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Omaha Magazine

Foraging and Fermenting Wild American Grapes

Aug 26, 2016 05:56PM ● By Patrick McGee

If you've ever been interested in making wine from wild grapes, Frank Sobetski says this is a good year to start.

For nearly 25 years, Sobetski has been supplying local winemakers at Fermenter's Supply & Equipment (84th and J streets in Omaha, behind Just Good Meats). He sells kits, equipment, and supplies to experts and novices alike. He also offers useful advice on foraging and fermenting.

Blue ribbons hang on his back wall, behind the counter of the small, tidy shop. The ribbons recognize the proprietor’s mastery of oenology (i.e., the study of wines).

Sobetski has tasted a variety of local wines as the superintendent of the Nebraska State Fair Winemaking Competition for the past 33 years. He knows what to expect from local vintages.

He has cultivated grapevines year-to-year since the mid-1980s, and he opened Fermenter's Supply & Equipment in 1992. Sobetski has been serving winemaking wisdom soaked in his scientific knowledge ever since.

Foraging Wild Grapes

Wild American “fox” grapes differ from store-bought table grapes and wine grapes, which are largely of European origin. Wild grapes are more tart and less sweet than domestic varieties used in commercial winemaking. Fox grape varieties are known for having an earthy and sweet muskiness. The distinct aroma is called “foxy.”

Nebraska's wild grapes are predominantly from the vitis labrusca and vitus vuplina species of American grapes. They are hardier than European vitis vinifera grapes associated with European, South American, and Californian wines. Nebraskan vitis labrusca and vuplina can better withstand Nebraska's frigid winters and brutally hot summers. Concord grapes are a well-known cultivated variety of vitis labrusca.

The ripening of wild grapes is known as “veraison” in viticulture and véraison in French. In Nebraska, veraison generally occurs from August to September.

Harvest enough grapes and, with a bit of effort, aspiring winemakers can produce a unique wild grape wine that is unlike any familiar European wine. 

In July 2016, Sobetski predicted a good year for wild grapes in Nebraska because of “fortunate rainfall.” In early fall, the ripe blue-black clusters of wild grapes begin sagging from vines stretched between fence posts and tree branches.

The low-hanging fruits can easily be collected by hand. Wild grapes are often found near rivers and streams, or associated woodlands. Plant guidebooks or a Google image search can assist with identification, and grapes are typically plentiful once located.

Understanding Fermentation

Sobetski says that in order to produce a palatable wine from wild grapes, the “must” (i.e., the juice solution) should be made chemically like European grape juice, which remains the standard.

Balancing the must is complicated by a number of factors. Wild grapes are more acidic and contain less sugar than European grapes. Sobetski says this condition can be ameliorated by adding water and sugar to the must

The equipment generally needed for the initial fermentation stage is a primary fermenter (an airtight container to which a fermentation lock can be affixed), a fermentation lock (a simple device through which gasses may escape but not go back through), and a mesh sack to hold grapes in the fermenter. Measuring cups, spoons, and scales are also necessary. A length of food-grade tubing and sealable bottles are needed to bottle the wine.

A hydrometer—a buoyant glass tube that is calibrated to measure the amount of suspended solids versus straight water in a solution—is “the most important tool in winemaking,” according to Sobetski. Reading a hydrometer can tell a winemaker when fermentation is complete. Sobetski says that one can make wine without a hydrometer, but to pursue the hobby in earnest, a hydrometer is essential.

“Sanitization is the most important thing,” Sobetski says. “Soap and water is not enough.” Phosphoric acid is a safe, nontoxic sanitizer that can be used. Diluted household bleach sanitizes effectively as well. Everything that may come into contact with the wine must be thoroughly sanitized or the wine is at risk of becoming infected. Infection will ruin a batch of wine, effectively destroying an entire grape harvest.

Making Foxy Wine

Making wild American grape wine is not difficult. First, sanitize all of your equipment. Then remove your grapes from the stems and wash them. Place the grapes in a mesh sack. Place the mesh sack in your primary fermenter. Crush the grapes in the sack, releasing as much juice as possible. Add water, sugar, pectic enzyme, and yeast nutrient. Add the crushed Campden tablet and mix thoroughly. Cover the primary fermenter.

After 24 hours, pitch the yeast into the solution, attach a fermentation lock, and seal the fermenter. Wait a few days. If you are using a hydrometer, fermentation effectively stops when the density reading (known as “specific gravity”) reaches below “1.000.”

Further fermentation in secondary and tertiary fermenters before bottling would improve the wine’s quality. But the additional steps can add several months (or years) to the process. Then, the wine can be siphoned into bottles using a small length of tubing.

Store a few bottles. Share the rest. They will run out fast. The sweet, “foxy” tartness pairs well with autumn weather and is sure to please your holiday guests. They will never forget their first sip of wild American fox grape wine, and neither will you.

Wild American Grape Wine Recipe

Frank Sobetski recommends the Winemaker's Recipe Handbook as a starting point for wild fruit wine recipes. The brief handbook costs less than $5 and is easy to read. Sobetski says that this book “assumes the reader has knowledge from other sources,” including knowledge of fermentation processes and equipment. Nevertheless, a novice winemaker can follow these recipes and expect “reasonable outcomes,” says Sobetski. His recommended wild-grape wine recipe is derived from the handbook. The following recipe makes one gallon of wine:

6 pounds wild grapes. Forage them.

6 pints water. Avoid tap water if possible.

2 pounds white sugar.

½ teaspoon pectic enzyme. This breaks down the fruit fibers and releases the juices.

1 teaspoon yeast nutrient. This is a fertilizer for yeast. Sobetski says it “makes yeast happy.”

1 crushed tablet of Campden. This is a pre-measured sulfite dose that kills off wild yeast. Sobetski notes that it is impossible to make a sulfite-free wine, as yeast naturally produces sulfites.

1 package wine yeast. Montrachet is recommended for most wild-fruit wines. For grape wine, Pasteur can create a redder wine due to better extraction.

All supplies can be obtained via Fermenter's Supply.

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