2011 Fig Wine (main crop)

Note:  This was my first finished batch of wine and I made several mistakes in the process.  Those have been highlighted in red, so exercise good judgement if you are attempting to recreate this on your own.  In fact, I strongly recommend the journal entry for batch #3 as a starting point instead.  These notes are only presented here for reference.

Wine has always been associated with the grape, and for good reason--it contains the perfect balance of acids and sugars for fermentation.  It even comes with its own yeast, which lives on the skins!  However, there are some fruits that are strong contenders for a red grape wine surrogate.  Plums, pomegranates, and figs come to mind.  Our very first wine was a fig wine, made from the black mission fig tree behind the house.  Sadly, batch #1 suffered an untimely demise when the carboy cracked open, spilling five gallons of wine across the bedroom floor.  Fortunately, fig trees produce two crops per season, so we got a second chance to make this delicious beverage.

I should mention a few harvesting tips for those lucky enough to have access to a producing tree.  As I mentioned, fig trees have two crops.  The first, or breba crop, grows on last year's wood.  The fruit are typically larger but fewer in number.  The main crop, which occurs later in the season and grows from the new shoots, is more numerous but smaller in size.  Both crops can produce large amounts of fruit but not all at once.  I typically pick as much as I can each week and store them in the freezer until I have enough to make wine.  Be careful of the white sap that oozes from the stems when you pick them.  It is an irritant to human skin and can cause a rash if not washed off promptly.  While I was climbing the tree the first year I got some on my arms and neck, which left some mild chemical burns on me for weeks.  Watch out.  Also while harvesting, you will most likely encounter the fig beetle (also known as fig eater).  They are large, shiny, dark green beetles that will clumsily fly about when disturbed.  Don't worry--despite their loud buzzing, they do not bite or sting.  However, they love figs and will gladly take bites out of each one they find, spoiling your crop.  Squash them if you can; they do not serve any beneficial purpose to the tree such as pollination.  I've read that they can be trapped by building a box with a light positioned inside and a pan of oil at the bottom.  Supposedly, the beetles will be attracted to the light at night, fly inside, bump into the ceiling, and fall to their deaths in the oil below.  I have not tried this yet but I will post an update if it works.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the recipe we used for our second batch of fig wine:
  • 31.8 lbs ripe figs (chopped and peeled: 46.5 cups of pulp)
  • 65 cups tap water
  • 24 cups sugar
  • 17.5 tsp acid blend
  • 6 tsp pectic enzyme
  • 4 Campden tablets

August 14, 2011

We peeled the fruit and stored the skins in the refrigerator.  Then we mixed and simmered the fig pulp, water, sugar, and acid over low heat.  At first, the mixture turned brown but after adding the acid blend, it immediately became a deep, vivid red.  I only had a small stock pot so the mixture had to be split into 4 batches.  Because of all the pulp, the final pot wasn't able to fit in the primary so I left it on the stove to cool.  My plan was to wait until I had strained the pulp from the primary before adding the contents of the final pot.  As for the heat, I wasn't sure how it would affect pectic enzyme, so I left the primary outside overnight to cool down.  I should have added Campden tablets right away.  This was a lesson I had to learn the hard way.  Fruit is vulnerable to microbes as soon as it is picked, so the sooner you add sulfites, the better.

The reason I had waited to add Campden tablets was because I was afraid of overdoing it.  I had read several winemaking tutorials that offered conflicting information about the amount of sulfites present in one Campden tablet.  When I had made batch #1, the primary emitted a sulfuric smell, which I was unaccustomed to and which I mistakenly interpreted as excessive sulfites.  Several batches of wine later, I now realize this is normal.  The sulfites bind with sugar, which the yeast then consume and convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Sulfur gas gets expelled along with carbon dioxide.  Now, whenever we start a new batch of wine, the house fills with that familiar, funky smell of fruit/yeast/sulfur and we recognize it as a sign that the fermentation is off to a good start.  Now I know that Campden tablets are sold in tablet form to make measurement easier.  It's one tablet per gallon.  Simple!

Anyway, due to my paranoia over sulfites, I had ordered an Accuvin free SO2 test kit through the mail but it hadn't arrived yet.  I decided to hold off on the Campden tablets until it arrived.

August 15, 2011

Once the must had cooled, I added 5 tsp of pectic enzyme to the primary and 1 tsp to the extra pot.  I put the fig skins in a nylon mesh bag and added that to the pot as well.  In hindsight, boiling the fruit was probably a bad idea, too.  I've read that boiling fruit eliminates much of its aroma.  Had I simply mixed the ingredients together at room temperature, I would have added pectic enzyme right away so that it could get to work sooner (pectic enzyme needs a good 12-24 hours to do the job).  In fact, I'm still not even sure if heat has an effect on it.  I always try to err on the side of caution, so I'm just not going to boil must in future batches.

August 16, 2011

At this point, I began to smell a sour, vinegar-like odor in the must.  Unfortunately, the sulfite kit had not arrived yet.  I squeezed the juice from the pulp.  There was actually much more juice than I had anticipated, so I poured some of it out.  I added the final pot of must to the primary, pulp and all, as well as the bag of fig skins.  The total volume was about seven gallons, nearly filling the primary.  This was another mistake.  Don't get greedy.  Leave plenty of room in the primary and if you need more, buy a bigger primary.  I added two crushed Campden tablets and sealed it up.  Within an hour, I heard a sound coming from the primary.  The primary was ejecting must through the airlock and onto the top of the lid and onto the floor.  Apparently, it had begun spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast.  I removed about a half gallon of must and transferred it to a couple of empty bottles.

August 17, 2011

The characteristic sulfur smell had appeared.  I added two more Campden tablets out of fear of unknown microorganisms.  The must in the extra bottles was being expelled onto the floor, so I had to pour some out.  The strength of the fermentation was incredible, especially considering I hadn't even added the yeast yet.

At night, I measured the specific gravity at 1.074, residual sugar at 18%, and 9.75% potential alcohol.  The pH was 3.7.  It's quite possible the specific gravity was higher when spontaneous fermentation began 24 hours prior.  I activated a packet of Red Star Montrachet yeast and waited three hours.  In hindsight, three hours is much too long for activating yeast.  It only takes 15 minutes to rehydrate the yeast and, without adding food after that point, many of them will start to die off.  Either pitch the entire starter into the must or gradually introduce small amounts of must to the starter if you want to acclimate the yeast.  I made several batches of sugar syrup by dissolving one cup of sugar in 1/3 cup water.  In total, I added 6 cups of sugar.  The specific gravity didn't seem to change much.  I also added 2 tsp of acid blend to bring the pH down to 3.5.  I dissolved 5 tsp of Fermax and added that.  Technically, it should have been 6 tsp but that's all I had on hand.  After all the extra ingredients had been added, I pitched the yeast.

August 18, 2011

Punched down the cap.  The primary smells good--no sulfur.  The makeshift wine bottle fermenters smell sour and sulfuric.  In the evening, I punched down the cap again and took measurements.

specific gravity: 1.039
residual sugar: 10%
potential alcohol: 5%
free SO2: 4 ppm
titratable acidity: 6.5 g/L

It has a noticeable alcoholic taste but it's still very sweet.  I added one vial of White Labs malolactic bacteria.  The intent is to create a buttery mouthfeel, a common attribute in red wines.

August 19, 2011

Punched down the cap twice and took measurements:

SG: 1.016
sugar: 4%
pot alc: 2%
malic acid: 75 mg/L

The alcohol is more apparent.  The sweetness has diminished significantly but is still present.

August 20, 2011

Punched down the cap three times and measured malic acid level.  When viewed in direct sunlight, it looks more like 110 mg/L.  Malolactic fermentation should be complete when it reaches 30 mg/L.  The wine tastes good and is still somewhat sweet.

August 21, 2011

Punched down the cap and took measurements:

SG: 0.996
sugar: -1%
pot alc: -0.5%
TA: 6.5 g/L
pH: 3.82

The pH will need to be lowered soon to avoid the risk of spoilage.  On the bright side, the relatively high pH has probably been beneficial to the malolactic bacteria.  The general rule of thumb is 1/2-1 g/L of tartaric acid will lower the pH by about 0.1 units.  By this formula, a total of about 3.79 tbsp should drop the pH to 3.72, or 7.57 tbsp to drop it to 3.62.  Care must be taken, as the TA is already at an appropriate level.

August 22, 2011

Punched down the cap and took measurements:

SG: 0.992
sugar: -2%
pot alc: -1%
TA: 6.5 g/L
pH: 3.80

Malic acid still looks like 110 g/L.  The current volume is about 5.75 gallons.  Assuming a conservative figure of 5 gallons and based on 1 g/L tartaric acid to lower the pH by 0.1, 18.927 g are needed to lower pH by 0.1 (4.027 tsp).  After adding 4 tsp, the pH was brought down to 3.6, so it was wise to err on the side of caution and only add a little at a time.  An additional 2 tsp reduced it to 3.53.  TA increased to about 9 g/L.  Another 2 tsp reduced pH to 3.47 (9, maybe 9.5 g/L TA).  Pressing the pulp/skins may increase the pH due to potassium leaching out.

August 23, 2011

SG: 0.992
sugar: -2%
pot alc: -1%
TA: 9 g/L
pH: 3.5

I added 4 Campden tablets and measured the free sulfite.  The sulfite test kit looks the same as it did before; I am suspicious of its accuracy.  We racked it into a 5 gallon carboy.  When the auto-siphon started getting clogged we poured the remainder through a sanitized nylon bag and funnel.  In the future, we should keep all the fruit in a nylon bag from the start, so that it can be easily removed.

August 24, 2011

A half inch of lees are visible at the base of the carboy.  The top has clarified into a deep red, while the majority of the liquid is a pink mixture of wine and sediment.

August 25, 2011

I moved the carboy to the closet.  The pH is now 3.52 (slightly higher), which may indicate malolactic fermentation is continuing.  The top half of the carboy is now red and somewhat clarified.

August 30, 2011

The majority of the sediment has settled, leaving most of the liquid a dark red but not quite translucent yet.  Perhaps we will rack again on October 4, which will be six weeks from the first racking.  Lysozyme should not be added until MLF test results are below 30 ppm, which may take months to complete.

October 8, 2011

Took the following measurements: 160/110 mg/L malic acid, 9 g/L TA, 18 ppm SO2, 3.72 pH, 0.990 spec grav, -2° Balling, -1% pot alc.  The Accuvin free sulfite and malic acid test kits always seem to have the same colored results, and this wine has gone through some significant changes.  I don’t trust them.  The wine has a peculiar smell, similar to the rubber stopper in the carboy.  It’s slightly reminiscent of the disastrous test bottles full of extra must that were set aside.  We sampled those last month and they were severely flawed.  The bottle that had Fermax indiscriminately sprinkled in had a salty taste, while the other two spontaneous fermentation bottles had a repulsive bacterial flavor.  The wine in the carboy, however, had an agreeable taste, although the odor was unusual.  I am hoping that is either because of the fact that it is not grape wine or because it is still too adolescent to drink enjoyably, which Jack Keller’s recipe stated.  Sparged a new, sanitized carboy with a full cannister of Preservino argon and racked the wine.  Because of the dubious accuracy of the malic acid test, and the absence of visual evidence of any continued malolactic fermentation I added a teaspoon of lysozyme and 2 crushed Campden tablets, dissolved in a small amount of boiled and cooled water.  About an inch of lees were left behind in the old carboy.  The racked wine does not appear to require further clarification--it is translucent in a wine glass.  Will bulk age for the next several months.

Jack Keller recommends topping off the carboy with a high-quality Chardonnay, Muscat, or Chenin Blanc rather than sparging with argon, for better long-term results.  Since malolactic bacteria was introduced, this limits the choices, as the introduction of a non-malo wine may renew malolactic fermentation at a later date.  Some Muscats and Chenin Blancs may have undergone malolactic fermentation but many Chardonnays have.  Some candidates are:


November 2, 2011

My brother came to visit so I opened up one of the experimental bottles to show him.  Besides the unusual smell, the taste actually wasn’t bad at all.  Maybe aging is key after all.

December 7, 2011

I topped off the carboy with a second bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay (1st was a couple weeks ago).  The rubber smell is still there but it’s hard to say whether it’s stronger or the same as in October.  Based on reading, this may be a sign of mercaptans, produced by the reaction of hydrogen sulfide with ethanol.  Factors that support this assumption are the use of Montrachet yeast (which is known to produce higher levels of hydrogen sulfide) and prolonged exposure to the lees (most of the sediment had precipitated by the end of August but the wine was not racked until October 8th).  The malolactic bacteria may have also contributed.  The lysozyme may have killed the microbial agents existing in the wine but, as the top of the carboy is now sparged with argon, this anaerobic condition is conducive to renewed growth.  In any case, the agent producing the rubber smell must be dealt with before it worsens.  It is crucial to determine whether these are mono-mercaptans (most likely) or disulfides.  Mercaptans may be treated with aeration and exposure to copper but disulfides are considerably more difficult to treat and must be either filtered out with mineral oil (and then removed with the oil) or broken down with ascorbic acid and precipitated with copper sulfate solution.

March 26, 2012

I sent a sample to Enartis Vinquiry to test for sulfite problems.  The results came back negative but they did indicate there is a slight volatile acidity problem.  This can be masked with their Enartis Tan Max Nature product.  I obtained a small sample (all that’s needed to treat 5 gallons) from their supply department free of charge.  I need to mix the tannins with some finished wine and top off the carboy.  The recommended dosage is 3-15 g/hL.

June 30, 2012

I dissolved ⅝ tsp Enartis Tan Max Nature into a bottle of 2011 Zinnia Pinot Noir and poured into the wine.  The tannins are somewhat hydrophobic and sunk to the bottom in clumps.  I had to break them apart with the inner tube from the auto-siphon, at which point they turned into a jelly-like substance.  I racked the contents into a new carboy.  The pH is now at 3.21 although the accuracy of the pH meter is questionable, having shown varied results during the last racking of our loquat wine.  I need to buy more pH buffer solution and recalibrate.  I topped off the carboy with another bottle of Zinnia.  The fig wine is reminiscent, in terms of flavor, aroma, and color, of some pomegranate wine we tried last year but it tastes somewhat more tart.  We should add some sugar before bottling at the end of the summer.  Perhaps that will also help mask the rubbery smell, although I have to admit it doesn’t seem as offensive as I remember it being.  The odor dissipates rapidly once decanted.  It’s hard to believe we are almost at the one-year anniversary of the completion of fermentation.

fig wine

August ??, 2012

We back-sweetened the wine with some sugar syrup and 5 Campden tablets, using a carboy stirring attachment for my electric drill.  The attachment warned not to stir too much or the wine will get oxidized but our experience with this wine suggests oxidization seems to help remove the rubber smell, so we ran it liberally.  I forgot to log the amount of sugar syrup added.  Maybe Jed has that.  The wine was clear but became cloudy immediately after back-sweetening.  I plugged the carboy with a new silicone bung (design does not require an airlock).  These are odorless, so I think I will use these from now on.

October 7, 2012

I started preparing the wine for fining with Bentonite and Sparkolloid but after extracting a sample, it looked clear enough in the glass.  The wine in the carboy is still opaque even with a flashlight but I seem to remember it being translucent before.  It looks good enough in a wine glass, though.  It tastes great (and potent) and the rubber smell is minimal--probably a result of oxidization or the removal of the rubber stopper.  Time for bottling!

fig wine sample

October 13, 2012

Bottling party!  We had some friends over and spent a lot of time removing labels from old bottles and sanitizing them.  We were able to get 25 bottles out of the batch, one of which was consumed.  The corking machine doesn't seem to get the corks all the way in the neck.  It might need some adjustment.  My sister made some excellent labels, which Jed printed out and affixed with a mini glue roller.  Our first wine is finally complete!

bottled fig wine

fig wine label