabernet Sauvignon can't be drunk so quickly, and really require aging to be palatable. Extended bulk aging can have its advantages, from slow extraction of quality oak to the favorable oxidation of barrels. If you are aging in bulk, remember to appropriately top up your vessel to reduce excess exposure to oxygen.
3. Play with yeast.
Yeast is your friend. There is a great selection of yeasts available, and they are generally inexpensive. Tons of wine kits just come with standard, neutral Champagne yeast. This yeast is a good fermenter and very easy to use, but consider trying out something more suited to your particular tastes. I personally love the Wyeast Rudesheimer strain and the Lalvin D-47 and RC-212.
4. Blend a little.
Most professional wineries practice blending constantly, whether it is with different grape varieties or the same variety but different oak or other factors. In your home cellar you can plan to make two batches in a row from blending-friendly grapes (like a batch a Cabernet Sauvignon and a batch of Shiraz), and then experiment with small quantities of different blends until you find one that clicks. It's like making three wines instead of two!
5. Try your hand at sweetening.
Don't be afraid to make a sweet or semi-sweet wine out of a kit that is intended to be dry. There are several good options for this: if you know you want to make a semi-sweet wine you can use the Lalvin 71B Narbonne yeast, which leaves about 3% residual sugar and has an excellent flavor profile. If you have made a dry wine and think it would taste good with a bit more sweetness, try adding potassium sorbate to halt further fermentation, and then add your choice of sweetener.