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Why test wine?
by Robert Linder

I began making wine in 1997 as a friend of mine who recognized my experience in beer making would easily lend a hand in his winemaking efforts. Once you have someone who can bottle beer and lug full glass carboys around, they're a natural for helping you make wine. In essence they are your own personal Cellar Rat. So as a first time winemaker I brought with me some old habits in beer making that do not transfer very well. The bad habit I had in making beer that I also used in making wine was NOT to use any test equipment.

Wine, unlike beer is more complex in the subtleties of acids and the action of chemistry and time. Beer is simple, you brew a batch, let it ferment, clarify it, bottle it and drink it all within two to four weeks. Wine on the other hand comes from multiple sources (see my 1st article “How Do I Begin”) and requires time. A batch of wine requires one month to one year before it becomes palatable. A lot can happen to your wine in one year's time. To make sure your wine is behaving properly so it doesn't turn to vinegar is to test it at key points in the process to maker sure your time and energy isn't wasted.

For the beginning winemaker, I would suggest at least one piece of testing equipment and possibly two if you want to invest a few more dollars into the hobby. The test equipment you really ought to have is a Hydrometer.

A hydrometer measures the sugar in your liquid and as the fermentation progresses you will see less sugar to measure. A hydrometer is important for three reasons;
1. It lets you know from the start how much potential alcohol your wine might have
2. It lets you know if your fermentation is going as planned or if it's stuck
3. It lets you know when your fermentation is finished or when you might want to have it finished

Hydrometers are available at Wine and Beer Supply stores or on the Internet and run anywhere from $8 to $15. A pretty inexpensive investment for a view into how your wine is working. My 1997 batch was made with a hydrometer, but it was probably the only testing equipment I used that year.

A Hydrometer lets you know from the start how much potential alcohol your wine might have.

I just read an email from a beginning winemaker who made his first batch of wine and then used a hydrometer to find out his wine had a potential alcohol of 5%. Many beers are above 5% so he made a very low alcohol wine that might not last very long. If he would have used the hydrometer from the start he might have realized he would need to add sugar or more product to get that potential alcohol level up to say 9% at a minimum and possibly up to 11%.

A Hydrometer lets you know if your fermentation is going as planned or if it's stuck.

If you know the reading of your sugar content from the beginning of fermentation, you'll be able to mark its progress as the specific gravity numbers go lower. You will literally see your hydrometer sink further into it's testing tube as the juice converts to wine via the process of fermentation which is converting the sugars to alcohol. If the numbers don't change much from day-to-day you may have a stuck fermentation. A stuck fermentation will require you to do a few things that can save you from having a very sweet incomplete wine or a perfect wine. A hydrometer will help you know what is going on.

A Hydrometer lets you know when your fermentation is finished or when you might want to have it finished.

In general terms a completed fermentation of your wine is when the specific gravity reads .990 on the hydrometer. Until it reaches that point a fermentation may be going on, very slowly, but still going on and you don't want to bottle your wine while it is still fermenting. This could lead to broken bottles and staining wine all over your floor or carpet. Now sometimes you want to stop a fermentation before it is fully done or fully “dry”. Say you want to have a wine with “residual sugar” for a slightly sweet taste. Then you need to know your reaching say the .1005 mark and then you will add Potasium Sorbate which in effect stops the reproductive cycle of yeast thus stopping the fermentation.

For the $5 to $15 dollar investment, a hydrometer is one of your best and first test equipment purchase.

If you still have a little money in your wallet and you want to further your hobby's test equipment inventory, I would suggest the purchase of a pH meter. Wine is all about acid. Too much acid and you have a very pucker-up wine. Too little acid and you have what I call a “flabby wine.” A flabby wine might be interesting to taste at first but really does not contain enough acid to give your wine structure and most of all “staying power.” Wines with little acid will not age well. Knowing the acid level of your wine is important from a storage standpoint and also how it will taste once the fermentation is complete and the aging process begins. The best way to test acidity of your wine is to use a pH meter.

A pH meter is essentially a probe that registers the acidity or basicity of a liquid. For our purpose, that liquid being wine should register between 3.0 and 4.0 in the scale of 0 to 14. I won't go into a lot of detail in this article about acidity of wine and how to correct it, the point here is it can be measured and can be corrected. It is best to correct for acid problems before, and after fermentation. Along with the measurement of your products acid content you can get a sense of what the solution's tartaric acid reading might be. Measured at TA, Tartaric Acid gives your wine mouth feel and helps create a great tasting wine. The TA can be adjusted, hence the need to know the numbers and where you want to go within the acceptable range to make a great wine.

PH meters can be very spendy. The products out their range from test strips to probes in the multiple hundreds of dollars. If you really don't want to spend much money, you can buy the strips but their accuracy almost makes the investment not worth it. However, the strips will provide you a window into your juices acid level. I recommend strips over nothing at all. If you do an Internet search for pH meters you will find some basic units starting at about $30 and then professional laboratory equipment in the multiple hundreds of dollars. I personally use a Hanna Prep4. What you want to look for in comparing products is the accuracy of the pHmeter. The more accurate the more expensive. I would suggest that if you are serious, look at an accuracy of .1 plus or minus.

One other very important element to know about pH meters, the probes are very vulnerable and need to be stored in a storage solution to prevent the probe from drying out. If the probe drys out, it need to be recalibrated and can fail if it is repeatedly dried out. So you need to protect your investment by purchasing some storage solution and calibration solutions (a fraction of the cost of the actual meter). I know it's a little bit of a hassle and maybe those strips look pretty attractive right now. But if you are starting to make wine with juice/fruit/grapes that cost you hundreds of dollars in investment, a pH meter might be the best choice for you.

I've been making wine for ten years now and started a winemaking audio show called WineMaking Radio four years ago. Their have been several episodes that talk about testing your wine and I invite you to visit and search the website for “wine testing.” Episode 27 might be useful for specific information. Wine making is a long and sometimes costly investment. If you are serious about the hobby and the results, test equipment might be as important to buy as that first primary fermenter.

I hope this article was informative and has peaked your interest. Winemaking is a hobby that is fun to partake in and it's always easy to share the end result with the people around you.


How do I begin?

What type of winemaking equipment do I need?

Wine made from fruit or a kit — it's all good!

Recipe for Army Worm Wine

Read Wine Making Radio Episode 1

Read Wine Making Radio Episode 2

Read Wine Making Radio Episode 3

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