Everyone knows that good grapes make world-class wine. But in recent years, the quality of kit wines has improved enough to impress even the most dedicated fresh-fruit purist.
Besides offering first-time winemakers an easy introduction to the hobby, kits offer experts a chance to makes wines from grape-growing regions around the world. Some varietals simply aren't grown in North America, or are grown in quantities too small to supply the home winemaking market.
Would a vineyard have enough surplus Nebbiolo or Viognier to ship you a few cases? Doubtful. But high-quality varietal wine kits are available nationwide at any time of the year, sourced from vineyards in California, Australia, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other classic wine areas. You can also find kits for interesting styles, like late-harvest wines, ice wines, noble-rot wines, even sparkling wines, ports and sherries.
The wine-kit boom began in the 1970s, when high-quality kits first emerged from California. Although state law called for a minimum 51 percent content for a wine kit of any stated variety, many manufacturers were providing 70 percent. This means that in a Chardonnay kit, for example, 70 percent of the juice or concentrate is made from pure Chardonnay grapes. The higher the Chardonnay content, the more varietal character in the finished wine.
Because these California kits were considered better than their European counterparts, it forced a wholesale effort to increase quality worldwide. The boom in asceptic packaging, fueled by cutting-edge Canadian companies, also fueled the drive for quality and freshness. In the 1970s in Canada, for example, less than one percent of all wine consumed came from homewinemakers. Now, the figure is closer to 10 or 12 percent. This increase is attributable not only to popular "you-vint" outlets but also to the widespread availability of good kits.
Making a kit wine is less labor-intensive than making wine from fresh grapes. So it's also much cheaper. You'll gain savings in time and money because you won't need to buy (or rent) the destemmers, crushes and presses that are required when starting with fresh grapes. To make a five-gallon batch of wine, you need almost 90 pounds of grapes, which could cost as little as $100 or as much as $400. Kits that yield the same volume run anywhere from $40 to $100.
Another bonus: Many kits are all-inclusive. They contain all the additives you'll need, pre-measured. The recipes are easy to follow and the results are fairly predictable. Recipe options allow you to add more concentrate for a bigger, grander wine. You can also choose to add less water than a concentrate recipe suggests. These two tactics would be akin to "letting the vats bleed" at a larger winery.
If you're a novice winemaker, a kit is a great way to start learning the art. If you're an expert fresh-grape winemaker, you should supplement your portfolio with a kit wine. It'll broaden your skills and deepen your knowledge.
There are four main types of wine kits: pure juice; fully concentrated grape juice; partially concentrated grape juice; and kits that combine juice and concentrate.
The approach to making wine from these kits is similar. The only difference is that the pure-juice kit requires no additional water. These kits are the most expensive due to juice's comparative purity, costly transport (it weighs more than concentrate) and storage requirements (it should be refrigerated).
Grape concentrates are simply grape juices that have had their water removed through a high-tech vacuum process. Some kits are fully concentrated; you have to add water, and sometimes additional sugar, before making the wine. Partially concentrated kits require less water added back. Because of that, they produce a wine that's truer to character.
Kit prices should directly correlate to the purity of the product. Pure juice kits will be more expensive than concentrate or mixed kits.
Before you leave the store, check the kit ingredients against the recipe. You may have purchased a concentrate or fresh-juice container that doesn't come complete with additives. If that's the case, you'll have to buy these ingredients and measure the quantities yourself.
These additives might include grape tannin, nutrients, wine acids and yeast. Some concentrate kits also require additional sugar; some do not. The recipe will spell it out.
Here's a quick comparison of juice and concentrate. Some kits contain one, some the other and some both. Pure juice kits are made from freshly crushed grapes; the juice (and possibly some grape pulp) is vacuum-sealed in food-grade pails. Concentrate is pure grape juice with 30 to 70 percent of its water vacuumed out; it's then sealed in cans or bladder packs.
  • Pure grape juice (no added water required)
  • Reds usually come with some grape pulp and stems to allow some control over maceration (the time the grape must of red wines is kept in contact with the pulp to extract maximum flavor and color).
  • Aseptic packaging. Juice is zapped at high temperatures, then sealed in pail or bladder-pack. Air is vacuumed out.
  • Bladder-pack juices can last as long as three years. But fresher is always better.
  • Color is a good indication of quality: Whites should be very pale gold; reds should be blue-red, not brown.
  • Some pure juices require refrigeration.
  • Wines have a later, but longer, drinking window.
  • Wines usually provide the best typicity (the sensory and tactile elements that say "this is Riesling!" or "this is Gamay!")
  • Can be used in tandem with concentrates.
  • A touch more expensive than concentrates.
  • Pure grape juice with water extracted (although earlier versions also contained other concentrate, including pear).
  • Added water required (quantity dependent on the degree of concentration of wine kit).
  • Packaged in cans and bladder packs.
  • Canned product good up to one year; however, the fresher the better.
  • Tailored yeasts recommended.
  • Color is a good indication of quality: White concentrate should be very pale gold; red concentrate should be blue-red, not brown.
  • International standard for grape concentrate is 68° to 70° Brix, or 68 to 70 percent solids (mainly, grape sugar).
  • Degree of concentration ranges from 30% to 77%. Above 70%, flavors become damaged.
  • Wines have an earlier, and somewhat shorter, drinking window.
  • Can generate some very correct and characterful wines.
  • Can be used in tandem with grape juice.